Are Violin Spiders Invading Johannesburg?

If you live in Johannesburg, South Africa, like I do, the steady rain over the past two weeks has probably left you feeling like a duck. I have an uncanny desire to build a boat in my backyard. But! We’re not here to discuss the weather, but an unanticipated side effect: The claims that violin spiders are breeding rapidly and moving into homes in Johannesburg because of the weather.

This claim first cropped up on my radar this morning when I checked my Facebook wall and saw this post by a concerned friend:

ViolinSpider

If you know me at all, you’ll know that I have a very powerful bullshit detector, I also LOVE spiders. So this status post rang all my bells.

I know a few things about violin spiders, one of which is their preferred habitat. You see, they don’t hide in kettles. They tend to live under fallen wood and logs and are commonly found in caves in South Africa. This being said, they do sometimes find their way into our homes. You may find one in the folds of your curtains or clothes hanging in your cupboard, specifically if you haven’t worn those clothes in a long time.

Violin spiders can deliver a nasty bite. But they hardly ever do. While checking the veracity of this post I found an email by Ansie Dippenaar, the coordinator of the Spider Atlas in South Africa, this is what Ansie had to say about violin spider bites:

We do have violin spiders but they are rare and not commonly found in houses. The species causing this nasty wound do not occur in South Africa. Few bites from the violin spiders found in SA are know as they are really not very common and in 40 years working with spiders I have never seen a violin spider bite. They are also not very aggressive spiders. Secondary infection can cause nasty wounds in any type of open wound.

Interestingly enough, this comment was made on a discussion in the SA Reptiles forum where members were discussing an email claiming to show a violin spider bite (actually a recluse spider – the US version), and the pictures are the same as those in the Facebook post above. Except they go further and show later stages of tissue death and infection than those posted on Facebook. It’s pretty gory, I don’t recommend it for sensitive viewers.

What’s important for understanding why this Facebook post, and similar emails, is bogus, is the fact that people don’t die from drinking water that had a spider in it. There are no news reports about this happening. Ever. And you can bet your butt that if this did happen it would be reported on.

Spider venom simply doesn’t work like that. And we know exactly how violin spider venom works and what it does to the body.

From Wikipedia explaining in detail:

The brown recluse bears a potentially deadly hemotoxic venom. Most bites are minor with nonecrosis. However, a small number of brown recluse bites do produce severe dermonecrotic lesions (i.e. necrosis); an even smaller number produce severe cutaneous (skin) or viscerocutaneous (systemic) symptoms. In one study of clinically diagnosed brown recluse bites, skin necrosis occurred 37% of the time, while systemic illness occurred 14% of the time.[16] In these cases, the bites produced a range of symptoms common to many members of the Loxosceles genus known as loxoscelism, which may be cutaneous and viscerocutaneous. In very rare cases, bites can even cause hemolysis—the bursting of red blood cells.[17]

This extract comes from the Continuing Medical Education Journal:

The bite may be painless, frequently occurring at night when the patient moves in bed, disturbing the spider. The patient is often not aware of being bitten, but fang marks and bleeding may be present. Redness or a red mark appears to be a consistent finding in most patients. Local swelling is not significant soon after the bite. Itchiness may be prominent. Within 12 – 24 hours the bite site becomes erythematous, oedematous, painful, and may develop mottled haemorrhagic areas or blisters. After a couple of days the lesion may resemble a furuncle or carbuncle. In most cases the process is self-limiting. In the minority of cases the local lesion may be complicated by an aggressive, spreading cellulitis and a subcutaneous suppuration. The patient may present with a nonspecific systemic illness such as fever and malaise 3 – 5 days after the bite. Necrosis at the bite site may take 3 – 7 days to develop, often with an overlying necrotic eschar. The necrotic tissue detaches after about 2 – 3 weeks, leaving an ulcer. The resultant ulcer is slow to heal, with cycles of partial healing followed by breakdown, sometimes extending over months. In a small percentage of patients, violin spider bites may present with severe, sometimes life-threatening systemic illness with haemolysis, coagulopathy, shock, renal failure, and multiple organ damage (loxoscelism). This relatively rare systemic complication, however, has not been described/documented in southern Africa.

A few years ago I spotted a small bite on my son’s leg one morning. He was about 3 years old at the time. The bite developed exactly as described above. Two small lesions surrounded by an inflamed area about the size of my thumbnail, a few small pussy bubbles appeared beneath the skin and the flesh started to sink in around the bite. This took less than a day. I took him to the doctor who diagnosed it as “a spider bite” (without the offending spider it’s almost impossible to say which species did the biting), gave us a topical cream and an antibiotic and within a few days it cleared up completely.

If you were to ingest violin spider venom, I’m fairly certain that your stomach acid would destroy the venom long before it had any chance to affect you in any way. Even if you ate violin spiders like popcorn. It’s not poisonous, it’s venomous, and that’s an important distinction.

So yes, spiders are scary and they have a nasty reputation, but they’re just really not that bad. There are a few species of spider in South Africa that can cause harm, and if you know what to look out for, you’ll be fine.

Bottom line: Please don’t distribute this ridiculous, FALSE claim. It’s simply not true. Press delete.

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5 responses to “Are Violin Spiders Invading Johannesburg?

  1. Ok. I’ve been bitten by something while I was sleeping. About 10 days ago. 5 days ago it got bigger. 3 days ago it swelled up and popped. I then went to emergency room. 2 days on antibiotics now. Still swollen and pus oozing out. How can I find out what spider it was and how to stop it getting worse.. its about 12cm under my left nipple. I now hate spiders!

  2. Their is a big difference between L. reclusa and our own species… you write about L. reclusa as if it occurs in southern Africa. Misdiagnosis of spider bites in South Africa is very common. Just because you have a bite like lesion, does not mean you have a spider bite. Also, most pictures of spider bites on the Internet are not spider bites.

    Have a look at http://www.scorpions.co.za/spider-email-hoaxes/ for spider related hoaxes and some factual information on medically important spiders in southern Africa.

  3. hi i have found about three of the same looking spiders known as the violin spider in my home could it be? an they just showed up now due to the rain, it has a big back with long legs but im sure its not a deady long leg

  4. Far more common is the sack spider, very similar, but apparently responsible for around 90% of severe cytotoxic spider bites in SA. The well known round ‘sack’ about the size of a R5 coin, that you find in the curtain folds or cloths.
    The pictures being circulated are from a serious bite from an American brown recluse – as you point out, same family as our violin spider, but usually more severe. The thing is that we are all different, and some poor people just react worse than others. There are some pretty horrific pics out there, but they are the worst ever cases, and almost no chance that your bite would get anywhere near as bad.
    I too love spiders, and get freaked out at people with irrational paranoia, killing every spider they see. We have very few ‘dangerous’ spiders, and most bites are hardly worse than mosquitoes, although they may last a few days.

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