KILAUEA — For several months, while rebuilding rock walls and landscaping at a property in Kilauea, Tommy Taylor and his employees were being bitten — sometimes daily — by what he initially assumed were brown recluse spiders.
“It bubbles like a volcano and burns like there is acid in there,” Taylor said of the bites.
The problem: Kauai doesn’t have brown recluse.
When he reported the situation, the state Department of Agriculture, local pest control companies and even doctors assured Taylor he was mistaken about the species.
DOA spokeswoman Janelle Saneishi confirmed the brown recluse, Loxosceles reclusa, is not present in Hawaii. Rather, the islands are home to a close relative, Loxosceles rufuscens, the brown violin spider.
She said populations of the violin — which is known elsewhere in the world as the Mediterranean recluse — can be found on Kauai, Oahu, Maui, Big Island and Lanai.
Bernarr Kumashiro, a DOA insect taxonomist, described the species, a cousin of the infamous brown recluse, as “very cryptic,” and said they are rarely noticed or brought in for identification.
“(People) may notice the intense pain after being bitten or symptoms of necrosis of the skin but are almost never able to find the spider that bit them,” he wrote in an email.
Regardless of the species, Taylor said he has been worried about his employees, several of whom have been put out of work — sometimes for weeks. Taylor himself has been bitten numerous times, on his hands, behind his ears and elsewhere. Even his miniature bull terrier has suffered.
“All of a sudden, we started getting tagged, and it was mainly during the harvest of our bananas,” he said.
Taylor’s employee Ray Kleiman missed two weeks of work after being bitten behind his knee. A clear scar still marks the area where necrosis, or death of body tissue, set in.
“I didn’t know what I had,” he said. “I just thought I had super gnarly staph.”
He described the pain as “sizzling.”
Kleiman’s coworker Cody Graff missed some work, and eventually made a visit to the hospital for treatment of several bites, most recently on the top of his head.
“I’m getting bit all over,” he said, adding that it’s possible some of the bites occurred while he was at his home in Wainiha.
Taylor believes there must have been a recent boom in the arachnid’s population on this particular property, where he and his crew are working to restore an ancient Hawaiian homestead. On most occasions, he’s been bitten without ever seeing a spider, which made him think they must be tiny offspring. Other times, his workers would show up with large fang marks — ones he said would “freak you out.”
“We’re all jumpy right now,” he said. “Anybody who’s been bit is sort of arachnophobic.”
In his email, Kumashiro referenced pages about the brown violin spiders in a book by Joann Tenorio and Gordon Nishida, entitled “What’s Bugging Me? Identifying and Controlling Household Pests in Hawaii.”
“It mentions that the venom seems to be less toxic than brown recluse spider, and this may be generally true, but in reality, it depends how allergic a person is to the toxin,” Kumashiro wrote. “I have seen severe reactions caused by the brown violin spider.”
The long-legged, yellowish spider, whose bite may cause severe pain and slow-to-heal gangrenous wounds, has been found under old boards and loosened bark, and occasionally enters homes, according to the book. The female spiders are about five-sixteenths of an inch long, while the males are about one-fourth of an inch.
Bites, according to the book, are usually on arms and legs, and reactions range from mild redness to serious tissue destruction. A slight stinging sensation is sometimes followed by intense pain. Often the victim is not aware of the bite until several hours later.
“Blistering, swelling or reddening may occur around the bitten area,” the book reads. “In a day or so, the skin may turn purple, followed in a week or so by blackening as the cells die. Tissue eventually sloughs away, sometimes leaving large pits in the skin. Healing may take several weeks.”
Kumashiro said many people in Hawaii think the islands have the brown recluse because that is what doctors tell them, having learned that in medical school on the Mainland.
“Both species are nearly identical morphologically, and the only way to distinguish them is by dissection of the genitalia,” he wrote. “Many years ago, a spider expert from the Mainland did some dissections of Hawaii’s spiders at the Bishop Museum, and confirmed that we have only the brown violin spider in Hawaii.”
Larry Kaneholani, field crew supervisor of the Kauai Invasive Species Committee, was surprised to learn from DOA that Kauai does not have a population of the brown recluse.
“It looks similar in many ways to the brown recluse, as well as the cane spider,” Kaneholani wrote in an email.
Kauai resident Adam Asquith, who earned a PhD in entomology from the University of Oregon, said the violin is commonly found in dark, cool places, including closets and outdoor bathrooms.
Theirs is by far the most common spider bite on the island, he said.
“It is not uncommon at all, and sometimes people will attribute it to centipedes,” Asquith said.
After doing his own research, Taylor said everything he has heard about violin spiders — with the exception of them not being aggressive — lines up with what he and his employees are experiencing. Above all, he hopes to get the word out so that other people are aware.
“They main thing here is they get to be a problem when they are neglected,” he said of the bites.
So far, the only thing Taylor has found that helps alleviate the symptoms of the spider bites is rubbing papaya on and into the wound.
While he admits doctors might not support his recommendation, he said, “It really works.”
Taylor added that he is in the process of collecting spiders for identification by DOA, on the off chance that they are in fact brown recluse and not the brown violin.
Chris D’Angelo, environment writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.