Did a Florida Man Really Die From a Brown Recluse Bite?

Why Such News Reports Should Be Read with Skepticism

A brown recluse spider.
A brown recluse spider. Photo: CDC

Is it possible that a brown recluse spider bit a man in Florida and that he died as a result? Anything is possible. But most spider experts met this news story with skepticism, and rightfully so.

"Florida Man Dies from Brown Recluse Spider Bite"

A 62-year-old Lakeland, FL man named Ronald Reese was renovating an old house in August 2013. He told his family that in the course of tearing down the walls and ceiling, he was bitten on the back of his neck by a spider. The next day, he was so ill he had difficulty getting out of bed. Over a 6-month period, his health declined rapidly. He developed an abscess at the site of the alleged bite, became partially paralyzed, and suffered from pneumonia. On February 16th, 2014, he died. News reports attributed his death to a brown recluse spider bite.

Was It a Confirmed Brown Recluse Spider or Not?

The man's 89-year-old father, Bill Reese, is quoted as saying the spider was a brown recluse. In the dozens of news articles I read about the case, there was not a single mention of how this spider was identified as a brown recluse. It doesn't appear that anyone saved the spider, nor was the spider sent to an arachnologist for identification. It's not even clear that Bill Reese ever saw the spider himself, and Mr. Reese doesn't claim any arachnology credentials.

Several years ago, Rick Vetter of UC-Riverside's Entomology Department offered a challenge to the brown recluse fearing public. He asked people to send him spiders they believed to be brown recluses for identification. After analyzing and identifying 1,779 arachnids submitted from 49 U.S. states, Vetter reported that only 4 brown recluse spiders were identified from outside their known established range. Vetter also notes that of 200 spiders sent to his office by the public during a media-induced brown recluse scare, not a single specimen was actually a brown recluse. So could Ronald or Bill Reese accurately identify a brown recluse spider if they saw one? Maybe, but it's doubtful. People often think they know what a brown recluse looks like, but studies show most people wouldn't know a brown recluse if it bit them (which is exactly my point).

According to the various news reports, Polk County Medical Examiner Stephen Nelson stated that no tests were performed on Mr. Reese to confirm that he had brown recluse venom in his body. The Medical Examiner concluded Mr. Reese's death was the result of an unintentional injury due to spider envenomation or complications from a spider bite. He did not specify that Mr. Reese died as a result of brown recluse envenomation or complications from a brown recluse bite. Dr. Nelson noted that Ronald Reese's medical records indicated he was being treated for "complications from a spider bite wound on his neck."

If a patient is admitted to a hospital and tells his doctors that a spider bit him just before the onset of his symptoms, his medical record will reflect that, but it doesn't mean that's what actually happened. Brown recluse bites are over reported and misdiagnosed by the medical community, and doctors are no less susceptible to the brown recluse hysteria than other people. There is no reported evidence to show that anyone confirmed the identity of the spider in question, or that anyone tested for the presence of Loxosceles venom.

Brown Recluse Spiders Don't Live in This Area

So, is it likely or even probable that a man living in Lakeland, Florida would encounter a brown recluse spider in the course of renovating a home? Lakeland is well outside of the established range of Loxosceles reclusa. Brown recluse spiders do sometimes stow away in moving boxes and are occasionally identified in locations outside their normal range. At least one news reporter interviewed Dr. Logan Randolph, a biology professor at Polk State College, and Dr. Randolph did state that brown recluse spiders are often carried into the state. However, William Kern, Jr. (University of Florida Associate Professor of Urban Entomology) commented on the Ledger.com's coverage of the case that he has been identifying spiders for the Florida public since 1984, and has never once seen a brown recluse in the state. Although it is within the realm of possibility that a brown recluse spider could be found in a house in Lakeland, it is highly improbable.

Did Brown Recluse Venom Kill Ronald Reese?

Let's assume, despite the lack of proof, that Ronald Reese was indeed bitten by a brown recluse spider. It's still not clear that Ronald Reese's health issues and subsequent death were the result of exposure to Loxosceles venom. News reports state that the bite wound on the back of Reese's neck became infected. An abscess formed and pushed against his spinal cord. Any insect or spider bite can become infected, particularly if it's not cleaned properly or if the victim has secondary health issues that make him more susceptible to infections.

Brown recluse bites, in the unusual instances when they do occur, are rarely fatal. When interviewed about the case, biologist Logan Randolph noted "In most spider bites, complications arise mostly if there's some secondary factor. If the person has a specific allergic reaction, if their health was compromised in some other manner, or if the bite causes an open wound with a secondary infection."

While the chain of events leading to Ronald Reese's death may have started with a spider bite, and possibly even a brown recluse spider bite, it's important to state the facts clearly when reporting on such cases. No reports on this case provide proof that a brown recluse spider was involved, or that Loxosceles venom caused Mr. Reese's rapid decline. What we do know is that Mr. Reese developed a lethal infection that impacted his nervous system, and that this infection may have started with an untreated spider bite wound.

There's No Proof That a Florida Man Died from a Brown Recluse Bite

The media reports on the death of Ronald Reese of Lakeland, FL fail to provide conclusive proof that he was killed as the direct result of a brown recluse spider bite. Without professional identification of the spider that bit him, and without toxicological evidence of Loxosceles venom in his system, it's advisable to be skeptical that this death can be attributed to a brown recluse bite.

 

Selected media links about this case:

  • Man ignored fatal brown recluse bite, 23 ABC News, Bakersfield, CA, February 28, 2014. Accessed online March 3, 2014.
  • Fla authorities report rare death from spider bite, Miami Herald via Associated Press, February 27, 2014. Accessed online March 3, 2014.
  • Spider Bite Kills Florida Man, by Stephanie Pappas, LiveScience.com, February 28, 2014. Accessed online March 3, 2014.
  • Brown Recluse Spider Bite Blamed in Lakeland Man's Death, by Stephanie Allen, The Ledger, February 26, 2014. Accessed online March 3, 2014.
  • Spider bite blamed in Lakeland man's death, by Stephanie Allen, Daytona Beach News-Journal, February 27, 2014. Accessed online March 3, 2014.

Disclaimer: The author is not a medical doctor or health care professional. The author did not examine Ronald Reese's medical records, nor read the coroner's report about his death. The author's analysis of this case is strictly limited to the details reported by the news media, and whether this information seems accurate in light of what is known about brown recluse spiders, their biology, and their range.