The Red Hourglass: Lives of the Predators - Gordon Grice (1999)


Syndrome 1: The Rotting

A friend of mine, an amateur herpetologist, owned a Haitian anole, a lizard about half a foot long from snout to vent, with another three inches of tail. The anole escaped in the man’s house. The man found and recaptured the lizard within a couple of days, much to the delight of his family.

He noticed something strange about his pet. There were two wounds just inside its mouth, and they quickly developed into abscesses. A discolored knot appeared over the anole’s left eye. The man guessed from the mouth wounds that the lizard must have eaten something that injured it. He searched his house and found a number of brown recluse spiders, but no insects, no other arthropods of any kind. The brown recluse is smallish, dull in color, plain except for a mark on its back that gives it the common names fiddleback and violin spider.

The man knew what the brown recluse and its cousins were capable of. (There are, depending on whom you ask, about a dozen recluse species in the United States.) He deduced that the anole had eaten one of the spiders, which had bitten the lizard’s mouth on its way down.

Soon the anole’s symptoms gave him gruesome confirmation of his diagnosis. The knot over its eye turned into a soupy mass of gray-brown dead tissue—a necrosis, as the scientists call it. The wounds inside its mouth grew and softened into cheesy masses as opportunistic fungi infected the dead tissue there. The anole was dead within two days of its recapture.

Several animals react as the anole did. Rabbits bitten by the recluse invariably develop necrotic lesions, and sometimes die from them. The same is true of guinea pigs. Scientists use rabbits and guinea pigs to research the recluse’s venom because of their consistent reactions.

The woman noticed a pain on her calf. It felt like a bruise. The area turned red and began to swell. A black point appeared in the center of the red. The pain was bad enough to send her to the emergency room, where the diagnosis was “loxocelism,” a condition caused by the bite of a recluse spider. The woman had been working around her house and garage, but she had no idea precisely when or where she’d been bitten.

The doctors couldn’t do much for her. The antidote to recluse toxin works only if it’s administered within half an hour or so of the bite, and the bite, as in this case, usually goes unnoticed. She went home with instructions to keep the wound clean.

A few days later she noticed a red streak running down her leg from the original red bruise. The doctors said the bite had become infected. A long and tedious treatment with antibiotics followed. One drug would fail; the doctors would try another; and all the while the painful wound worsened, its center seeping fluid like a weeping eye. The area of dead tissue was growing, and as it grew, new infections set in. The doctors eventually sent the woman to a plastic surgeon.

The surgeon cut a necrotic mass the size of a ripe plum from her calf. The stitches stayed in for another two months. The spider bite had impinged on, and sometimes dominated, her life for almost half a year. It left her with a patchwork scar.

Call her experience a midpoint: people have better and worse times with the recluse’s necrotic lesions.

A friend of mine camped in a log cabin on the North Platte River in Wyoming. The paneling job in the cabin was shoddy; as my friend learned later in researching his problem, loose paneling is ideal habitat for recluses. Their habit of hiding in crevices is probably the origin of the name recluse, though their predatory habits don’t mark them as shy. My friend woke one morning with a sore at the inner crease of his elbow. It grew to a painful pimple with a discolored penumbra the size of a dime, from which red streaks radiated. The sore tissue slowly withered, and eventually a little plug of flesh fell out of it, leaving a scar. The healing took six or eight weeks.

This man’s uncle, who was bitten decades earlier, wasn’t as lucky. No one in his family remembers the circumstances of the bite. They only remember that the lower part of his bitten leg “dissolved.”

In another case, an active and powerful three-hundred-pound man was the victim. His friends found it amusing that this Goliath lay in bed whimpering with pain because of a tiny spider. They were less amused after he showed them the rotting portion of his leg.

The flesh affected by a recluse’s necrosis never heals. Somehow, the venom turns off the immune system and the body’s capacity for repairing itself in that patch of flesh. The victim can only hope the dead area stays small. But sometimes it doesn’t.

One woman who made a photograph of her injury available to researchers had a grapefruit-sized chunk of black flesh in her thigh. She eventually survived, but her ordeal left her unable to walk without a cane. Another woman had a basketball’s diameter of flesh trimmed from her upper torso to save her life. A few people have died of gangrene following a bite; others have submitted to surgical disfigurement or amputation.

A young woman found herself constantly weary and nauseous. The illness lingered for months. She also kept breaking out in odd sores that healed slowly—purple dimples ringed with raised yellow flesh. It was the number of sores that fooled her doctor. She broke out with a new one every few days, and he couldn’t explain why. He could only offer speculations about allergies. He suggested she look through her apartment carefully for possible allergens.

After she had looked for the obvious, she and her friends moved all the furniture, hoping to find some hidden factor. When they tried to dismantle the waterbed, they had their answer. Beneath the mattress were dozens of recluses.

Syndrome 2: Immunity

The white rat, that symbol of laboratory experimentation, is useless to toxicologists researching the venom of recluses. Rats do not react to recluse venom. It’s hard to study the effects of the venom on people, since people so rarely notice the bite while it’s happening. The recluse’s fangs pinch in toward the middle, gathering the upper layer of skin in folds and injecting venom between layers, causing very little mechanical injury. But apparently most people share the rat’s good fortune: they don’t react to a recluse bite at all.

Syndrome 3: Sudden Death

Mice are no good to recluse researchers either. A bitten mouse reacts with a precipitous drop in blood pressure and dies before any useful data can be collected.

The young woman with the infested waterbed reported nausea, exhaustion, headache, and malaise. These symptoms fall under the heading of “systemic reaction,” the doctors’ term for anything that’s not “local.” The young woman’s mild systemic symptoms are common. But the systemic symptoms of a recluse’s bite don’t have to be mild.

A man was carrying wood. He put down an armload and noticed a spider hooked fangs-first into the skin of his arm. He caught the spider in a jar and took it with him to the emergency room, where he dropped dead. The spider was a recluse.

Syndrome 4: A Failure of Immunity

I met a woman who was always sick. Every flu bug that hit town gave her at least one round of illness. She never felt right, even when she had no outward symptoms of a sickness. She said she had been in normal health until fifteen years before, when she was bitten.

The bite of the recluse had cost her some tissue from her leg, but she had recovered with only the usual scar. Her tendency toward sickness developed slowly after that. It was years before she faced the fact that something was deeply wrong with her, that her numerous bouts with common illnesses betrayed some fundamental dysfunction. That’s when she drew a chart of her medical history, a chart on which one event she’d always considered insignificant now stood out. The spider bite that had given her a few weeks’ trouble and a scar stood at the beginning of her decline.

I listened politely to her story and took notes. I had no reason to doubt her facts, but I didn’t believe the spider bite could have anything to do with everything else she’d been through. Privately, I suspected she had some undiagnosed disease of the immune system, like lupus. I even entertained the notion that she was a hypochondriac.

The two of us went to hear a lecture given by a toxicologist who specialized in recluse venom. His response to her story boiled down to two main ideas. One: he had heard of such long-term reactions to recluse venom before. Specialists had known about them for several years, and plenty of anecdotal evidence supported the connection. Two: it’s extraordinarily difficult to research such a slowly developing, amorphous phenomenon, so nobody knows why it happens or how to cure it. Despite the bad news, the woman left smiling in her vindication.

The toxicologist told me strange things about what the venom does. In some people it convinces the white blood cells to turn traitor and attack the body that made them. That’s what causes necrosis. But the venom’s interaction with a human immune system is an intricate dance whose implications are breathtaking and terrifying. If you could turn the body’s defenses on selectively, as the venom does, you might know more about AIDS and all the other unravelers of the immune system. You could cure cancers without a scalpel or radiation or health-threatening chemicals. You could make white blood cells devour tumors of the brain.

For now, though, we understand almost nothing about the venom and its attendant array of human suffering.

The necrosis-causing toxin serves no known purpose for the recluse itself. In this respect, the recluse resembles the unnecessarily virulent black widow. But the recluse’s case is even stranger.

Most spiders have a venom component that paralyzes or kills insect prey, and the recluse is no exception. But the chemical in recluse venom that hurts people isn’t the same one that debilitates insects. The black widow’s toxin has an obvious use in catching prey; it just so happens that this toxin can affect large animals. The recluse is dangerous because of an extra, apparently functionless, toxin in its venom. The recluse venom doesn’t even work the way a rattlesnake’s does, serving to make good on threats delivered by a warning system. The recluse gives no warnings.

The recluse spiders became notorious in the United States in 1957. They didn’t arrive here in that year; they had always been around. People had been bitten, some badly injured or killed, by recluses. But, as with the black widow, doctors and scientists didn’t believe such a danger existed, and that fact kept the general public uneducated, compounding the danger. There’s a big difference in the histories of human interactions with the two spiders, however, and in the recluses’ case the blame can’t be laid entirely on incredulous scientists. The other factors include the recluses’ habits, its looks, and the cold facts about plumbing.

Before the United States became a country, European settlers here had gathered some information about the black widow. Many of the Native American tribes knew the gleaming spiders as dangerous, and some tribe members shared that lore with Europeans. I don’t know whether any of the tribes had lore about the recluses, but if they did, it doesn’t seem to have been recorded by Europeans. There was no tradition of fearing the recluse.

This is where the looks of the two spiders play a part. The widows are distinctive. Their sleek, sematic coloring makes them easy to recognize. The recluses come in several shades of dull. There’s a tan species, and several brown ones, and some brown and tan ones, and so on. They don’t have distinctive marks. Several recluse species have a violin shape on the carapace, but that mark isn’t distinctive. It appears on the back of a certain wolf spider, and a harmless running spider—that’s only to list two spiders I’ve seen sporting it in my own house. Other spiders also share the mark. It’s no more distinctive than the name Smith.

Another barrier to identifying the recluse as a danger was its initially painless bite. People weren’t likely to associate the right kind of spider with the bite unless they saw it in the act. Add to this the venom’s unpredictability. Even though it kills some people, the majority have no symptoms, and a majority of those who do have symptoms notice a necrosis instead of systemic effects. Other venomous animals, like the rattlesnake and the black widow, cause varying but far more predictable symptoms.

All these factors kept the general public from developing much knowledge about recluses. That doesn’t mean nobody knew about them; an occasional person had a nasty experience with a bite and made a sharp observation. Cases like that go back at least to the 1870s in the United States. At the time, however, scientists and doctors greeted reports of deadly spiders with irritable lectures on the gullibility of the public. There is actually nothing your average scientist hates more than information from nonscientists, all of whom he assumes to be unwashed, idol-worshipping degenerates good only for working on cars. The thing your average scientist despises second most is a fact that doesn’t fit his theory—an odd position for somebody who supposedly works from empirical data. But most scientists are human.

Until the early part of the twentieth century, the experts smugly proclaimed there was no such thing as a seriously toxic spider in the United States. Proof of the black widow’s killing potential then led most experts to go around saying to impressionable journalists that there was only one poisonous spider in the United States.

In 1934, the same year Dr. Blair published his account of the widow bite that nearly killed him, a scientist named Machiavello published the hard facts on a critter from Chile, the corner spider. This spider hides in clothes and sheets and bites people when they unknowingly squash it. The symptoms it produces include necrotic lesions.

The corner spider is a member of the genus Loxoceles, the gang I’ve been calling the “recluse spiders.” In other words, certain spiders in the United States were occasionally getting accused of biting people and causing spots of necrosis; a closely related spider in South America had been proved to cause exactly such spots; and most American scientists persisted in believing the only dangerous spider in the United States was the black widow. The widow got blamed for a lot of recluse bites, and necrotic lesions were considered a symptom of widow bite. (The widow can, in fact, introduce infections that rot the skin as a recluse bite sometimes does.)

Of course, some scientists weren’t hog-tied by such prejudices. Some of them documented a few spiders that can cause some mild systemic symptoms in humans. But the biggest influence on this kind of research was indoor plumbing. Widow bites occurred in outhouses far more often than anywhere else. In the 1950s, indoor plumbing was rapidly replacing outdoor facilities across the country, and the number of widow bites dropped dramatically. When it did, doctors noticed how many of the spider bite cases they treated were of the kind that had once been a minority, the kind in which the patient suffered a necrosis. Why should the usual sweat-and-pain widow cases vanish while the odd skin-rot cases persisted? It was as if an ocean had receded, leaving a previously submerged boulder prominent on the beach. Science was ready to believe some other spider capable of injuring humans. In 1957, proof of necrotic symptoms caused by recluse bites reached medical journals, and the information quickly spread to newspapers, magazines, and popular books.

When recluses first received a lot of press, they were often described in ridiculously inaccurate terms. One book referred to them as “large, hairy spiders.” One of those three words is correct. I imagine that mistake arose because of the large, hairy wolf spiders that wear fiddlelike marks on their backs. It’s even possible to find books from that period that refer to the recluse as a member of the genus Latrodectus. But Latrodectus only includes the widows, which are as dissimilar from recluses as humans are from giraffes.

For the last forty years the popular press has been spouting science’s revised company line: There are only two dangerous spiders in the United States. As usual, the assumption that we know everything has got us into trouble. In 1996 JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association reported that another spider has caused necrosis and death in humans. The spider’s scientific name is Tegenaria agrestis, and its common names include hobo spiderand the mellifluous aggressive house spider. The species was described long ago. Its genus, in fact, is found around the world. It simply wasn’t recognized as dangerous because everyone knew there was only one dangerous spider around—and later, make that two dangerous spiders. Symptoms of the hobo’s bite were often called the work of the recluse, just as the widow long took the blame for the recluse’s handiwork.

The truth is, nobody knows how many kinds of dangerous spiders exist. There are a number of proven human-killing spiders around the world besides the ones known in the United States—the Australian trap-door spider, a certain Brazilian wandering spider, a few tropical tarantulas. The diversity of these spiders shows a wild venom can crop up anywhere in the spider family tree. It shouldn’t surprise anybody if we discover another deadly one in another forty years.

At a recent conference, one scientist had just come back from the forests of Central America, and he was showing off specimens he had collected. He had dozens of species from the recluse genus, none of them ever described before.

I used to come to the shed in the summer to hunt vermin. In the northeast corner I could usually find the web of a plump female black widow spider stretched between the sheet metal walls and the welded steel studs. I would toss a cricket into the web to draw the widow out. She would come cautiously from her hiding place, tapping a long foreleg in front of her, and when the cricket made a few kicks that confirmed her diagnosis of food in the web, she would come for him in rushes separated by pauses when she would listen with her legs. As she moved, her abdomen shivered like a soap bubble near bursting. She moved belly-up, the hourglass on her abdomen red as a double wound in the dim light. Once she was out in the open, I could capture her.

I suppose something about the placement and shape of the building drew the wind into that corner. The young widows must have come in riding the wind every year, for I captured and removed new adults each summer.

It was always easy to find bait for them. Generally a few crickets would be popping around on the cement floor, disturbed by the flood of light when I opened the door. There were pill bugs crawling the floor along the walls (drained shells of pill bugs hung in the lower reaches of the widow web like dirty tassels on a shawl). I could always scare up a few more pill bugs by pouring water into the fissure in the cement. There would be a trail of ants entering the shed on one side and exiting on another, carrying nothing visible and going somewhere for no reason discernible to me. Occasionally a thumb-sized cockroach would race across a cardboard box, its burst of speed beginning with a sound like a striking match, and after it had passed from sight its hieroglyphic tracks remained in the dust.

A few mud dauber nests clung flat to the crossbeams. They were made of pale mud dried harder than brick (once I tried to crush one with a brick, and the brick yielded first). Eye-high on the sheet metal I might notice the egg case of a mantid—a hard, ridged structure shaped like a burial mound.

The place was crawling with life, but the situation was about to change.

The shed needed to be organized. I hadn’t been inside it for several years.

Wasp nests still clung to the crossbeams, but no wasps stirred the dusty air. When I tapped a nest, it crumbled. On another nest I found a wisp of spiderweb. There were no crickets visible, and none singing out of sight. There were no roaches, no ants, no pill bugs, no egg cases on the walls. The corner where the widows used to make their webs held nothing. Along the walls there were little tangles of spider web, apparently without structure. These were not the work of widows; the texture was wrong.

But I had work to do. I lifted an old box of tax records. Something tickled my fingers.

I dropped the box and turned it over. A dozen small spiders covered the bottom of it, and a few more lay in the spot where the box had been. The spiders were brown. Their legs were stringy, an average adult set spanning an area slightly larger than a quarter. Most of them did not react to my intrusion, but the two that did moved very fast, darting around to a sheltered side of the box.

I brushed frantically at my arms where they had touched the box. I knew the spiders by their movement: they were recluses.

I went out into the sunlight and examined my fingers where I had felt them touched. I couldn’t see any bites.

I returned to the shed wearing gloves. Under every shelf, in every drawer, behind every wall stud, in every crack were the brown spiders, most of them dormant in the afternoon heat. They rested in sleeping bags of silk. When I disturbed them they ran away in arcing paths, their stringy legs working in sequence so fast they resembled the guttering of fire in a stiff wind. Everywhere there were wisps of web. I found a few cottony disks of webbing. Inside these lay orange masses of eggs. There were also the spiders’ discarded skins, which were hard to distinguish from the spiders themselves except that the skins’ legs were flung back straight.

I captured one spider in a jelly jar. There was no point in taking two. When you put two recluses into a jar, you soon have only one. At the kitchen table, where the light was good, I could see the violin-shaped mark on the spider’s carapace, a dark-brown pattern against the light-brown background.

The movement of the specimen before me had identified it well enough, but I looked with the magnifying glass anyway. Rimming the head was a crescent of six simple white eyes. There were two in front and two on each side. These were not the large, brilliant eyes of a jumping spider, who spots insects in the air and leaps to catch them as they land. Nor were they the meager eyes of an orb weaver who waits in a snare for prey. They were the eyes of an ambush predator, one that kills whatever happens by. They were the eyes of a recluse.

The recluse hunts by sight, attacking moving objects. You can fool it into grabbing a stick dragged along the floor in front of it. The spider seizes its prey, injects its venom, and then retreats. As the spider waits at a distance, the venom paralyzes the prey. This combination of speed and paralyzing venom explains how the recluse kills larger, stronger predators. When the prey is well paralyzed, the recluse seizes it again and chews a hole in its exoskeleton. It injects digestive acids from its stomach and drinks the liquefying prey.

I recalled the strange lifeless quiet of the shed. My mind settled on the mud dauber wasps I had often seen there: whippet-thin predators that specialize in hunting spiders to feed their hatchlings. A biochemist had told me once about his adventures collecting brown recluses so he could research their toxin. He had seen a recluse climb into the nest of a mud dauber. The spider backed out a moment later dragging the wasp, the spider’s fangs still buried in the wasp’s face.

On the island of Guam, in the decades following World War II, the native birds and lizards began to disappear. Entire species unique to the island went extinct. The cause of this ecological apocalypse turned out to be the brown tree snake, an exotic species that somehow established a population on Guam. Probably humans brought them in accidentally. The brown tree snake doesn’t cause environmental chaos in Southeast Asia and Australia, where it’s native. There other predators and parasites check its numbers. But in a new place, freed from its enemies, the brown tree snake made a sudden, enormous impact.

The little shed wasn’t as isolated from outside populations as an island is. Since new arthropods could crawl into the shed anytime, the “extinctions” weren’t permanent. Still, the similarity is more than an analogy; the same principle of populations interacting in separate pockets applies in both. Instead of a brown snake, a brown spider had brought on this miniature apocalypse. The spider’s aggressive predatory style wiped out every other species. Of course, a predator that exterminates its prey must pay the consequences.

The following year, nothing lived in the shed.

Soon enough the cockroaches and ants and crickets would be back. Perhaps the crickets would eat the skins the recluses had left behind. The skins were the only thing left now; they lay everywhere like the cast-off coats of untidy children. If I pried one loose from the web-strands that anchored it to a wall stud or the underside of a shelf, a breeze too light to be otherwise noticed would send it scudding across the floor. I opened a toolbox and saw dozens of skins shivering like palsied hands.

Here’s what must have happened over the years: A single recluse wandered into the shed and laid her disk of eggs. They hatched, a brood of indiscriminate predators ready to eat anything small enough, and as they grew larger, so did their prey. The recluse will seize prey items many times its own size. It will eat its own young and its sexual partners.

The recluses reproduced slowly. A recluse needs perhaps five years to grow to its full size—a very slow rate for spiders and other small creatures. The black widow, for example, reaches maturity in about three months, and rarely lives past two years. The fast-running recluse lives a long, slow life. It winters in crevices, sealing itself from the cold with a pocket of webbing. Put it in a jar without food or water and its slow metabolism will sometimes last months.

Eventually every creature that could possibly be eaten by a recluse was extinct in the little world of the shed— every creature except the recluses, which now numbered at least in the thousands. They had never shied from spilling kindred blood, but now they became systematic cannibals, eating nothing but their own siblings and cousins. Finally there were only a handful left, and they crawled out to find fresher hunting grounds.

Recluses regularly take over abandoned buildings this way. Their life span, long for an arthropod, causes their generations to overlap, creating a gradually building population. The takeover typically requires twenty-five years in a reasonably solid building. In a poorly sealed building, the takeover can occur in five years.

A more typical spider species has an annual cycle. Most individuals of such a species will hatch, reproduce, and die within a year. The size of next year’s population will depend on this year’s crop, a few variable factors like weather, and the species’s rates of reproduction and survival, both of which are influenced by many other factors in the environment. It’s immensely complicated, but things get even harder when you’re dealing with the recluse, whose cycle naturally works in booms and busts. And these changes in population aren’t general across a geographic region—they’re going on constantly in independent little pockets, like abandoned buildings.

These irregular cycles of conquest, overpopulation, and self-extermination aren’t side effects of living with humans. In the wild, recluses take over cliffs of flint or limestone. You can scrape a knife into the crevices of such stone and scare out dozens of recluses in a few minutes. In the desert, their numbers balloon inside the dried skeletons of plants. I remember glancing at a stack of firewood one time and seeing an odd hint of motion, a slight shift of texture that let me know some abundance of arthropods crawled there. Looking closer at the relief map of the bark, I saw nothing; then, after a moment, the arcing trajectory of a recluse’s run; then several. I kicked over a chunk of wood and exposed scores of them.

Ballooning into a cannibalistic frenzy may seem a strange way to control population, but the phenomenon has parallels in the behavior of diverse animals. Scientists have long known that rats, when crowded into spaces too small for their number, begin to rape and murder their fellows. Their social structure breaks down; mothers stop protecting their young; males betray their allies. Something similar happens in rabbit plagues, the population explosions that often follow such human shenanigans as the mass slaughter of predators. The rabbits raze all vegetation, then chew the limbs off each other.

Most revelatory are the several species of grasshopper called locusts. Usually the individual hoppers reach adulthood and live solitary lives, stuffing their gullets with as much food as they can find before mating. But when they find themselves surrounded by fellow grasshoppers—a circumstance that comes about when the weather’s right for overpopulation—the individuals physically transform. Their color alters; their anatomy shifts. They’ve become that pestilence known in old times as a plague of locusts. They migrate for hundreds of miles as a swarm, enabling themselves to survive even though their numbers divest the land of vegetation. The swarming state is like an extra phase in the life cycle, one that’s activated only if conditions warrant.

Scientists have tended to see behavior as either normal or abnormal—an unstated assumption that has slowed our understanding of aggregate behavior. Many animals have different sets of behaviors for different population densities and food supplies. For the locust, the solitary life and swarming are both “normal”—and adaptive. The recluse’s population booms and cannibalistic die-offs occur so consistently they can’t be considered “abnormal” either.

The same is true for mammals. That’s an uncomfortable idea, because scientists like to draw parallels between rat and human behavior in high-density populations. If intraspecies violence is in some sense “normal,” we have to reorder our ideas about human nature.

Serial murder, war, genocide, and even witch hunts have all been linked to population changes and competition for resources. We let ourselves off the hook when we define such killing as “abnormal.” We put the behavior at a distance, letting ourselves think of it as something alien, something we normal folk could never do. We think of the Nazis who murdered millions in death camps as demons, instead of people who faced choices like ours. But the capacity to murder, to become demonic, is in our nature.

One of our natures, anyway.

I returned to the shed this spring. It had been three years since I found it in the lifeless aftermath of the brown recluse population explosion. I was shocked to find the building repopulated in predators.

I spotted a fresh-looking black widow egg sac. I used a stick to pull the sac free of its web, which ripped like a rusty zipper, and as I did I disturbed several baby widows that had been feeding on a carcass. When the knobby little widows had cleared away, I recognized the carcass as a brown recluse. As I reached for a jar to collect some of the widows, a big recluse charged over the horizon of the box the jars were in and stood there as if daring me. I backed him down with the stick.

As I searched the walls of the place, I found about twenty widow webs, most of them weighted with last year’s dust. Half of them contained swaddled remains I recognized as recluses. I also found enough of the recluses’ softer silk to suggest a population in the hundreds. Stuck to a two-by-four with recluse silk was a male widow. Several other bits of exoskeleton littering the walls looked like widows killed by recluses as well. This accounting includes only the remains I picked up. I left a great many patches of wall alone, because I saw enough live examples of both types of spiders to give me a healthy dose of caution and a serious case of the willies.

Besides the spiders, I also found a mud dauber’s nest, probably from the previous year. The cells were packed with exoskeletons, which were all that remained of the recluses that had been devoured from the inside by larval wasps. I didn’t see any black widow remains in the dauber nest, though the wasps are known to prey on widows.

I also found fresh mantid egg cases and crickets and leafhoppers and some tiny flying insects I couldn’t get a good look at. The predators far outnumbered the vegetarians.