ANCHORAGE, Alaska — For many people, the sight of a brown recluse spider makes them squirm and scream, but for a spider enthusiast in Alaska, it was an opportunity to see one up close, since they do not naturally inhabit the freezing climate.
Keith Burgess runs “Spiders of Alaska,” a Facebook group created to identify spiders around the state and to hopefully find the fabled native brown recluse.
In August, a member of the Facebook group reached out to Burgess after driving a U-Haul truck from Winfield, Kansas to Palmer, Alaska.
“She told me, ‘Hey! I think I found a brown recluse. I just came from Kansas.’ She included a picture and at that point I was pretty knowledgeable on brown recluse and I was like, ‘Yeah, that is a male brown recluse.'”
The brown recluse was inside one of the paintings the member put in her truck and drove over 3,000 miles and put in her Alaskan garage.
“The possibility of new spiders coming up here or dispersing to other places is possible, the probability that they establish at that new place is 50-50. It depends on whether it has food and shelter and can survive the climate,” Burgess said. “A brown recluse being up here in Alaska, that’s not gonna happen. That’s a desert spider and this is Alaska, man. We don’t have any of the food that they have, we don’t have cockroaches [and] we don’t have crickets.”
Burgess said he has gotten called for several other possible brown recluse sightings in Alaska, but they are mostly lookalikes.
- Titiotus sp.- False Wolf Spider – found in California
- Male Kukulcania sp. – Crevice Weavers – southern United States
- Philodromidae – Running Crab Spiders – every state
- Tegenaria domestica – Barn Funnel Weavers – mid and northern United States, including Alaska.
- Scytodidae – Spitting Spiders – pretty much every state except Alaska
- Thanatus vulgaris – Cricket Thief Spider – Ohio, south to Georgia, and west Idaho, also found in California. Often found in shipments of crickets throughout the states.
- Pholcidae – Cellar Spiders – every state
Over the weekend, Burgess held a contest on his Facebook page to name his newest brown recluse. The winning name: Stowaway Steve.
“One of my members in my group gave me a whole bunch of spiders after I bought a couple brown recluse,” Burgess said. “I bought these brown recluse last year from a breeder in Oklahoma just so I could have a couple on hand here in Alaska so I can teach people.”
Even Burgess admits he hasn’t always had a passion for spiders. He said up until about a decade ago, he was arachnophobia. It wasn’t until he encountered one he had never seen before that he decided to look into it.
Since then, he has made friends with experts and has had access to more information than he ever though.
“I more so enjoy the fact that everything I used to know was wrong and how being wrong can teach you new things and that being wrong doesn’t mean that’s the end of the world,” Burgess said. “There’s always something else. Something new can come along and change your perspective of everything. Now I own black widows and brown recluse.”
“Spiders of Alaska” has grown to over 6,000 members and he has earned nicknames like “Spider King” and “Spider God”.
Although he knows it’s tongue-and-cheek, he says he still has so much more to learn and wants to keep spreading information to help people understand them and lose their fear of the eight-legged creatures.
“Spiders aren’t bad. They don’t want to hurt you. They just want to eat everything that does want to hurt you,” Burgess said.
Links for more information about the brown recluse: