VERSAILLES — A poisonous spider allegedly bit a rural route mail carrier, and that has some Woodford County residents giving a closer peek into their mailboxes.
This week, about 500 to 600 Versailles residents received a letter dated Nov. 29 and with the heading "Versailles Post Office, 149 Fieldview Drive" saying that a substitute carrier was bitten last week by a brown recluse spider while on a mail route.
"We are unsure of the location of the spider and would like to alert you to the possibility of one in your mailbox," the letter says. "Please carefully check your mailbox for a spider and have it removed if you find it."
The unsigned letter says the unidentified carrier's "condition is very serious and we want to prevent anyone else being bitten."
But a University of Kentucky expert is skeptical that a spider is the culprit. And, as it turns out, so is the U.S. Postal Service.
Susan Wright, a customer relations coordinator for the U.S. Postal Service in Lexington, said the female substitute rural route carrier was bitten on the arm and is recuperating at home after treatment by a physician. But Wright said there is no way to tell whether the wound is the result of something that happened while the carrier was delivering the mail.
"There's no spider. There's no address specific to that," she said.
Wright said the notice was put out by the carrier for whom the injured carrier substituted. That matter is under investigation, Wright said.
"It's not necessarily the way you would handle this situation," Wright said.
Mike Potter, an entomologist with the UK College of Agriculture, said it is impossible to diagnose a brown recluse bite by the wound alone.
"There are about 100 different things that mimic that bite," Potter said. "Doctors say it all the time: 'Oh, that's a brown recluse spider bite.' But it could be a diabetic ulcer. It could be a staph infection. MRSA (a type of drug-resistant staph infection) is the most common thing it is mistaken for. Without the spider, you can't diagnose the lesion."
Furthermore, Potter said he has dealt with brown recluse spiders for 30 years "and I never recall an incident where a brown recluse spider was inhabiting a mailbox."
The spiders can be encountered outdoors, but usually in a more protected places, such as a woodpile, he said.
"They do survive cold temperatures but in more buffered environments, you know, like underneath attic insulation," Potter said.
Wright said bees, wasps, spiders and even a turtle have been found in mailboxes. The turtle was probably a prank.
Whatever caused the carrier's wound, John Christopher of Woodlark Road in Sycamore Estates said he was shocked when he saw the letter.
"You know, I have seen black widows in the country, so I'm not totally surprised," Christopher said. "I was frightened and plan to wear gloves to my mailbox all the time. ... I've always thought the recluse is reclusive and wouldn't be in my mailbox. It's kind of scary."
The small, light tan to brown spider is most common in Western Kentucky, but it can turn up in Central Kentucky. The spider has a dark marking on its back, shaped like an inverted violin or fiddle.
Brown recluses hide in closets, cabinets, utility sheds, attics, basements, around stored lumber or anywhere it's dark and quiet.
Wright said postal customers "shouldn't necessarily be concerned." She said now is a good time to inspect mailboxes and see whether they are sturdy enough to withstand heavy snowfalls and other winter weather.
If you're concerned about having a spider in your mailbox, you might, like Christopher, consider wearing gloves when retrieving the mail.
"Brown recluse spiders have remarkably small fangs," says Potter's Web site, "and cannot bite through clothing."