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Spiders in the Land of Little Rain

What a long, spiderless season it’s been.

Winter was creepy-weird: 90 degrees in January, brutally dry, sun beaming down on dead annuals, leafless trees, comatose landscaping. The East and Midwest were buried in blizzard after blizzard, so we had no right to complain, but in the West each rainless day was another drip in a sort of waterless water torture.

And then spring lurched into summer with no preamble, except for the plants that (seemingly) miraculously sprang back to life to offer the mask of a normal California year. Since then it’s been months of broken rhythm and mocking sunshine.

Every living thing is still off. Plants bloomed too early or too late. The comforting reserves of water we use to beat back the desert—and it’s all desert, pretty much—no longer wait behind hose or faucet. On a recent road trip passing through the hazy-hot Salinas Valley, the hills were not golden. They were gray.

What you learn from skilled news reporters: historically, droughts in California have been known to last for long years, sometimes decades. Though not since modern recordkeeping began, which is why we’re all so gobsmacked by the seriousness of it. But in archaeological records, sure, plenty of evidence of drought wiping the shine off the Golden State. A state now so foolishly full of grass, golf courses, recreational lakes, orchards, and other thirsty things.

You also learn that ocean temperatures thousands of miles away, far off in the Pacific, are shuffling the cards you’ll be holding in fall, when the rains might or might not return. The view from my dead lawn is too small, in both time and distance, to take it in.

What it means for spiders is that I’ve seen very few. Insects, too, other than bees and mosquitoes. The county is fogging for West Nile virus vectors, which means the mosquitoes will diminish as well—something I’d normally applaud, but this year we all seem acutely aware of how missing bugs mean fewer birds, fewer green and growing things, fewer signs of life.

You get a better sense of who the survivors are. The cellar spiders, they never seem to go away; perhaps they’re generalist enough and skinny enough to survive on whatever blunders along. In our micro-ecosystem they probably benefit from the earthworm bin, which breeds tiny flies, and the mealworm boxes (kept for the geckos), where the flour moths roam. Flying fodder eventually comes their way.

And the widows: they’re stationed along the fence posts and in the downspouts just as they always have been. Maybe a tad smaller, but the summer is young and there’s still time to grow round. I go out at night and assess them by flashlight. Drought is nothing to them. Widows like it hot and dry; the females keep cool in their all-black outfits by the simple trick of being nocturnal. The small, loitering males await their moment.

Otherwise the spider places seem oddly empty. I haven’t spotted even a young orb weaver yet, much less one of the large females knitting her radial web. The wolf spiders you find by following their eye shine: where are they? Almost absent from the lush leaf litter where they usually live. Lumbering Zoropsis, the big Mediterranean hitchhiker, also has been lying low.

I met a tiny bronze jumping spider last week, let it hop around a few minutes, then freed it and wished it luck.

The_Land_of_Little_Rain_title_pageThe most notable absence in our domain is of false widows (Steatoda grossa). We’ve always had lots of them hanging around the flowerpots and crevices. This year I’m concluding they could be a sort of indicator species in our microclimate, a signal of what being less wet, less buggy, might mean. They’re pert, glossy spiders that have never caused us a bit of harm, and I would miss them. But they’re a worldwide species and could easily take a California habitat retreat in stride. More easily than we could.

We have short memories here. It’s part of our charm—that disappointment never chases you too far. There’s always going to be summer, and always going to be the rains. Or so we think. Me, I’m going to take down my old copy of a tiny book called The Land of Little Rain. Mary Austin tramped around desert California—lands people admire and fear, lands that change (if at all) only over thousands of years. She found it beautiful, and aloof, and surpassingly skillful at teaching humans their place. It might be time to build longer memories.

 

 

This Spider’s Got It Made (But There’s No Shade)

Make me one . . . with everything

The Maker Faire is coming back to the Bay Area, presumably bigger and better than ever, and stickier (from all those glue guns). I love the idea but I’ve never been. You know why? There are too many crafty people around here, and they snag all the parking and crowd the tofu-dog stands and get in the way so I can’t see the robots doing yoga! Or the self-washing dogs, or the bamboo cars. Um, I’m not exactly sure what they have on tap this year.

Spiders are makers, too, to be faire (heh). Not just takers, although they do have to take life to exist. A blog posting today from the esteemed biologist Jerry Coyne points out a spider that makes what looks like art but has some deep, and still undiscovered, purpose.

You already know about the spider that makes piñatas.

Coyne singled out a Namibian spider that lives in the ground and arranges rocks around the entrance of its burrow. It’s been noted that it usually chooses seven rocks, but as Coyne explains, that could just be due to the size of the spider and of the typical local rock. The pattern the rocks make is a purty flower (below).

Daisy, daisy, give me your answer, do. The flower bower of a Namibian spider in the family Segestriidae. (Photo by G. Costa et al., Journal of Arid Environments, 1995)

Cute, of course. But why? As usual with spiders, they’ve had 400 million years’ practice at keeping secrets. They’re masters at “no comment.”

Coyne’s possibilities include: the rocks help keep wind-blown sand out of the burrow, they disguise the spider’s hideout from predators, they somehow attract prey, or they serve as landmarks for the very nearsighted spider. No experiments have been performed to make these anything other than guesses, he notes.

The most tantalizing part of the whole setup—it’s a little eerie—is how the spider arranges its daisy. The narrow part of the rock points in, the broad part outward; that’s what makes the flower shape so lovely, so natural-looking. There has to be a well-engineered reason for that. But now we’re talking about how a mason would think. This spider, mysteriously, has enough brainpower to comprehend how the rocks fit. And they’re not even touching.

Radial symmetry is the heart of what web-spinning spiders do; we’ve all seen those marvelous mandalas in the garden. The orb weaver’s talent for engineering is well studied. But the Namibian spider is a reminder that every small animal has its bag of tricks, tools honed for its environment and often entirely unseen by us.

The yellow sac spiders that bivouac in the cracks spin a silk sleeping bag that would be the envy of any mountain climber. The black widows in the fence (yes, they came back from wherever they went during construction) maintain a tangled, most haphazard capture web, but look close and you see that it couldn’t be more perfect for catching prey, slowing down intruders, and giving the clumsy widow a fighting chance at escape.

If I can make it here, I'll make it anywhere! (Maratus volans photo by Dr. Jurgen Otto)

If I can make it here, I’ll make it anywhere! (Maratus volans photo by Dr. Jurgen Otto)

And the jumping spiders—they’re a little more obvious, I guess. Anybody could figure out the survival value of a rainbow afro or really good dance moves. Preferably combined! If the jumping spiders ever discover Namibian flower power, they’ll be unstoppable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meet the spider: Dysdera crocata

Meet me in the garden . . . at night

The woodlouse spider (Dysdera crocata) is a lovely creature with a dashing personality and striking looks. My son and I were flashlight hunting the other night and found one beneath a bucket in the yard. They tend to alarm people.

Jaws wide open, ready to roll with the roly-polys. (Creative Commons/© Joseph Berger)

Jaws wide open, ready to roll with the roly-polys. (Creative Commons / © Joseph Berger)

You can see why. Amid the usual dark-colored scuttlers abroad at night, Dysdera might make you gasp (as it did my son) because of its coloration. The cephalothorax is a glossy red-amber that seems even bloodier by flashlight. The abdomen is a silky buff color, its texture such that it looks like a bobbin of silk thread. The legs are slender and pointed. There are six eyes—not the customary eight—in a horseshoe pattern, the curved part on top. It’s not a big spider, maybe the size of a quarter including legs, and you rarely see it in the open—and never dangling at nose level like those prankster orb weavers.

But those jaws! No magnifying glass is needed to see them. The woodlouse spider has long fangs folded into its chops like a pair of switchblades. It’s believed that the fangs are specially adapted for piercing sowbugs, which at the scale of Lilliput look like armored personnel carriers. A predator hoping to snack on a roly-poly needs armor-piercing weapons.

Another common name is “roly-poly killer.” I’m sorry, but that sounds a bit like “teddy bear assassin.” Or witty-bitty Jack the Wipper.

Then again ... maybe I just want a salad. Like brussels sprouts, maybe pillbugs just aren't to everybody's taste. (Creative Commons / © Joseph Berger)

Then again … maybe I just want a salad. Like brussels sprouts, maybe pillbugs just aren’t to everybody’s taste. (Creative Commons / © Joseph Berger)

But there’s always something more to learn about spiders. It appears that Dysdera may attack the miniature crustaceans through their more vulnerable undersides, not through their dorsal armor, using just one fang to stab and the other to grip. That indicates a certain finesse, yes? Yet there have been several studies challenging the idea that Dysdera prefers pillbugs at all. What next—we learn the Goliath tarantula actually identifies with David? The mind reels.

Dysdera also sometimes bites people. It’s among the spider species that are ready to defend themselves—which means people malign them as “aggressive.” No, folks—defensive. Poke at Dysdera and she might poke you back. And since she’s the kind of garden spider you’re apt to encounter as you grub around among the kale without noticing where you set your hands, you might get a bite. (They’re also found in damp places like basements, where as a rule everything is scary.) But she will never chase you.

Bites by this spider are no big deal. Here’s a good article about them, using data from eight verified Dysdera bites (Actual data! Beautiful, beautiful data! No blame for the mysterious Invisible Spider this time). They’re like bee stings, or even less worrisome, since they don’t seem to provoke dangerous allergic reactions.

But: myths. Easy to see why this spider would make a good villain. It’s bright red on the front part, which sets off an instinctive danger signal in people. It has big fangs, the better to chomp you. Sometimes it really does bite. It stalks about at night, so you might never have seen one before. It loiters underneath things (as a hunting spider it doesn’t use capture webs). All it takes is a little misinformed push, and there will be online articles singling it out as a “dangerous spider” till the end of time. Here’s a posting from the Burke Museum’s FAQ on “myths about dangerous spiders”:

In 1993, a man with no medical or arachnological credentials somehow managed to get an article published in the respected New Scientist about a roommate who felt “a rapid series of jabs” while carrying furniture and later became seriously ill and noticed blistered skin around “puncture marks.” A spider found running across the floor hours after the supposed bite was Dysdera crocata, called the woodlouse spider because it preys on those land-dwelling crustaceans. Nobody should have taken seriously the conclusion that this spider was responsible for the man’s symptoms, but they did, and the “poisonous” nature of Dysdera entered folklore. According to one off-the-wall online comment, Dysdera venom “in very rare occurrences . . .  can be fatal as a result of an allergic reaction” (that person must be psychic, since no such case has happened to date). This spider has very large and strong jaws, and can penetrate deeply when it bites humans, but a 2006 study of 16 verified bites showed that the main symptom was the pain of the puncture and that the venom had little effect. Unlike most spider bites, puncture marks from this spider’s impressive fangs can actually be seen about half the time.

I meant that to be comforting. Maybe it is? You can think of Dysdera the way you’d think of a bumblebee: a small animal that you shouldn’t hold, but that isn’t thinking about you and can’t do you much damage even if you’re careless.

We caught that night-roaming spider and kept her in a terrarium for a few days, even dropping in some lively pillbugs to see what she did. She did a lot of nothing, besides shrinking back from the roly-polys and trying to hide under the leaf litter. When she did move about, it was with a graceful stride, not that manic flailing a lot of captive bugs exhibit. Hmph. Some dangerous spider.

Soon enough, as usual, the minor guilt of taking an animal out of its home—the only home it will ever know for its short, short life before it has to DIE or be stepped on by the yard guy and re-enter the Circle of Life, blah blah—compelled us to set her free where we found her.

Remember, if you need a reason to let a spider live, Dysdera keeps the population of little gnawing garden pests under control. And provides a bit of wonder for children, both young and overgrown, who like to turn things over to see what lives underneath.

If Dysdera wants to move into those old gardening gloves I forgot to bring in out of the rain, go ahead. And we have roly-polys to spare.

 

BONUS: There’s a French band called The Woodlouses. They have a murky, angsty, indie tune called “Dysdera Crocata.” I didn’t hear the word “spider” among the lyrics, but maybe it was lurking under something else. Did I mention this spider is considered “cosmopolitan”?


 

 

Top Six Spider Myths (and SEO Bait!)

One weird trick to attract lower car insurance before being banned by Google!

The listicle you’ve all been waiting for.

1. There’s a spider within three feet of you, right now. No, no, it’s three inches. She’s perched on your collar, in fact, slowly slooowly opening her jaws, a drop of venom forming on each glistening fang, and looking for exactly the most sensitive part of your undefended neck. If you reach up your hand—no, the left—and carefully work your index finger up the edge of your collar, by by bit, right toward her open fangs, a little farther, you just might…

2. You swallow a dozen spiders in a lifetime. That depends entirely on what you’ve had for dinner. If it’s garlic-heavy, like pho or hummus or Sriracha-drenched ice cream, you might attract that many spiders in a single night. Since they are curious animals, many of them transplanted from countries with savory cuisines and sociable customs, they love spices and good times and will come tumbling into your mouth as fast as their legs can carry them. That explains why sometimes you wake up with a sore throat for no apparent reason (and you thought it was the beer–ha!). It’s from the spiders jostling down your gullet, scrawling spider graffiti (they call it “art,” of course) such as “OCCUPY PHARYNX!” everywhere and drumming till dawn.

Little Debbie has moved on from snack cakes.

Little Debbie has moved on from snack cakes.

On the other hand, if your tastes run to soda crackers and Diet Coke, no spiders. They only live a year or so anyway so they’re not going to risk being bored to death in your uncool stomach. They leave that stuff to the cockroaches. Oh hey, didn’t you know that you swallow a hundred cockroaches every year? It’s quite a story…

3. The daddy long-legs is the most venomous spider in the world, but its fangs are too small to bite anybody. This one’s half true. The daddy long-legs is actually the most venomous living being on the planet, not just the baddest spider. Travel to Southeast Asia and you’ll see king cobras sprawled out dead along the roadside, always with a tiny, vibrating spider at their throat. Closer to home, everyone who lives in the Western United States has had the experience of going out into the garage for a screwdriver and finding a full-grown timber rattlesnake, eight feet long if it’s an inch, caught in a dirty cobweb in that corner by the water heater—and again, a single, almost invisible spider hovers over the carcass preparing to feast. Check out Pinterest if you dare. This is why timber rattlesnakes are endangered, by the way.

But even the most gullible schoolchild begins to wonder at this point … where are all the dead people felled by a spider that lives in almost every home or cellar or barn all around the world? Ah, but you have to understand the beast. There’s no glory in that. Spiders are vain, the deadly ones the most vain of all. A daddy long-legs will ambush a Siberian tiger, wrap it in silk, and eat it, as happened at the San Francisco Zoo last year, for the sake of bragging on social media, but a human … they die too easily and too often. If not accidents or car crashes, there’s cancer and heart attacks, gangfights and wars: people kill each other for no apparent reason, and to no clear end. So the spiders lie low and take their time. A tasty bear will have to saunter by eventually. Plus they really get off on having a secret identity.

4. Brown recluses live everywhere and deliver lots of scary bites. In fact, the vast majority of dangerous spider bites are delivered by Invisible Spiders. I use the common name because nobody has managed the taxonomy of an animal that can’t be seen—obvious when you think about it. Invisible Spiders live all over the globe—I think—and are especially attracted to people who have underlying medical issues that could cause skin lesions, issues such as diabetes, exposure to staph bacteria, cuts or scrapes acquired under less-than-sanitary circumstances, and so on. Right-thinking people always label these wounds “spider bites,” as you’d expect. The spiders also tend to pile on when a person has been bitten by a mosquito, louse, tick, mite, bedbug, ant, conenose bug, fly or other creature, mostly because (remember! Spiders are vain!) they want to hog the credit when the oozy wound appears on the Internet with a long string of misspelled comments and idiot advice.

The persistent belief that brown recluses thrive all around my home state is entirely due to misidentified Invisible Spiders. See, this is California. Like everybody else, they start out invisible and then they get a tan. But if you told somebody you’d just spotted a brown Invisible Spider, you’d sound pretty stupid.

5. Black widows eat their mates. Only if they’re coated in garlic (see #2).

"If I had a hammer ... I'd hammer on the spiders ..." Meanwhile, Pete Seegers wonders, "Where have all the spiders gone?"

“If I had a hammer … I’d hammer on the spiders …” Meanwhile, Pete Seeger wonders, “Where have all the spiders gone?”

6. Hobo spiders are invading my state. This myth took off because it was the title of a song by the late Pete “OCCUPY PHARYNX!” Seeger (left). I can’t reprint the lyrics here because they’re copyrighted, but suffice it to say that Seeger’s ode to footloose arachnids riding the rails, pluckin’ banjos, and feasting on Siberian tigers made a deep impression on the American psyche. (Fun fact: “Wimoweh!” is the sound you make when a hobo spider bites you on the ol’ plectrum.)

Really, all the public needs is a fun nickname (“hobo spider”) and a jingle, and we’re off to the races. That’s how we learn stuff. We don’t want any irritating facts to get in the way of how we determine what we like, what we hate, and what we’re terrified of—so if Eratigena agrestis proves to be another harmless spider imprisoned by notoriety and unable to set things right—probably because it’s already hopped the next southbound freight—all we can say is “tl;dr.” Which might be what you’re saying about now.

 

A Spider Looks at Winter

A modest-sized orb weaver has been living outside the workshop door since summer. We noticed her around August when she’d become big enough to alarm the timid (though she is not big by orb weaver standards) and had begun maintaining a pizza-slice-shaped web near one of the security lights. By day, she huddled in a crack with a bit of dirty silk and tried to look like a dead leaf. But at night she would unfold, all legs and confidence, take up station in the center of her oblique net, and sit poised and patient, waiting for the doomed insects who bumble toward the light.

We named her Natasha. We have a habit of naming spiders that pass by, even ones we know just long enough to carry them outside.

“Oh, look at you, Derek. What are you doing in the sink? Again? You scamp.”

“My, my. Danielle has put on a few. Must be that time of year, right? Why don’t you go raise some kids outdoors?”

“Maybelline! That is not a good place for a web. Out you go.”

Natasha reminded me right away of the character played by Natasha Lyonne on “Orange Is the New Black.” Flamboyant, fierce, comfortable in her skin, not to be messed with. You’d be on your guard even if you got on her good side. But she’s good-hearted, if eager to pounce.

Our Natasha suspended herself above eye level; but for the grace of spider discretion, she could have been one of those autumn orb weavers who dangle in front of your forehead at night when you’re taking out the trash, and make you do the spider dance for an hour afterward. An in-your-face kind of spider.

Natasha is dying. The little angel of death is withdrawing toward her own, sure as winter. She held out longer than most—the annual tide of scare stories, the half-thought spider nonsense you read online, abated many weeks ago, even among the tabloid-reading Brits. Late summer and fall is when you read about many such dangling Natashas and their roving male counterparts as they remind inattentive reporters and bloggers that spiders exist. The females dine and wait, growing fat in the warm-weather afterglow. The males dash about in search of their own posterity, carrying out their desperate last steps long before the nights turn long. By mid-December they are gone, save for a lonely few.

That’s what gave me the chance to know Natasha better than the other small creatures taken by winter. She has played her part deep into fall, and played it well. She still rests in her retreat by day, but with nights dipping below freezing I don’t see her venture out onto her web anymore. Clearly there are fewer flies, moths, and other ephemeral food to make it worthwhile. But more: she knows. There was a time to await mates, and a time to cease waiting. A time to harvest, and a time to be harvested.

Winter comes in a few days. Stealing a thought from Frost: Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild/ Should waste them all. . . .

Slow, slow!

For the grapes’ sake, if they were all,

Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,

Whose clustered fruit must else be lost—

For the grapes’ sake along the wall.

E. B. White gave Charlotte her children, or else his spider’s tale would have been too hard to bear. I’ll look for Natasha’s children in spring, along the wall.

 
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Posted by on December 9, 2013 in Araneus (orb weavers)

 

Movember is for Mo-rachnids

Manly men and spiders with ‘staches

In contrast to the spider-fearing citizens of Britain, spiders themselves do keep a stiff upper lip. It’s called a clypeus (CLIP-ee-us) and is defined as the area between the front edge of the carapace and the anterior eyes—a mustache zone, you might say.

On many spiders there isn’t much going on in the clypeus, but among salticids, or jumping spiders, there’s often a patch of lush facial fur. Salticids overflow with charms, even for the spider-averse, among other things because they have faces that actually look like faces, with a few extra eyes at the corners. The cowboy handlebars and day-glo beards (even Afros!) are just another endearing bonus. Seeing as how this is Movember, a month whimsically dedicated to growing a mustache to draw attention to men’s health issues, I thought of this particular bewhiskered spider. Like males of all species, he’s no stranger to challenges of the guy variety.

Let it grow! The rakishly mustachioed Lapsias lorax, collected by Wayne Maddison and crew in Ecuador in 2000. (Photo © Univ. of British Columbia)

Let it grow! The rakishly mustachioed Lapsias lorax, collected by Wayne Maddison and crew in Ecuador in 2000. (Photo © Univ. of British Columbia)

Lapsias lorax won its name in a contest hosted two years ago by the Beaty Biodiversity Museum in Vancouver, B.C. The Beatty is just jumping with spiders, and is the home base of an arachnological legend, Wayne Maddison. If you’ve spent any time at all on the Internet, and everybody knows you have, you’ve seen Maddison’s videos of jumping spider courtship dances. The vids that all you wacky kids overlay with music soundtracks—everything from disco to house to smoove tunes. A veritable “Stayin’ Alive” with the dance floor measured in millimeters. Top that, digital kittens.

The way those determined little dudes shimmy and wave and waggle! It’s hilarious and touching and gives the average male human some food for thought about the many ways he may have appeared, and perhaps daily appears, a fool for love. Boz Scaggs may, or may not, have dedicated his album Silk Degrees to these silk-spinning horndogs.

Maddison oversaw the contest to name this new species of jumping spider, which he and his colleagues had discovered in Ecuador. Maddison picks up new species the way most of us pick up the mail, because he makes a habit of traveling to places where the wild things are. According to the Beaty site, he received 810 entries. No, I didn’t win.

The winning idea came from a Canadian who thought the golden band below the mystery spider’s face—more of a slinky, pencil-thin mustache than the usual salticid bottlebrush, also more properly on his jaws than his clypeus—resembled that of the Lorax, Dr. Seuss’s treehugging hero in the book of the same name. (Sharp observation, Tristan Long! Next time I shall defeat you.) It also pleased the spider judges that the spider’s name evokes a desire to protect threatened environments, many of them the wild places Maddison likes to explore.

Dr. Seuss's Lorax. The spider's better groomed, in my opinion.

Dr. Seuss’s Lorax. The spider’s better groomed, in my opinion.

So there you have it—one of the many mustachioed spiders to strike a hairy note for Movember. Incidentally, the mustache doesn’t make the man, not among spiders. The real way to tell this spider is male is the shape of his pedipalps, those extremities below his face. The palps are built like a smaller set of legs, with one fewer segment. Among mature males the tips look like boxing gloves, dramatically different from the trim, sleek palps females have.

They’re shaped that way for mating. They are the key that fits the lock. A receptacle at the end holds sperm that the spider has previously placed on a special web and then taken up as if by syringe. Then he goes looking for the right female (that’s what that dancing is really for! not fame and glory and a trophy, but to signal in song and dance, “Love me! Don’t eat me!”). What happens next is kind of like a handshake, at least on his end, and kind of not. And it’s not on the courtship videos. Leave some room for romance, bro.

 
 

Fruit Ninjas: Spiders in the Bananas

Aren’t you glad it wasn’t a dragonfruit?

This is about bananas and “banana spiders,” a slippery concept. I vowed not to make any wordplay on the words “bunch,” “go(ing) bananas,” or “appeal,” because those are hideous journalistic clichés. You’ll thank me.

I did slip in that “slippery,” but I had to, honest.

A mum's worst nightmare, only with spiders. (Scary banana sculpture by Suu, a Japanese artist. You should see his Ben Bernanke!)

A mum’s worst nightmare–just add spiders. (Scary banana sculpture by Suu, a Japanese artist. You should see his or her Ben Bernanke!)

What’s fun about chasing down the latest spider scares is discovering that any such story has happened before—usually many times. Better, the story changes. There are certain structures to any “I was scared by a spider” story, like the one where you crash your car, or the one where you need an explanation for a scary sore, or the one where your man proves he’s not a coward. But in general the trends or the public mood allow you to fill in many of the nouns and verbs and places, like some kind of arachnophobic Mad Libs book.

Like this:

(Location) homemaker (proper name) was terrified to discover this week that the healthy (fruit or vegetable) she’d brought home from the supermarket and was about to serve her (numeral) offspring was infested by the world’s most deadly (usually harmless arachnid).

(Proper name) was washing the (foodstuff) when she found the (synonym for dead, mangled, or stunned) spider in a bowl and (word for emitted loud, high-pitched sound). She summoned her (male relative) to strenuously (verb) the beast and phoned the local (unprepared exterminator), who confirmed the (adjective)-eating creature’s identity and insisted on (violent verb with “-ing”) her home.

A spokesman for the supermarket chain expressed sympathy for (name)’s traumatic experience and offered her a free (trivial item meant to forestall a lawsuit).

Today’s story is out of Britain, where they’re already prepared to burn with flame any creature with eight legs, on the theory that it must be one of those cottage-invading, mum-murdering, flesh-eating, snapper-stabbing false widows (Steatoda nobilis). That particular cobweb spider readily turns invisible and assumes disguises wherein it looks like other, equally harmless spiders. It’s quite a trick! I wish I could see it.

(I take back some of what I’ve said about British arachnophobics. I can tell from some of the Facebook warriors and other online commenters that many British people are disgusted and embarrassed by the current spider hysteria. Then there are the good people at the British Arachnological Society, whose site is second to none on getting the spider facts straight.)

Spiders are NOT part of this healthy breakfast.

Spiders are NOT part of this healthy breakfast.

(It’s also come to my attention that I may have maligned Weetabix. I sincerely regret any hurt feelings I might have caused.)

But bananas now: in the current variation on Horror in the Fruit Bowl, a London mum was shocked to see baby spiders hatching from the peel of a banana. Spiderlings were emerging from a “white spot” (photos show an egg sac) that she first thought was mold. Trigger-happy reporters promptly plastered websites with stock photos of Phoneutria, a New World wandering spider with a bad bite. Apparently the woman and her plucky pest-control company leaped to the conclusion that the baby spiders were Phoneutria, and from there it devolved into a story about 1. How much the supermarket was going to pay to calm everybody down, and 2. Just how much napalm it would take to wipe out every form of life in the customer’s house, children excepted.

The little ankle-biters (but probably not).

The little ankle-biters (but probably not).

One problem. These were baby spiders. They look pretty much alike. Even an expert can’t tell a baby Phoneutria from a baby Cupiennius, which is a much more likely fruit stowaway, at least to North America, according to this expert report. And Cupiennius is harmless. Big and scary, but harmless.  (Anyway, “A baby spider doesn’t have big enough jaws to bite you,” British entomologist Steven Falk told ABC News.)

Also big, fast, and scary looking are huntsman spiders. They hitchhike in bananas, too, and show up in fruit bowls. And are also harmless except to the arachnophobic, which, to be fair, is lots of folks.

Regardless of species, the spiderlings wouldn’t get far on foot. Nor are they likely to survive away from their home climate. All mum needed to do was vacuum them up. Once in the Dirt Devil bag, they won’t be breeding or murdering or doing anything else.

It's the mustache! Really. Those red jaws belong to Cupiennius chiapanensis (photo from American Entomologist), who gets confused with Phoneutria, another red-'stached spider with a bad reputation. But all they have in common is that banana.

It’s the mustache! Really. Those red jaws belong to Cupiennius chiapanensis (photo from American Entomologist), who gets confused with Phoneutria, another red-’stached spider with a bad reputation. But all they have in common is the banana.

Not long ago, if a spider showed up invited in a UK fruit bowl it was often given the benefit of the doubt, i.e., not assumed to be the world’s deadliest anything. You can see it in older stories like this, this, this (with the wonderful headline “Where Is Mummy Spider?”) and this. It still bothered the fruit-buying public to find them, but nobody worried it was the start of Arachnoworld War III. They went ahead with tea and biscuits.

But the “false widow” meme seems to have escalated every spider encounter by a jittery public. The postman won’t deliver your mail because a fat, harmless orb weaver is dangling across his path. Someone’s bunny dies (as they do), and because a spider is in the neighborhood, it must be to blame. Spiders are described as leaping and chasing, which they just don’t do. A false widow couldn’t outrun a baby carriage with three missing wheels.

The supermarket chain dug a little deeper into the London story and now leans toward the theory that the spiderlings were harmless Cheiracanthium babies, according to ABC. The so-called yellow sac spider lives all over the world—occasionally it bites, but it never kills. (In my house we call it the “glow in the dark spider” because of its pallor.) But in the end, according to ABC, the store paid the scared shoppers a bunch of money.

 

 

Spiders Over the White Cliffs of Dover

Whither the widows?

First, false widows—now gay spiders. And watch out for those hobos. What is this soap opera called arachnology?

A ridiculous reality show is still playing out in the south of Britain. An insignificant spider, Steatoda nobilis, is being blamed for everything the tabloids can throw at it. I thought the story had peaked a few weeks ago, with the report that one of these Invisible Spiders (because that’s what they really are; nobody ever sees himself getting bitten) had caused a guy’s leg “to explode.” But no—the nonsense can pile up higher still.

Killer spiders, tabloid coverNow the giddiness has caused a school to close. (No worries, Brits, I’m sure all the Singaporean school children who didn’t stay home that day will eat your kids’ lunches for them, academically speaking.) There are whole platoons, brigades, of “mums” who talk about sparing their downy children from the beasties that come creeping, crawling, and snapping their way. TV hosts show helpful maps with neon arrows pointing in all directions—the spider on the march. The usual minor athlete (yes! this is another recurring theme in spider lore, the Jock with a Rash) has to sit out a crucial match because an Invisible Spider spoiled his cricket swing or his soccer moves.

I can’t gild this lily—it  stands alone. Even the calm people at the British Arachnological Society, who have been doing great work trying to drag old Blighty back toward reality, seem resigned to the fact that although they’ll get quoted here and there, they’ll make not a dent in the national arachnofoolia. It just has to play itself out.

S. nobilis has been in Britian since the 1870s. Yes, really. It looks like three other insignificant relatives, all of them prettily weaving silk doilies around Grandmum’s vegetable patch since Churchill was a lad. One day your cottage garden is a veritable Narnia of humble little animals, the next, thanks to tabloid hunger, it’s a den of deadly invaders swarming young Nigel.

So what to do? Fun as it is to see those shabby scriveners go at it, this could happen anywhere. There’s plenty of nonsense about spiders bubbling away Stateside. Not just the brown recluse fears, which a la Britain become active every time some American sprouts an ugly sore. The murky accusation against the hobo spider (Eratigena agrestis, its new name) is just as alive as ever, despite dogged research that shows, bit by unreported bit, that the hobo has almost certainly been misjudged. Its bite is probably harmless. If you can even find one. Or identify it.

How many strikes do you get again? That’s three. Hobo spider, you’re benched.

There’s an information avalanche about spiders online, so we already know that weeping skin wounds are far more likely to be staph or some other rotten microorganism or insect than a spider bite. That’s the scary part—we already know.

Now we’re getting into the realm of why people want to believe nonsense, and why facts don’t drive it out.

Here’s a great book by Kathryn Schulz. She could also have titled it “A Breath of Fresh Error.”

Kathryn Schulz doesn't talk about spiders, per se. I think. I could be wrong. "Yes," she says. "That's the idea."

Kathryn Schulz doesn’t write about spiders. I think. I could be wrong. “Yes,” she says encouragingly. “That’s the idea.”

I started off resisting the author’s mission, which is to point out that everyone is wrong a whole lot but that’s not necessarily bad. Nooooooo! I want to be right all the time, or at least be able to lean back on a nice haystack of facts and studies and enjoy gazing down at the bullshit.

But.

She’s right. Beliefs guide our selection of, and adherence to, what we’re pleased to call facts. Most of the time. I think the scientific method is much more marvelous and error-correcting than she apparently does–if it’s correctly applied, self-policed, and wielded with humility. Like this hobo spider study, which disproved the venom myth from three different directions without scolding anybody who felt otherwise.

But facts fight a constant headwind of uncertainty. The culture you were born into. What your family taught you. What you feel forced to defend (“Call me an idiot because I think Invisible Spiders got my baby? Now I believe it twice as hard!”). And all the little tripwires that trigger us into seeing patterns where they aren’t, ignoring patterns we don’t want to see, trusting our lying senses, and sealing our evidence behind high walls of Just Because.

Now I’m gonna look into those gay spiders.

 

 

CRITTER SITS, BRIT SPLITS

Stiff upper lips missing in action

It’s official: the last Briton capable of stepping outdoors has now surrendered to spider hysteria and barricaded himself inside his thatched cottage with a lifetime supply of Weetabix and oolong. This just in:

Postman refuses to deliver letter because of a ‘massive’ spider web blocking path to front door

Postmen often have to keep an eye out for aggressive dogs while trying to make their deliveries.

But rather than a hound, it was a large spider that stopped letters being delivered to the home of Stuart Robertson-Reed.

Instead of a cheque the business analyst was waiting for, he found a note written by a scared postman which read: “No access – massive spider web in front gate.”

Stuart Robertson-Reed contemplates his doom! (Daily Mirror)

Stuart Robertson-Reed contemplates his doom! (Daily Mirror)

The story goes on in hilarious (and, thankfully, skeptical) detail about the “massive” beast whose web the postman feared to touch. The spider in question, the timid orb weaver pictured here, was described as the size of a 10p coin–just about an inch in diameter.

Actually, I think the wailing and breast-beating over Steatoda nobilis, the insignificant yet somehow “deadly” spider that’s triggered so much blithering such as this, is peaking. Even the tabloids can’t keep up the silliness much longer.

Nothing in all the coverage I’ve seen of the false-widow panic has changed my mind about what’s happening. S. nobilis, an imported species, has lived on the Sceptered Isle for more than a hundred years. Nobody has ever died from its bite–in fact, I’m still hunting for irrefutable evidence of any bites at all. There was the guy with the hoodie, who had a dozen stinging welts on his back and says he found a spider in his jacket. He made the news because he passed out cold when he saw the spider, not because the venom had liquefied him. Painkillers was all he needed. But I never found a second-day story with a confirmed identification of the spider. Even if it was S. nobilis, how much more trivial can a story be: “man bitten by bug”? I had a hundred worse experiences with ants when I was a kid, and a smaller but still memorable number with wasps, hornets, and bees. I got chomped by lizards, snakes, rodents, and mosquitoes. The tabloids never came calling.

The rest of the S. nobilis victims “never felt a thing” or were assaulted–as if by space aliens–while they slept. Amazing how many Invisible Spiders they can fit on that green and pleasant land.

No, what’s happening here is folklore in the making. A decade from now, after the Internet has immortalized all our foibles and silly beliefs, we’ll all have a gruff chortle with the good people of Britain about the Year of the Rampaging False Widows. There will never be an end to the modern equivalent of the tarantella hysteria, of course. That hard-wired threat detector that keeps us pattern-seeking apes alive will never be silenced–nor, I guess, should it be. But it will be some other bug’s turn to be the witch of the moment.

Ten pence for your thoughts? Let's be a little more lion and little less lamb, folks.

Ten pence for your thoughts? Let’s be a little more lion and a little less lamb, folks.

 

A Prayer for Araneus

Wheels within wheels

I’m not a Hindu or a Buddhist and never will be. But I have borrowed something from them and I’m not sorry. It’s a word and a shape:

Mandala (Sanskrit:  Maṇḍala, ‘circle’) is a spiritual and ritual symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism, representing the Universe. (Wikipedia)

With eight legs, is yoga easier or harder? (Photo by Thomas Quine)

With eight legs, is yoga easier or harder? (Photo by Thomas Quine)

It’s also a spiderweb. Not every mandala you see on the Internet looks spidery, but they all suggest the identical cosmic micro-focus—the radial lines and paths, the corners and turning points, the mystery of who waits in the center, the truth that something barely there and supremely beautiful will blow away tomorrow. But endure. Mandalas guide the quest for insight.

Dr. Internet says mandalas are visual signposts in the Christian view too—some people see sacred spirals in rose windows and Celtic crosses. They’re even found in Jung’s overgrown garden of myth.

A spider doesn’t care what psychologists or monks think about circles and spirals. The first principle that leads a spider around her spinning wheel is simple hunger—or even, deeper than hunger, unremembered memories from spiders eons older who were hungry, and who turned within webs, and lived. She doesn’t know beauty or utility. She knows food and unimaginable patience. A week before the Bodhi tree would be less than a wink from her unblinking eyes.

Nice work! (Cool hat, too.) Can you keep doing it for a couple million years now?

Nice work! (Cool hat, too.) Can you keep doing it for a couple million years now?

The remote being at the center—we can never know how she gauges the physical strains, and measures the yawning canyons she has to bridge, and chooses her materials and gates, and pivots and dances to draw that silken mandala—the one that’s more perfect for being imperfect.

A machine could draw a perfect circle. But an orb web unique to its place, unique to its hour, then destroyed and forgotten … that’s art and science, devotion … futility.

So I meditate on the mandala in my yard, and the mute worker who labors over it. I suppose I have to call it meditation, damn the woo. If that’s not enough to dazzle my brain shut, I repeat these words: four hundred million years. Four hundred million years. The lives of this animal, this adept.

Nirvana by porchlight? Araneus marmoreus, seeking enlightenment near Crittendon, Kentucky.

Nirvana by porchlight? Araneus marmoreus, seeking enlightenment near Crittenden, Kentucky. Maybe illustrating that thing about one hand clapping? We’ll never know. (Photo by Barbara Marshman)

 
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Posted by on October 9, 2013 in Araneus (orb weavers)