Monthly Archives: March 2012

Meet the spider: Latrodectus hesperus

Ladies of the night

The widow tends her parlor.

I don’t worry about the widows. They’ll be fine. Putting aside the question of whether I should be worrying about them, I know they’re a resourceful bunch. Ever since the first bulbous lady of the night appeared along the property-line fence, spinning her tough, ratty web as I walked past with the flashlight on garbage night, the black widows have endured. Now that the builders next door are about to demolish the fence and build a new one, it’s very likely that the widows will just colonize that one, too. I won’t bring it up with the new neighbors, at least not right away. They’ll think my sympathies are misplaced.

The widows who haunt the fence haven’t been there long. When we bought the house 11 years ago most of the spiders in the nooks and crannies of the yard were Steatoda grossa, false black widows. They scare the unwary, because they’re petite, dark-chocolate replicas of the widows and they hang out where you’d expect a widow to be. After a little research and a lot of familiarity I saw them as chums, and now salute the false widows as they fumble away from the broom. But then Latrodectus appeared—not actually glistening in the light of the full moon, though that enhances my mental picture—and suddenly Steatoda grew scarce. This new species bore watching.

I thought about wiping them all out before they got too entrenched, but never had the heart. I caught and relocated a few. I kept a couple others in terraria out of curiosity, but when they spun egg sacs I questioned the wisdom of the project and relocated them, too. And now they’re part of the landscape: invisible by day, out on their lines by night, always ready to scoot back into a downspout or between the slats if they detect something amiss.

And that’s why, I think, I let them be. The western black widow and her more notorious Theridiid relatives are nothing to mess with. I won’t dandle them or coo at them. But nor are they coming to get me and my children. Having tried many times to catch them, I tell you it’s not easy: they’re wary and will retreat from the slightest suspicious vibration. Even if I plowed through their triplines while taking out the trash, they wouldn’t charge me; rather, they’d do their clumsy best to sprint back to safety. It would take me jamming a finger into their lair or picking one up with my bare hands to get bitten.

By now, the widows are like neighbors. The ones who don’t keep up their yard, whose taste in Christmas decorations runs to the tacky, who got the F-150 on blocks in the driveway, sit on the porch in the evenings, don’t make eye contact. They probably keep a handgun in the nightstand. It’s enough to know their name; no need to be overfriendly. Still—it’s their neighborhood, too. If they go away of their own accord I’ll be relieved, but in the meantime I don’t feel threatened.

The black widow is a medically significant spider, no doubt. The human body’s response to her neurotoxic venom is called latrodectism, something I don’t want to experience. (You know you’re famous when somebody names a whole disease after you: benign Linsanity, deadly Snookiism.) Latrodectism is an agony of clenching muscle pains, often with nausea, headache, copious sweating, and accelerated heartbeat. Medical sources repeat like a mantra: death is rare, although risks are higher for children, the elderly, and people with compromised cardiovascular systems. Antivenin works but usually isn’t necessary, and it can make things worse.

The widow isn’t “lethal,” forget what the Internet says. I sought a hard number for this, not the moldering Netlore people toss back and forth. Here: the latest report of the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCS) tallied 2,168 widow spider bites in the US in a year. No one died from them. Even if you added in the 3,345 “unknown spider/insect” bites (including my pal the Invisible Spider and anything else that crawls, visibly or not, across the national epidermis) … still zero deaths. Only 13 widow cases were even considered major. The largest category of outcome: “minor.”

Now, there is that “Case 1259,” the middle-aged asthmatic hospitalized for a black widow bite. Thirty-six hours later, he’s dead—but of anaphylactic shock. Triggered by the antivenin itself, not the bite.

Bee/hornet/wasp stings were three times as numerous as spider bites—with two fatalities. Other villains:

  • Car antifreeze, seven deaths
  • Toilet-bowl cleaners, three
  • Hearing-aid batteries, two
  • Liquid laundry detergent, two
  • Good ol’ “ethanol (beverages),” a raucous twenty-one.

(Interestingly, the report cites a single death from “other spider bites and/or envenomations,” but since widows, recluses, and Invisible Spiders were already tallied separately, it’s a mystery. Perhaps it’s the unfortunate Case 1259.)

Another report, from 2005, explored animal dangers to humans and calculated an average of six deaths from venomous spider bites every year in the United States. Curiously, it found almost as many deaths from “non-venomous arthropods,” and cited the anaphylaxis risk. And note: in this telling, hornets, bees, wasps, and ants were nine times as dangerous as spiders. (Curiouser still, isn’t it, how the AAPCS hasn’t found even one widow fatality since it began issuing annual reports in 1983?) Cows, horses, and mules go bad, too.

The widow’s reputation has clearly been besmirched. She isn’t always lethal even to her mate. It would make for a better episode of “Who the (Bleep) Did I Marry?” if she were, but the fact is lots of spiders are prone to husband-noshing, depending on hunger and other circumstances, and she’s not a standout.

The adult male widow is a skinny guy, with rather attractive marbling on his trim, brownish exoskeleton. (No one suspects him of being dangerous to humans, unlike his bride.) I see him lounging around the lady’s porch of an evening. Our widows get lots of gentleman callers.

And like another famous widow, Blanche DuBois, these femmes noires depend on the kindness of strangers. Me.



Meet the spider: Zoropsis spinimana

The new (big) kid in town

Zoro salutes you.

Hello. I am Zoro. Fear me—but wait, no, do not fear me. I am not the monster I seem. I am invasive, but I am not … how do you say … of medical significance.

Presenting Zoropsis spinimana, a newcomer. A big, impressive newcomer. I happen to live in a part of California where this Mediterranean import has established itself. Lucky me, you say? Well, yes. It’s a big, handsome spider, slow-moving and easy to catch, and someday I’ll figure out exactly what it’s finding to eat in my walls and ceilings and crawlspaces that can satisfy its clearly big appetite. In the meantime, whenever I see daring Zoro, scourge of the arachnophobe, poised high up on the wall, it’s like Halloween every day! Boo!

Zoro, as I like to call it, has been dubbed the Bay Area’s Most Wanted Spider. Sort of like the World’s Most Interesting Man, which must be why I mentally shifted into that Puss in Boots accent. Stay hungry, my frien’. At the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, which dubbed it “most wanted” in a bit of savvy publicity, they’ve been tracking the spread of Zoropsis since the hefty house spider was first spotted around here. It has a gorgeous website there, complete with photos, videos, a map, instructions for reporting a new location, even tips for mailing in a spider—dead or alive—for inspection. The downloadable data sheet says, “Body size is the first thing you will notice about this species.” Yes, yes you will. Two inches (legs included) doesn’t sound like much until your daughter sees it on the bathroom wall.

What’s odd on that Cal Academy site is a distribution map that shows a straight arrow going nonstop from the Mediterranean to what looks like Sunnyvale. How did that happen?

“Hiding inside a suitcase” is the site’s suggestion, but, of course, ha. That’s just a guess. Darrell Ubick is the Cal Academy spider expert who’s keeping an eye on Zoropsis and its travels since it showed up in these parts in 1992. Ubick identified the newcomer courtesy of a specimen sent him by a cherished “spider lady,” the late naturalist Marjorie Moody, who worked for the state agriculture department.

However Zoropsis got here, it’s in no hurry. The spider has been seen a few times as far north as Marin County, Ubick says, but most of the reports still come from here in the Santa Clara Valley. In general, globalization accounts for a lot of species transfer; more people and goods and luggage crossing borders, more numb Central American spiders huddled in bananas in British shopping carts. But the Mediterranean region isn’t exactly Mali, is it? Ships and then planes from Europe and north Africa have been docking in the Bay Area for a very long time now. Zoro must have a story to tell about its covert crossing of the border, but we may never know it.

Nosferatu, the original movie vampire. None of that "Twilight" eye candy back then.

Où est "le masque"? I shrug in the Gallic fashion. (Photo: Le Monde des Insectes 1999-2012)

Some spiders seem to trigger the imagination. This one is dashing Zoro to me. Now, French people who post macro pix of this spider get a little frisson by pointing out not the Mark of Zorro but “le masque de Nosfératu.” The supposed mask is a pattern of black on white on the cephalothorax that suggests a vampire face with black eyes and pointy ears. Can you see it? How French are you? I’ve tried really hard to see Nosferatu but alors, I cannot.

Heck with romance, I think Zoropsis looks like a guy in a garish brown herringbone suit. He’s built like a wolf spider who’s put on a few, but with proportionately smaller eyes. He has that interesting dark pattern on the upper side of the abdomen; that helps to identify him. He roams, like the wolf spider. Willy Loman, schlepping his big opisthosoma around the countryside, hunting for the big sale. What I’ve noticed from briefly keeping Zoropsis specimens is that they try to conceal themselves in a container by climbing to the top and then streamlining their legs, four forward and four aft. It’s kind of endearing, and it makes them look not so big. They also seem to be good-natured, although tickling one’s foreleg with a bit of straw might make it pause and draw back the leg in that melodramatic “Wha! What means this?” gesture that thoughtful spiders (and movie vampires) make. Other times it seems like a golden retriever compared to a wolf, by which I mean the wolf spider Hogna carolinensis. I’ve kept a few of those, too. They’re athletic and fast, big shiny button eyes, dove-gray tracksuit, and the way they dash about and pounce on crickets is a dramatic contrast to phlegmatic Zoro. But Zoropsis, even if flair-impaired in reality, must be doing something right. The distribution map of the greater Bay Area shows a healthy scattering of red dots. Zoro was here!



Posted by on March 21, 2012 in Netlore, Zoropsis


A spider insider

Wayne Maddison is the jumping-spider man of the Internet. His courtship videos of Salticids are amazing and touching and hilarious just by themselves (what rollicking little Travoltas these jumping spiders be) but people in Netland have been setting them to music for ages, too. Salsa, disco, anything with a beat that seems suitable for flashy duds and the tricky wooing-slash-groveling that the male jumper indulges in. I’ve always wanted to meet Wayne Maddison. But not today, not just because he works in British Columbia but because according to his blog he’s off in Borneo, literally beating the bushes for undiscovered species and probably having a high old time. Here’s something he recently sent back. It’s a Salticid that looks as if it were made out of lemon hard candy. The thing to notice: you can see right through it, watching as those big telescope-like anterior median eyes sweep across their environment. This one is from Ecuador.



Calm down, arachnophobes

I couldn’t ask for a better poster spider for launch week. A fresh wave of worry about the brown recluse has just washed over the blogosphere, apparently because of a scary tale about a Texas woman bitten by a recluse who then posted lavishly gross pictures of her ailment online. This happened last year, not sure why it took so long to get about.

I’m going to write more about those reckless recluses. There are a lot of fascinating things about Loxosceles, some of them in the folkloric vein and some in the scientific (did you know the Binford Spider Lab in Portland, Oregon, focuses on the recluse and related species? All kinds of research coming out of there). But for today, I’ll point out with minimal comment how the words “brown recluse” trigger a most predictable response in humans, and I’m not talking about rotting flesh or horrible death. I’m talking about hyperventilation.

The Texas woman was bitten on the neck in one of the unusual cases where a spider (any spider) was actually caught in the act. Yes – most of the “spider bite” cases we hear about and read about involve a species (to be profiled later) I call Aranaeus invisibilis, the North American stealth spider, and no, I never learned Latin so please school me on a better name. A sore erupts; people blame a spider they never saw. I don’t trust news and blog reports of the Texas case far enough to know whether the spider was actually a recluse, though that is plausible, given their range. The original report suggests it was identified in the emergency room, which usually sets off some warning bells because few doctors can ID a spider on sight, and even when they’re mistaken their “spider bite” diagnosis is taken as holy writ. Loxoscelism is the actual term for a reaction to a recluse bite, but physicians chalking up a mystery sore to loxoscelism is like saying “I know it was a brown recluse because this is a brown recluse lesion.”

Penny for your thoughts?

But even if the Texas spider is provably a recluse, such necrotic bites are not common. No recluse bites are. Then there are dry bites (no venom), and non-symptomatic bites. And as for the spider being “deadly” … no. [Read all about it at the Burke Museum in Seattle, where Rod Crawford, curator of arachnids, takes on this myth.]

It’s laughably easy to post gory pictures on the Internet and say they came from a spider. People believe you immediately when you say it was a brown recluse, even if you acquired the wound hundreds of miles away from any recluse habitat. Even if it happened under circumstances (such as being in prison) that cry out for a more rational explanation, such as MRSA, or drug-resistant staph, which is far more dangerous than any spider. MRSA: now that’s an evil bug.

By the way, the Texas woman rapidly got better. The bloggers panting that the spider almost made her go blind – well, the bite caused one side of her face to swell up and close her eye for a while. There’s been nothing reported about any threat to her vision.

“Hyberbolic media crap!” pronounces the estimable spider expert Rick Vetter of UC Riverside, who’s talked himself hoarse trying to set the public straight on the recluse and other spiders. When such stories hit, reporters not too lazy to do a bit of research call up Vetter and get some bracing counter-quotes like this one. Everybody else just goes with the hysteria.

This story seems to have erupted in the Daily Mail in excitable Olde England, where spiders hardly ever get a break. It got an even bigger push when people dragged in a recent study suggesting that climate change is going to change the recluse’s distribution in the United States and then … radically misinterpreted that part, too! Shouts and alarums: the recluse is on the march! Coming to a gardening glove near you! When what the study said was that a warmish shift might … MIGHT … cause the recluse to spread north from its accustomed Midwest/Southeastern range but also to VANISH from parts of its existing range.

Oh. Where’s the fun in that? And the irony is that the public widely, devoutly believes that the brown recluse is already swarming across the country, biting coeds’ necks wherever it can find them. Heck, there’s that vampire slander again. That’s also cognitive dissonance, believing that 1. The recluse is spreading to new turf and 2. The spider is already everywhere in teeming masses. Just par for the course for Loxosceles reclusa.


Blame that spider!

Let’s start with a good round of blame. Blame the Internet! Blame ignorance! Blame visceral fears our species has been lugging around since we lived next door to the Flintstones! There, that felt good. I’m launching this blamefest because accurate information about spiders just doesn’t seem to get through, or to stick around, or to withstand its turbid journey through the online sloughs, and I’m sure there are reasons that don’t reflect badly on the hive mind but at the moment I can’t think of any.

Sure, spider information is better than it used to be. A decade ago, where were the smart arachnophiles swatting down myths and hysteria? Scarcer than a white black widow. Now you can find such smart people out there, patiently weaving their way through the intellectually toothless carnies in the midway called “Reader Comments.” There are scientists and wildlife experts, doctors, gardeners who like to know their microcosms and the inhabitants therein, and people just happy to see data driving out drivel. Still … it’s not an arachnophilic world. Dopey spider postings pop up every day. Like this one:


[A blogger dubbed “Reality Steve” dishes about an episode of “The Bachelor”]

Was given some inside information regarding the “extras” scene from this week. You know, the one where they showed Ben and Courtney on the temple and Terry the tarantula that they befriended. You see that thing crawling all up and down Courtney’s arm. Blech. I will have you know that my sources informed me the tarantula actually bit into Courtney pretty good and started sucking the blood right out of her, which immediately then had an ambulance on scene and things got messy with people being transported to the hospital. And it’s with a heavy heart that I have to be the one to break the news to everyone, but on the way to the hospital, Terry the tarantula passed away due to blood poisoning. He will be missed.


Zing! Actually pretty funny, you Reality Steve. I get it. Apparently Courtney Whoever occupies the coveted reality TV role of The Man-Eating Skank. But soon this gem was cross-posted on other entertainment sites by people who believed it. Yeah, the blood-sucking. Hospitalization. Death by poisoned blood.

How do I know? Reality Steve became Astounded Steve and said so:


As far as Terry the tarantula, now that caught me completely off guard. I’m shocked at how many people read that paragraph and thought I was serious that that tarantula sucked out Courtney’s blood then died from blood poisoning. I thought it was written so ridiculously and so sarcastically that people couldn’t possibly believe that was true. Guess I was wrong. People were emailing me cheering that they’d heard the tarantula bit her. Unreal.


A mixed bag, I guess. The foolish re-posters pulled down their ripped-off gossip, and Reality Steve sounds like he might have one foot in reality after all. The tarantula calumny vanished. But still, why did it jerk a knee? Who would have bit on that tale if it had been a dog bite or (much more plausible, given the sucking) a mosquito?

So that’s the thing. Harmless big spider gets accused of vampirism because it would if it could. Just like those black widows, lurking in grapes not because they got caught up in the harvest and kidnapped into a refrigerated shipping container and plopped into an English supermarket, but because they want to murder your children. Your fair British children. Not just malign intent, but malign fantasy powers—none of it plausible, but spiders are the creatures from whom everyone expects the worst. That’s one myth. Let’s bust it up.



Posted by on March 14, 2012 in Myths and Calumnies, Netlore, Tarantulas