Monthly Archives: October 2013

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.


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.




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)

Leave a comment

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