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Category Archives: Envenomation

Day of the Deadly Daddies

Hey, Cellar Spiders: I’m in Your Corner

I’ve figured out the problem with Quora, and maybe other Q&A sites. You can thank me later. The problem is Siri. And Alexa, and the Google Lady. Especially the Google Lady, because she’s so smart and so prompt, and I think she’s the best example of that “bray your question into the air and I will answer” phenomenon we’re all being sold.

So, the problem: people don’t read other people. In the dim days when the Internet was fresh and friendly, it was promoted as a place where knowledge accumulated, like a library. And like a library, it required that the initiate search for answers. It was a lot faster than a card catalog and a scuffed trestle table somewhere, but it still required an awareness that your question had been asked before—and likely answered.

You’ve seen it: the question posed on Facebook or Quora, and answered well or semi-well. And then someone new drops a post as if the first were invisible. Then that one is patiently fielded, and a link provided. Then more and more people stumble in, each one reacting only to the initial post and oblivious to the new ones. Or they start feeble side arguments. The informed posters keep offering the same answer, and get frustrated. In the end, only a couple of people get the news, while everybody else is just bottled up in some kind of Brownian motion of cluelessness: still asking, still reacting, shouting “Photoshopped!” even if they don’t know Adobe from a doobie, or “Fake news!” or “Trump!” as the bump into each other’s random views.

That brings me to spiders. There are spider-smart people out there, and smart curious people. Then there are the fools who feed the British tabloids, and the vast groups of people who sustain the most ridiculous myths about spiders, and the less ridiculous ones, and the whole silly corner of the online multiverse is sustained by one fact: people just won’t read the comments.

How many years will people ask “are daddy-long-legs spiders really deadly? But their fangs are too short to bite people?” I enjoy writing about the daddies, I really do. But the truth is out there. If folks took the time for a smidgen of research—just a couple of clicks, all I ask—we’d have time to tackle deeper or more mysterious things.

Here’s how I responded to this old chestnut on Quora just the other day. At least the questioner turned it into a “why” question. Like a lot of the better Quora questions, a little twist on the premise keeps it from being just a lazy schoolchild’s attempt to collect homework fodder. And I bet I’m ahead of the Google Lady this time. “Alexa: pat me on the back.”


“Alexa: Is it true this spider wouldn’t hurt a fly?” “No, it would definitely hurt a fly. But not you.”

Q. Why do so many people firmly believe a daddy long leg spider is very venomous?

A. Because the “deadly daddy” myth harmonizes so well with how urban legends are usually born. It’s . . .

Pleasantly counterintuitive: the stickiest urban legends always have an element of “wow—I didn’t know that!” You’ll never be able to launch an urban legend that rabid dogs are dangerous, or that Mister Rogers liked peanut butter. But if you can concoct a tall tale about how rabid dogs were responsible for the breeding off the Goldendoodle, or Fred Rogers is a former military sniper and current Satanist, you have an audience. People enjoy having their ears tickled.

In this case, the sweet counterintuitive fact is that daddy long-legs spiders (Pholcidae) are weak, spindly, shivery little things you could blow away with a gentle breath. So to learn that they’re actually military snipers, uh, deadly creatures, packs a powerful “Wow! Who knew?” That supercharges the legend.

Told to you by a friend: Think about all the times a vague, wacky story has come your way. Likely it was from a friend, relative, agreeable stranger, or favorite celeb. Jan Harold Brunvand, the godfather of the urban legend research, dubbed this the “FOAF” phenomenon: friend of a friend. The person telling the tall tale rarely claims to be the person it happened to; no, it was always “my girlfriend’s uncle,” or “my dad’s Army buddy,” or “a TV comedian recalling something he was told.” Removing the origin of the myth from the hearing of it insulates it from fact-checking. And since the original source is often unknown or forgotten or even dead, it makes debunking the tall tale impossible.

Whoever told you the daddy was deadly was likely a school chum, an acquaintance, or somebody who spends too much time on the Internet and too little time at the library. Maybe it was your mom, trying to get you to stop torturing poor helpless arachnids. Whoever it was, it was somebody you trusted—often for no good reason.

Ever-so-slightly plausible: Daddy long-legs spiders are venomous . . . but so are all other spiders, except for a few small groups. They do have little fangs (again, like all other spiders). Conceivably they could bite someone; after all, they bite bugs all the time. They might even kill a black widow now and then, and since widows are genuinely potentially harmful to people, doesn’t that mean that the cellar spider is actually even MORE of a boss?

A dash of cold water: the only investigation I’ve ever seen into the deadly daddies was on “Mythbusters,” in which Energizer-bunny Adam Savage burned up multiple screen minutes trying to get a box full of pholcids to bite him. In the end, he claimed that one had, yet all he got was a tiny red spot. But since he’s a ginger, I was never convinced he wasn’t just calling out a freckle.

And . . .

Spiders always have it hard. Most of what you know about spiders is wrong to begin with, so this libel against the frail and harmless pholcid is par for the course. Our parents or grandparents used to tell wild tales about the “deadly spider in the beehive hairdo” that killed girls of the “American Bandstand” generation. And during the Southwest decoration trend of a few decades ago, we all heard creepy tales of the “erupting cactus”: a plant brought in from the desert that started shaking and suddenly disgorging thousands of deadly baby tarantulas! And who could forget the breathless childhood stories about spider eggs in BubbleYum? Aaack! All lies, of course. But so thrilling.

Today, we pass around grisly pictures of open sores that are supposedly caused by brown recluse spiders, wounds that erupt thousands of miles from where any brown recluses actually live. Crypto-crazies head off to the wilds of Africa even now to hunt for mythical mystery spiders the size of golf carts. And panicky British schoolmarms shut down entire schools out of fear that a harmless invasive spider, the false widow, is going to run amok, snatching apple-cheeked pupils like something out of Harry Potter.

Face it, spiders are the go-to creature if you’re going to tell colorful lies. And the daddy long-legs spider is everywhere, just minding its business (and yes, making a bit of a mess), and always ready for its closeup.

 

There Once Was a Spider, Begorra . . .

. . . that set off a new tale of horror

The terrified folk

Couldn’t take a wee joke

When their grocer left fauna on flora

 

Why the limerick? You’ll soon see.

Tesco, which has this tasty recipe on its website, is obviously into spider cuisine. (Tesco Realfood photo)

Well, no wonder Tesco food is crawling with spiders. Here’s a recipe from Tesco’s website. They’re obviously into spider cuisine. (Tesco Realfood photo)

Tip o’ the hat to the supermarket chain Tesco, which calmly handled a customer’s complaint of finding a spider egg sac on a banana, and then actually identified the spider as harmless. This, as any news junkie knows, never happens. The untrained banana-buyer’s warrantless identification of the egg sac as belonging to “the world’s deadliest spider” is brayed far and wide by the media. Then the story, like the spider, dies. We never find out what happened when moonsuited pest techs descend on the humble cottage with their flamethrowers and collect the banana or the egg sac or more rarely an actual spider—all of which are bruised and mushy, like the story itself.

In the latest case, in Limerick, Ireland, the family, not knowing quite how to react, actually baked the banana and its egg sac in the oven for an hour and a half at 250 degrees (see photo). That is one goth recipe for bananas foster.

Is it done yet? Kitchen tip: next Halloween pop the egg sac into the microwave and the spiders will be RADIOACTIVE! (Limerick Post photo)

Is it done yet? Kitchen tip: next Halloween pop the egg sac into the microwave and the spiders will be RADIOACTIVE! (Limerick Post photo)

I’m half frustrated by this story, still, because the Irish media stopped at conveying Tesco’s reassurance that it was all about “a harmless spider.” That’s definitely the phrase to highlight if you’re serving the public. But inquiring minds also want to know . . . which harmless spider?

The banana-spider scare is a perennial: one of the few ways spiders regularly make the news. (Another is the neverending saga of the Invisible Spider, a baddie not-seen on every continent, which gets blamed for every nip and sore regardless of whether the victim is a prisoner, an athlete, or a hardcore, liver-abusing rock god.) You wouldn’t know it from the tabloids, but spider scientists have been devoting attention to the banana story, too, from both a pest-control and a research perspective.

Not every wandering spider in South and Central America is the same. There are species of medical concern (most notoriously Phoneutria, of which several species are of minimal concern and one of greater) and several others that are indeed harmless.

Now, harmless doesn’t always mean small and cute, like that dancing jumping spider with the rainbow afro that you saw on Facebook—the one its discoverer nicknamed “Sparklemuffin.” (Call off the unicorns, please. Sure, jumping spiders are literally tiny kittens, but let’s not get carried away.)

Harmless might mean big and fast, like the tropical spider Cupiennius. Or big and fast like huntsman species, which live all around the world and like to skitter about walls and ceilings and doorways.

(I learned something fun about Heteropoda (huntsman spiders) in Australia. They do bite. That’s not the fun part. Someone carried out a thorough study of when people in Oz are actually bitten by spiders, and the number one circumstance for the huntsman was “when catching the spider.” I come from a family of five brothers, I savor knuckle-headedness.)

All of the above (not Sparklemuffin) will occasionally show up as “banana spiders.” Studies like this indicate that the harmless or less-harmful species are the ones most likely to pop up in British (and now Irish) fruit bowls. The Vetter paper I just cited suggests that’s because Phoneutria fera, the one whose bite is most troublesome, lives far from the banana-growing regions that export the fruit to Europe and North America. Concerned mums and dads shouldn’t be so quick to panic.

And it’s worth repeating: when all one sees is an egg sac, there’s no risk whatsoever. The wee ones, even if they hatch, won’t survive that far from home and they can’t bite anyone.

There’s another spider amidst the fruit salad: the black widow. It’s grapes the widow hides in, not bananas. She’s in there to catch insects and gets accidentally caught in the harvest. Despite the well-known toxicity of their venom, I don’t know of any case in which a black widow lurking in a bunch of grapes ever injured anyone. (Do you? Tell me.) Unlike wandering spiders, which are fast, black widows are slow and clumsy; you’d have to stick your finger right into one’s face or web to be bitten, and even then she’d be desperately trying to escape.

Some people think there have been more spider sightings in fruit in recent years because of reduced pesticide use. I don’t know if either of those things is true. If anything, you’d think grocery stores’ fumigation would be getting even better at keeping out critters. And even organic bananas are subjected to some pesticides.

The number of spider reports? Naw, they’ve always been out there. But now that we can all share a shriek with folks as far afield as Limerick or London, the tales (rhyming or not) have a better chance of racing round the world. As they do.

Miss Tuffet, er, Pottle, took her spider and fruit back to Sainsbury's, which gave her a gift card and a spot of reassurance: her spider was not only dead, it was harmless. She doesn't look reassured. (Bournemouth Echo photo)

Last November, Miss Tuffet, er, Pottle, took her spider and fruit back to Sainsbury’s, which gave her a gift card and a spot of reassurance: her spider was not only dead, it was harmless. She doesn’t look reassured. (Bournemouth Echo photo)

 

 
 

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”?


 

 

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.

 

Justice for the Brown Recluse?

Don’t Fear the Creeper

Great news—a scientist and a doctor are teaming up to develop a test to detect brown-recluse venom.

Why is this a big deal? If you’re a fan of facts, you’ll know. The brown recluse spider (Loxosceles reclusa) has a mythical persona far bigger and more menacing than the arachnid itself. It’s the go-to spider when people suffer a skin insult and need to blame a bug. It doesn’t matter if the recluse didn’t do the deed—or even if the recluse doesn’t live in the same state as the invisible biter—this particular spider gets the rap.

At least until you admit your guitar player died of something a little sadder, like liver failure.

Lately the fact-finders of the spider world are getting a little traction, at last, for the idea that “spider bite” is a weak diagnosis for mystery lesions. People are gradually letting it sink in that staph, lice, ticks, ants, mosquitoes, even diabetes can cause medically significant skin problems, too.

Still, the Invisible Spider stalks the internet in every bloggy tale of a gardener with a red bump that oozed and ached and required serious frowns from every doctor in the county. I’ll leave it to the folklorists and anthropologists and psychologists to explain why we have this instinct to blame spiders for every affront. Perhaps, in the immortal words of Oingo Boingo, “they’ve got too many legs.”

Once bitten, not shy: the tarantella gave thousands of costumed European folk an excuse to go footloose and defy social convention. (From "Stomp: A History of Disco and Invertebrates")

Once bitten, not shy: the tarantella gave thousands of colorfully garbed barefoot Europeans an excuse to go footloose and defy social convention. (From “Stomp: A History of Disco and Invertebrates”)

. . . Except for the tarantella dance—anybody can see why dancing deliriously and merrily groping your fellow rustics would be a big hit. Yes, officer, the spider made me twerk.

That’s why an actual medical test for a brown recluse bite could be such a big leap. First for the patient—since spider bite diagnosis is so scattershot, so are the treatments. Are antibiotics required? Steroids? Excision? Just clean the wound and rest? Why is my “spider bite” showing evidence of MRSA or other infection—is that somehow conveyed by a spider? The above-mentioned article from Wayne County, Missouri, a place where brown recluses actually do reside, quotes the test’s co-developer as saying he knew of a child being unsuccessfully treated for brown-recluse bite when in fact she had a life-threatening infection. She died.

A venom test could clear the way to standardized, effective treatment and diminished threat to public health. Doctors can be dummkopfs, too:

A study published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine in 2007 found that South Carolina doctors diagnosed 738 brown recluse spider bites in 2004. However, since 1953 only 44 brown recluse specimens have been verified from six South Carolina counties.

But I’m also hoping the venom test will strike a blow for fact appreciation. It’s not good to walk around sweating bullets about non-threats. Not just spiders. If we can train ourselves to pay attention to careful science and swat away ignorant loudmouths, we can play a better hand in reality-based life. We’ll stop recoiling from spiders or vaccines or Happy Meals toys.


 

 

Meet the spider: Latrodectus geometricus

How the West was widowed

Who says there’s nothing new under the sun? It’s certainly not true in sunny Southern California, land of novelty. Recently there was a modest flurry of news activity about the brown widow (Latrodectus geometricus), and the inroads this species has made in the Southland. Good science here, not rumor or Netlore, thanks to the work of the tireless Rick Vetter, recently retired UC-Riverside arachnologist, who has led brown widow surveys for some years and is the go-to guy for quotes about this critter.

What happens when the brown menace bites? “Mostly, nothing happens,” he tells the Los Angeles Times.

Seriously? Not even at Halloween?

The brown widow (not to be confused with the brown recluse, which is not native to California, at least the reality-based parts of our fair state) seems to have come out of nowhere. Black widows we’ve always had in abundance. The bulbous ladies of the night have long monopolized the venomous-beastie role all over the state and the West (it’s right there in the name, Latrodectus hesperus). In fact, black widows hiding in table grapes are estimated to be our No. 2 export, right behind Realtors.

Now the brown widows appear to be taking over black-widow turf. And so brazen! Black widows are secretive, hunkering down in woodpiles and crevices and pipes and other sheltered spots. Brown widows, on the other hand, will merrily set up shop under patio furniture, playground swings, the rim of potted plants. Black widows are literally yielding the field.

The new widow in town is brown.

Here’s a photo—long in detail but short of focus—of a brown widow awaiting a meal in a Santa Ana backyard. It’s interesting to observe that classic widow profile and posture but on a spider of a different color. Mature brown widows wear a handsome khaki base color overlain with swirling pale designs on their upper abdomens. Their legs are banded and their hourglass badge is closer in color to a safety-orange than to the expected throbbing red. Even an amateur can identify one telltale sign of their presence: a milky-white egg sac shaped not like a cotton puff but like those round, spiky Japanese candies. They also look like the studded floating mines in an old submarine movie.

This night of the photo was a veritable widow convention: dozens of them lurking and dangling amid paving stones, the walls of raised beds, a chain-link fence, and the leaves of the household tomato garden. And not a single L. hesperus to be seen.

The geometric widow made a dandy news story, for several reasons. One, any spidery story sets a reporter’s heart a-thumping. And a spider actually venomous—twice good. But thrice was an angle you never see in ordinary coverage: the brown widow represented a decrease in perceived spider danger. How so? Again, it’s the venom: apparently the brown widow’s juice is less bad than the black widow’s. Or the spider injects less poison. Or it’s even less willing to bite than L. hesperus, which is saying something. So the news coverage had this wacky drama/comedy two-facedness, wherein reporters had to announce that this spooky new spider was spreading throughout SoCal while pointing out that it was giving black-hatted L. hesperus the boot.

Huh. Balance.

Well, I won’t let down my guard, not yet. Now that the brown widow has made the nightly news, balance or not, it’s time for half-heard information about its arrival to be distorted and waved around. There Will Be Bites—not necessarily real bites, but more of those unwitnessed, fantastic lesions blamed on the growing corps of Invisible Spiders, now with an L. geometricus battalion. People of a certain bent will stop blaming brown recluses or hobo spiders once their kids discover Snopes and tell them to stop being silly, but they’ll shift their panic over to the brown widow. Just watch.

 

 
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Posted by on October 26, 2012 in Envenomation, Latrodectus (widows), Netlore

 

Hot town, spiders in the city

Back of my porch getting dirty and gritty

You certainly haven’t seen this book. What fun for a reviewer! No need to outshout the bloggers and Amazon reviewers and all the other avid readers with too much time on their hands. No fear of spoilers, either. You already know how it comes out: the spiders defeat Voldemort.

The widow, the recluse, daddy long-legs … that’s life in the big city. Kinda like Sesame Street, only behind Oscar’s trash can and underneath Big Bird’s nest. But it’s home.

The pest-control industry seems to be putting a welcome emphasis on science, not a theme always in evidence when you read spider tales – often from out-of-the-way places – quoting pest assassins who have only a slender grasp on spider identification or envenomation.The book is published by Pest Control Technology, a magazine I do not see on the newsracks. PCT is also part of a company that offers products, training, and news that I assume is eagerly consumed by the pest-control industry. (It’s not too late to attend the pestworld2012 experience in October! Come to Boston for the beans, stay for the bugs. Seriously, I want to attend that conference’s brand-new Pest Academy. A certified pest as a child, I crave further recognition.)

Now the book: handsomely illustrated, with many color plates and B&W photos, and carefully laid out to make identifying common spiders almost effortless. Because it’s meant for pest-control people, it ends each chapter with information about how to get rid of spiders. I’m kind of OK with that, even for the harmless ones. Why? Partly because the authors have done such a good job of deflating fears of venomous lesions and other bugaboos, and partly because they coach the pest professionals on simple, non-genocidal methods of spider removal.

Typical of the tone in a chapter on small weaving spiders: “These spiders are far too small to cause any medical damage whatsoever.” What more needs to be said?

The pest controller is advised that the weaving spiders do make unsightly webs, which create scuzz around porch lights and eaves. Fair enough. So knock them down with a broom, the book says, install sealing and weatherstripping, switch to yellow light bulbs to discourage the bugs the spiders eat, and slap on the pesticide if you must. The chemical part comes at the very end, with the obvious implication that if you scrub up the outside of your house like the stereotypical Dutch housewife you probably won’t need to spray anything at all.

Meanwhile, there are tips about identifying the spider, including body form, coloration, and eye pattern. And further discouraging any rampant poisoning (at least to my sympathetic eye), the authors include tidbits about behavior:

The flatmesh weavers run quickly and randomly as if they have no idea where they are going. However, if they run into an ant, they immediately switch from frantic, unorganized movement to running tight circles around the ant, laying down silk and tying the ant to the ground. Sometimes, they reverse direction and make circles the other way to ensure the ant doesn’t escape.

Aw. It’s hard to take a flamethrower to a spider after you read a vignette like that. Just a dizzy little animal – no idea where it’s going – doing its Lucille Ball thing and it bumps into an ant, so it goes all dust devil on it while the ant goes Wot th’? and then it ties it up with its fuzzy cribellate silk (“like skeins of yarn from a craft store,” add the authors) and it’s one less annoying Hymenopertid at your picnic. Ha, get out of town, you little maniac – and take your egg sacs with you. Pesticide all over my house? I don’t think so.

Rereading the book I notice that the pest control advice, though useful and refreshingly calm, isn’t the best part. It’s the information about identification, morphology, and medical risks. This little handbook is a veritable short course in spider biology. And a great refutation of myths, especially about the purported dangers caused by spiders. I give it four spinnerets up (there doesn’t appear to be a WordPress icon for that). Buy a curious child a copy and maybe you’ll foster a memorable book report or science-fair project.

 

 

Swatting down the angry spiders of Assam

Three and even more cheers for the level-headed journalists of India! who took that crazy spider story in Assam and dragged it into the cold light of day. You might have read those tales about big, huge, ENORMOUS dark-colored spiders being spotted in large numbers where they hadn’t before. Biting people, disrespecting cultural festivals, sending a few people to an early grave. First stories indicated they were giant (photos indicate otherwise) or called them “tarantulas” (again, photos are unclear), and cooked up a stew of overreaction seasoned with muddy facts.

No U.S. news outlets parachuted into the spider zone, so who knows what the arachnids would have done when confronted by Anderson Cooper and his accusing baby blues. So all we heard at first from this remove were tales from an echo chamber. Given the way these stories usually play out, how delightful to see how aggressively the Indian media smacked down the misinformation:

No evidence of spider swarms. Two people who died were swiftly cremated and evidence indicates one was bitten by a snake, and the other might have had an adverse reaction to the folk treatment inflicted on him. Arachnologists identified the supposed baddy as a common enough spider, not medically significant. The government even handed out pamphlets urging people not to panic, and pointing out that any “aggressiveness” on the spiders’ part was probably due to their being more noticeable at breeding time while on their nuptial stroll. A handful of people reliably reported as suffering spider bites (“I picked it up,” one admitted to the camera) were simply treated and released.

I liked the coverage on one website dedicated to covering “the marginalized areas of India.” TwoCircles.net pointed out that frightened people were killing spiders on sight, which was likely to harm the ecosystem. That’s a germane point your average breathless rumormonger rarely makes. Wipe out spiders and you’ll give free rein to crop pests, malaria-carrying mosquitoes, and who knows what other invertebrates and nasties.

(That site wants to be a “voice of sanity” for regions where good reporting is hard to find. Not perfectly objective or comprehensive, but a source of reliable information for intelligent decision-making. Wow. Missed the Web 2.0 version of online news in a big way, didn’t they?)

The India spider panic began more than a month ago, and I’d call it a Rorschach test for spider phobia if the term “Rorschach test for . . .” weren’t so overused and abused. (Same with “tabula rasa.”) Let’s just call it a great example of how spider fear can amplify and twist stories, and keep skepticism at arm’s length because when you’re talking about spiders, of course they’d do exactly that, wouldn’t they? The Times of India, which unlike its compatriots did not acquit itself well, even used the phrase “eight-legged freaks.”

And, oh god. One guy thinks spider swarms mean Gaia is fighting back. A blogger on NPR confidently asserted: “Assram state doesn’t have any poisonous spiders.” Uh, Assram? No venomous spiders? What do the spiders of Assam inject, Sunny Delight?

The crack news team at the Long Island Press illustrated their story with a picture of a fake spider from the “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” movie. Note to crack news team: spiders don’t scowl.

Meanwhile, HuffPo thinks there are vampire spiders.

Mamma mia, if it's-a not-a one-a stereotype, it's another! Whattaya gonna do.(Lycosa tarantula photo © J. Coelho, Creative Commons)

Spider hysteria has been kind of quiet lately. The Assam story echoes the folk fears that inspired the tarantella, the dance craze based on the belief that one had to boogie down and shimmy out the venom of the field spider that inspired the word “tarantula” (the spiders of Taranto, Italy, were probably not tarantulas but wolf spiders). I bet the tarantella has launched a thousand dissertations about medicine, mental health, and bacchanalian behavior. I only note that a spider—not an ant, not a bee, not a beetle, not even a rabid dog—kindled such a strange belief. Ancient or medieval or modern, people are always quick to tremble over the small dangers presented by spiders, even when they should be worrying about the large dangers of MRSA or viruses or much bigger animals with much bigger teeth. Or, if you live in Assam, cobras.

Also I think of those cohorts of schoolkids (typically girls) who develop strange speech patterns or tics or bruises en masse, blaming a purported toxic dump or a funny smell or a locally defamed creepy animal, only to miraculously recover. Watch for a fifth-grade class somewhere to be pursued by an army of recluses with a sudden appetite for ankles. And squeeeee! . . . off they go.

The Assam spiders surely were there all along, minding their own business in the woods and fields, until somebody trod on a few burrows or tipped over the wrong hollow log. Poke ’em with a stick and they display “aggressive behavior” toward the huge mammal that can crush out their life. Wouldn’t you?