RSS

Category Archives: Myths and Calumnies

Do Spiders Love the Smell of Gasoline in the Morning?

Drive Me to the Corner of Myth and Spider—And Step on It

First, I present another great book about how obvious explanations are wrong, and sometimes aren’t even explanations at all. That description of Everything Is Obvious (Once You Know the Answer) doesn’t do it justice; it’s a really rich read. But that’s enough to get us going on today’s spider story.

Car spider Halloween

Not a Suzuki, not a real spider, but a real contender for scariest occupant of the car pool lane.

The Suzuki Kizashi, a nice sedan no longer sold in the USA, is the latest car to fall victim to the yellow sac spider (Cheiracanthium sp.) and its habit of building silken retreats and egg sacs in small spaces. Previous news stories have involved Mazdas and Toyotas. The sac spider gets inside hoses and weaves a web that clogs vents and drains in the pollution-control and air-conditioning systems, so the car has to be recalled and fixed.

The auto press loves these stories, and the spider-phobic public runs amok. You see, clogging a fuel-tank venting system could lead to cracks in the tank and leaks and fires and DEATH! A plugged AC vent isn’t quite as dramatic, but an obstruction in that line causes condensation to build up and possibly overflow into the car’s interior, perhaps on your new shoes or, worse, your car’s electronics. This happens to my truck and is the reason it smells swampy (though I don’t know whether to blame spiders or messy trees). Toyota recalled 870,000 cars out of concern that shorted-out airbags might deploy without warning.

There’s already a lively literature of fear involving cars and spiders, and this adds another layer. I don’t think anybody’s gone nuts over the dangers to your car posed by bunnies, but given a slow enough news day, that could happen, why not.

But you see? It’s spiders that reliably make some people stupid. The ever-present meme accompanying these car stories is “a certain spider loves the smell of gasoline.”

Think about that. All the times you’ve been filling your tank, or peering into the fuel hole, or gassing up the mower . . . remember those times when legions of spiders would come racing toward you, jostling to get inside that chamber full of intensely poisonous refined petroleum product?

Me neither. That’s because spiders aren’t attracted to the smell of gasoline. Or, in the spirit of skeptical reasoning, I’ll do radio announcer voice and say “there is no evidence that spiders are attracted to gas fumes.” And it’s not just me: read what actual arachnologists say about this myth, not car journalists or ordinary spider haters. Also here.

Long-legged Sac Spider - Cheiracanthium inclusum ♂

On the prowl: Cheiracanthium inclusum. Rolled-up leaves make a great spider retreat, but apparently not as good as your car’s emission-control system. (© Cletus Lee, Creative Commons)

 

The spider in question, which lives all around the world, is both commonly seen and a bit secretive. It’s an active hunter, meaning it doesn’t weave trap webs. So it walks around at night looking for things to eat and, if it’s a male and the time is right, for potential mates. By day it builds a retreat, which looks like a full-length spider sleeping bag. Look close and you can see the spider tucked in there. You notice these retreats in crevices, sometimes where wall meets ceiling, and in tight spaces where the spider feels safe by day. Females also build sacs for their eggs. The silk can be surprisingly strong and papery, making a tearing sound when you pull on it. It could easily clog some small, crucial vent.

The Cheiracanthium I encounter (there are two common species) is a pale yellow, spindly creature with dark feet, likely to be found outdoors as well as indoors. In the yard its usual domain is shrubbery: the lemon tree, leaves, grapevines.

Statewide, this spider is very common in vineyards, and as such occasionally shows up in packages of table grapes. Scientists who study its role in vineyards say that it’s both a nuisance (annoying pickers, leaving bits of web around) and a helper, in that it eats bugs that damage the grapes.

You know, there’s quite a spidery cast of characters in those California vineyards. If we’re faithful to the “attracted to gasoline” mythology, we must conclude they’re all a bunch of winos.

Anybody who’s worked on a car has seen cobwebs inside taillight housings, nooks and crannies in the chassis, and—yes—behind the gas flap. But that doesn’t mean you’re hosting invertebrates with a fetish for taillights, undercarriages, or gasoline. It means the spiders are hiding. And your car, with all its secret spaces, hoses, doors and whatnot, is a wonderland for a small creature that needs to lie low by day.

After all, it needs a good day’s rest if it’s going to pop out while you’re on the freeway and provoke a good crash.

The one true thing about Cheiracanthium is that it’s been implicated in a fair number of bites, though (again with the mythology) they’re medically minor, if annoying. I’ll get to that another day.

The mythology of what spiders are and do is so wonderfully florid. They like huffing gasoline! They chase parked cars (they even prefer certain models), where they lie in wait instead of lurking, well, everywhere around you. They even drive Justin Bieber to make further unwise decisions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kill a Spider, Write a Blog

Sorry Writers Say They’re Sorry — But Not Very

Today’s critique of the “I’m so wussy about spiders” bloggers:

It’s a mixed bag. A multimedia reporter in Visalia takes a weird excursion into his childhood, when he apparently thought black-widow spiders were made up by Disney. Then as a college student he finds a spider in his soda can, probably not a black widow but certainly dead. It was a Cactus Cooler—what do you expect? Was ever a pop more insecticidal? Then as an adult he finds a spider in his bath water and has a full-on Huck Finn moral crisis as he decides whether to kill it or turn into a nasty ol’ abolitionist and go to hell for saving it. He decides to kill it (blaming his wife’s potential reaction . . .  interesting) and then announces he is a man.

That might be a stretch.

I almost kind of wanted to like this column, in which a spider-hating woman writes a businesslike memo to the spider she’s about to slaughter. The interesting part to me is how it reiterates this recurring idea of a “contract.” Lots of anxious bloggers proclaim their tolerance of spiders who know their place: in the yard, OK; in the sink, no; in the upper corner of the window, no objection; ambling along the baby blanket, no way.

Contracts are a specific thing, though. It takes two parties to make one. You gotta wonder about these fantasy-prone writers who think they’re drawing up legal documents with an arachnid. More likely they’re making deals with themselves, or with God.

Seriously. Even maximum arachnophobes seem to feel guilty about killing a small living thing without provocation.

Apparently this sight  casts terror into the hearts of creatures that outweigh the spider a few thousand times over AND have control of the faucet.

Apparently this sight casts terror into the hearts of creatures that outweigh the spider a few thousand times over AND have control of the faucet.

So instead they build this mental scaffolding that absolves them of the killing if they have a good reason, such as a violated contract.

When I’m reborn as a college student I’m going to create an interdisciplinary major in tort law and arachnology. Instead of pro bono I’ll work pro hobo.

Wait till the bloggers get hold of this! A new study reports that a certain kind of orb weaver, Nephila plumipes, gets plumper and presumably more fertile in urban Sydney than it does in the countryside. There’s more to eat (especially around streetlights and other illumination), fewer parasites, and more warmth. But to a blogger all that says is BIG SPIDERS GET BIGGER, REFUSE TO SIGN CONTRACT TO STAY OUT OF MY SINK. Watch for it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Burning Question about Spiders

Never Bitten, Quite Shy—Why Are People Arachnophobic?

A few more people have torched their houses in pursuit of a spider. First this guy in Seattle used a can of spray paint and a lighter. Then another man, this time in Wales, tried the same thing. A woman in Kansas, not to be outdone, scattered burning towels—burning towels—all round the place in her attempts at arachnicide. (She, at least, was arrested on suspicion of arson because the other half of her duplex was occupied. Not by spiders—by people.)

I don’t know what causes people to be terrified of spiders, and I don’t think anybody else does either. Not yet. Look into arachnophobia research (there’s a lot) and it runs the gamut from plausible to puzzling.

What’s also puzzling is how rarely people acknowledge that arachnophobia is not just irrational but also seriously dangerous. Not just for firebugs (see above). For people who let go of the steering wheel when a spider strolls across the dashboard (and who then endanger other drivers’ lives too). For people whose flailing, crippling anxiety makes them climb out of windows. Or swing baseball bats in the house, slam their fists into drywall, shriek and panic in public places.

Some forms of therapy are said to work. And there’s a carnival of potential explanations for the fear’s origin. You should know that . . .

1. Entomologists (scientists who study insects) are sometimes arachnophobic themselves. Shouldn’t they know better? Answer: sometimes they do, and sometimes they’re just maggot-lovers.

Great book! I intend to review it soon. Suffice it to say you'll never look at a lubber grasshopper the same way again. Or maybe a spider. This book is a great short introduction to insect- and spider-fear. Bonus: none of the photos will make you scream or even say ick.

Great book! I intend to review it soon. Suffice it to say you’ll never look at a lubber grasshopper the same way again. Or maybe a spider. This book is a great short introduction to insect- and spider-fear. Bonus: none of the photos will make you scream or even say ick.

2. Some researchers say arachnophobia happens because people find spiders disgusting. Disgust is triggered by the dread of contamination: dirt, disease, putrescence, feces, etc. But that’s no answer at all. Why would phobics think spiders are disgusting? They don’t cause disease, are no dirtier than most other animals, and have nothing to do with rot and excrement.

3. Other researchers think it’s because the potential for spider fear is evolutionarily handy. As in, if you’re primed to acquire arachnophobia, it will protect you against spider-like threats to your existence. Again, though . . . why? What threats are those? Spiders are overwhelmingly benign in human existence, and what evidence is there that things were ever otherwise? If you’re primed to be terrified of heights, that’s smart! Falling from a great height kills you. But arachnophobia is by and large a burden, not a tool. Given the hysterical reactions people have to spiders, arachnophobia makes you worse off in daily life, not better.

4. There’s that thing called “otherness.” Too many eyes, too many legs, too hairy, they skitter. Yeah, maybe.

5. People don’t like sudden movements. Spiders move unpredictably and pop up where you don’t expect them. Many prowl around and are suddenly just there. Some move super fast as they dive for cover inside your home. So they startle you and they’re weird and you don’t know where they went.

6. Spiders bite. But bees, wasps, hornets, ants, and flies also bite or sting, and all of them are much, much more likely to bump into people. Besides, most spiders don’t bite. If you were asleep and didn’t see what caused your itchy bump, you can’t blame a spider.

7. This part is actually true: women are far more prone to fear of spiders than men are. It’s still no excuse for a thousand blogs squealing about how the author had to round up a manly man to squish a spider in the tub—that’s just lazy. Why doesn’t anybody question the sexist undercurrent: that ours is a world of dainty, timid gals and spider-dismembering strongmen? C’mon, cavewomen. I bet your genes could tell a much more interesting tale.

The roots of arachnophobia could be buried a long time yet, but meantime let’s point out a couple of things. One, you can get over a fear of spiders. Lots of people have. I was never actually afraid of spiders, but I used to carry around the usual vague dread about them, mostly fear of being bitten. Gardeners know what happens next; they have this kind of revelation all the time: once they fit themselves more calmly into the web of life, they start to salute its other inhabitants and stop fearing them. Maybe people should just spend more time outdoors, turning stuff over.

Also: people with debilitating arachnophobia should get help. We feel tickled and smug to read about some doofus burning down his laundry room to kill a spider (stories like that are also cheap clickbait for sham news sites or plagiarizing bloggers). Or freaking out on camera when spotting a spider, or (oh my, this happens a lot) crashing the car when a spider appears. But I don’t want those people on the roads, or working around machinery or open flames or my kids, and I bet you don’t either. I also don’t want them to suffer.

I read an interesting theory about love for animals, a love that arrived rather recently among our species. People acknowledge that animals feel pain, have their own interests, and possess at least a qualified right to live. This didn’t used to be. It’s among the things that make modern people modern. It’s also, according to one school of thought, something humans actually need in order to be humane toward each other.

I have no idea if biophilia holds water or if it’s just an excuse for philosophers to mud-wrestle. But I do know that once you give spiritual space to your first unlovely living creature, be it a mutt or a yard possum or a baby, compassion only grows.

 
Comments

Posted by on August 11, 2014 in Myths and Calumnies, Spider science

 

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.

 

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.

 

<3 Bugs, h8 Spiders

Warning: big old spider picture BOO!

Rick Vetter, the quotable spider guy who keeps tabs on the brown widows (spreading) and brown recluses (nonexistent) of Southern California, has a fun article in American Entomologist. The topic sounds as if it was born from a lifetime of forehead-slapping: why are there spider-hating entomologists? An entomologist studies insects, and I know spiders aren’t insects. Still, you’d think professional courtesy at the very least would cause entomologists not to indulge in any of the hyperventilating, car-wrecking, weapons-fetching behavior you see on the Internet when some schmo encounters a spider.

Like the lady in this picture at right. Ooo, sour face.

Shelly Albrow's 15 minutes of fame: she saw a harmless spider. It was ON THE FLOOR.

Shelly Albrow’s 15 minutes of fame: she saw a harmless spider. It was ON THE FLOOR. #ohthehumanity

The British press rose to the occasion in gaudiest fashion by relaying her encounter with the Beast of Orpington (I made that up), “a deadly spider.” You know the drill. Somebody freaks out about Steatoda nobilis, an insignificant spider that’s somehow been dubbed Britain’s Most Venomous. But cor and blimey, just look at this photo and consult with Dr. Internet: if this is a Steatoda nobilis, I’m Tobey Maguire. And I’m not.

The Beast of Orpington.

The Beast of Orpington.

This (left) is a picture Ms. Albrow took of the monster, a harmless grass spider most likely, but let’s frighten a few more Brits and call it maybe a wolf spider! (owOOOoooooooo)

Anyway, Vetter found a number of entomologist colleagues who admit to fear and loathing of spiders. One hates spiders but works with maggots for a living and thinks they’re adorable:

This respondent is fully aware of the paradox of this spider-hating, maggot-friendly situation, but concluded an e-mail with “maggots don’t sneak up on you and jump in your hair.”

Often there was a Childhood Incident (tell me about having a family of brothers, I know). Vetter writes, “One entomologist mentioned that while her dislike of spiders is minor, her brother is highly arachnophobic, which ‘comes in handy sometimes.’ “ Several mentioned running into those big orb webs that go up overnight, in which the poor, hardworking arachnid has settled in with a few meager breakfast bugs and somebody face-blunders right into her work. One scientist had a bad dream about being snared by a human-sized spider.

One guy had a Cheiracanthium run all over his face and into his nostrils while he was driving. OK, he gets a pass.

Vetter admits the numbers aren’t representative. Nor is the Fear of Spiders Questionnaire (an actual psychological tool) well-tailored to his research:

When I (or other arachnologists with no spider fear) take the questionnaire, our score is 14 as opposed to the expected score of zero because we give the highest “totally agree” response to two statements (“Currently, I am sometimes on the lookout for spiders,” “I now think a lot about spiders”), but for completely opposite reasons than those of an arachnophobe. Personally, I probably think about spiders every waking hour of the day.

Me, too!

All academic articles should be written this way. First, a pretty chart showing just what the respondents have against spiders. Oingo Boingo (“Insects,” from “Nothing to Fear,” 1982) was right: it’s because they have too many legs! Also they scuttle. And surprise you.

Ugly, but not filthy. Silent, but not deadly. Feared most for "the way they move." I'm never going to dance again.

Ugly, but not filthy. Silent, but not deadly. Feared most for “the way they move.” I’m never going to dance again.

Then there’s an amazing chart showing how the respondents rank a whole zoo of animals on a like-dislike scale. Spiders and ticks bring up the rear:

No, I don't know what an earwing is either. Cuter than an eel, at any rate.

No, I don’t know what an earwing is either. Cuter than an eel, at any rate.

It’s a fun read. Bonus points for finding the words “jeebies” and “willies.”

I want to learn more about arachnophobia. There’s been a lot of research, but it’s still mysterious. Why are lots of people in certain countries afraid of spiders, but not as many in other places? Why would evolution select for arachnophobia, if it did, when spiders barely matter as threats to life and health? Why aren’t people terrified of mosquitoes and flies, which really are little mass-murdering bastids? And again—I think spiders are quite attractive, but even if you didn’t, why would you like maggots better?

 

Don’t Squish Me, Bro!

Wow. This really happens.

The news from Forest Grove, Oregon, a leafy burb just a stoner’s throw from Portland, is grim:

AUGUST 16 (as paraphrased in OregonLive.com): “A resident on Lavina Drive called police asking for assistance after finding a baseball-sized spider on her couch. An officer arrived at the home and after a brief and heated battle with the large spider, defeated it using an unconventional police weapon, a rolled up newspaper.”

Oregonian correspondent Kari Bray offers further details:

On Friday, Aug. 16, Forest Grove Police Officer Mike Smith responded to a call on Lavina Drive of a lurking couch spider the teenage caller said “looked like a tarantula,” according to Forest Grove police spokesman Capt. Mike Herb.

Smith estimated the spider was about 2 inches in diameter and couldn’t be certain what kind it was, Herb said. He defeated the arachnid with a rolled up newspaper.

The girl told police her mother had recently been bitten, so Smith scooped the dead spider into a container in case the family would like to have it looked at by an expert.

“Police would not normally respond to a call of a spider,” Herb said in an email. “But under the circumstances described we responded to help this girl who was extremely grateful.”

Honestly. Two inches in diameter, and it’s “baseball-sized”? Mom got nipped by an Invisible Spider (right: every mystery boil can be blamed on it) so this one has to die? And you already know the next part. There’s zero chance of the evil couch spider being harmful in any way. Oregon’s only medically significant spider is the black widow, and this wasn’t one.

Send some of those Forest Grove cops to San Jose, won’t you? They obviously have too many. We’ve got budget cuts that keep police from rolling to things like burglaries. We could put some of those newspaper-wielding heroes to work doing real cop stuff.

Allie is a wonderful cartoonist and writer (http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com) but she's wrong, wrong, wrong about spiders.

Allie is a wonderful cartoonist and writer (http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com) but she’s wrong to be scared about spiders. If squishing is so cathartic, why not try, I don’t know, termites? You can have mine.

 

 
Comments

Posted by on August 27, 2013 in Myths and Calumnies