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Category Archives: Myths and Calumnies

<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.

 

 
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Posted by on August 27, 2013 in Myths and Calumnies

 

More Spider Carnage: Film at 11

Sure … a spider did this

 

…. and then Jesus and his angels hoisted grateful Levi and his smashed Tacoma into their loving arms. The spider, unidentified and unquoted, apparently went back to Satan’s lair to plot anew.

 

Spider Causes Spokane Man To Crash Into Semi

KHQ-TV, July 20, 2013 

     SPOKANE, Wash. – Around 8:30 Saturday morning, Levi Van Dyke was driving and crashed his Toyota Tacoma truck into the back of a semi truck.
      “A spider was crawling up the back of my leg and when I actually saw it, I freaked out and started swatting at it … at just the wrong time,” Van Dyke said.
      Despite the severity of the crash as the pictures show, Van Dyke was somehow able to walk away with just a scratch on his head and shoulder. “I got some angels, Jesus loves me,” he said with a smile.
      The crash happened at 3rd and Lacey just off of I-90 right off the Altamont exit.
      The driver of the semi was fine.
 
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Posted by on July 22, 2013 in Myths and Calumnies, Netlore

 

Carjacked by a Spider

Arachnophobia Kills!

Oh, it’s not all Charlotte’s Web out there. I admit it: some spiders are bad to the bone(less), dangerous characters. Here’s where I atone for excess spider hugginess.

The real threat spiders pose to us, however, is not venomous bites. They do not devour hot-tubbing heavy metal guitarists. They do not munch prison inmates. They will not molest Mythbusters. The number one threat from spiders is . . .

They are terrible drivers!

 

Spider causes rollover accident in Ark City

 June 10, 2013, Newscow (“Your nose for news in Cowley County”)

(I am not making that up)

(Ark City is somehow a real place, too)

(No! I don’t know if Noah was involved)

 A local driver told authorities he was using a cup to kill a spider crawling in his vehicle when he lost control and rolled it Sunday morning.

Ark City police were called to the scene for a report of an injury accident. They arrived at the east Madison underpass to find a vehicle overturned with someone trapped inside it.

23-year-old Trevor Chaparro was freed from the vehicle and had blood on his head and face. He was treated for minor injuries and declined transport to the hospital.

Chaparro was cited for no proof of insurance, no valid license plate and inattentive driving.

He told officers he saw the spider crawling near the driver side door and attempted to kill it. Chaparro looked up to see he was driving toward the center columns of the bridge and maneuvered to avoid hitting them head on.

He struck the edge of the bridge and that caused the vehicle to overturn.

Hey lady, all we said was, "Clean your windshield?" Hey -- what's that switch for? Hey!

Hey lady, all we said was, “Clean your windshield?” Hey — what’s that switch for? Hey!

 

Then there are the Brits, who get all silly when it comes to spider scares but who never fail to write a good headline:

 

WOMAN CRASHES INTO POLICE CAR AFTER BEING SPOOKED BY SPIDER

“I’m a complete idiot”

 Daily Star, June 6, 2013

MOTORIST Mia Vamplew veered into the path of a police car after being spooked by a spider.

The police driver narrowly avoided a crash by braking hard before Vamplew, 28, swerved back on to her side of the road.

She told officers: “I’m a complete idiot. I freaked because a spider was above my head and I thought it may land on me.”

Vamplew, of Mullion, Cornwall, admitted careless driving and was fined £160 by Truro JPs.

 

This next spider caused the driver to veer “on to the wrong side of the road.” Well, of course. It’s England. She still gets “six penalty points on her licence” not for misspelling “license” but for mishandling her cricket bat in the first sentence, tut tut, bad show:

 

Arachnophobic driver caused car crash when spider dropped from sun visor

The Telegraph, April 4, 2012

Farmworker Lucille Ellis – who has a phobia of spiders – had been trying to bat away the arachnid when she drove her Nissan pick up on to the wrong side of the road and into the path of an oncoming car.

Ellis, 40, of North Petherwin, Cornwall, admitted careless driving last October on the A3072 road when she appeared at Bodmin magistrates court.

The other driver, Diane Martin, suffered back and leg wounds which needed skin grafts.

Ellis told police: “I was driving when a large spider dropped down in front of my face and I was just trying to bat it out of the way. I continued straight instead of taking the left hand bend and ended up on the other side of the road.”

She said she braked when she saw the oncoming car and swerved towards a verge to try and get out of the way.

She said: “I didn’t take my hands off the wheel or anything like that.”

Chris Andrews, defending, said she told police about her phobia of spiders and said it was not a “deliberate piece of bad driving”.

Magistrates fined her £325 with £100 costs and gave her six penalty points on her licence.

.

Note the use of the verb to show intention. The spider “made” poor Sara crash into a parked lorry, undoubtedly soiling her tea things and upsetting the Queen:

.

Woman causes £300 damage when she crashes car after spider lands on her lap

Daily Mirror, March 20, 2011

A TINY spider landing in her lap made driver Sara Mills, 22, crash into a parked lorry in Benfleet, Essex, ­causing £300 damage.

 

Now let’s go Dutch:

Woman crashes car while swatting at spider

UPI.com, Nov. 21, 2008

THE HAGUE, Netherlands, Nov. 21 (UPI) — Police in the Netherlands said a woman crashed her car near The Hague while she was attempting to kill a spider inside the vehicle.

Authorities said the woman lost control of her car while attempting to kill the spider and the vehicle flipped over on the A4 motorway, Radio Netherlands/Expatica reported Friday.

Traffic was backed up on the A4 as a result of the crash and two lanes of the road were closed. The woman was treated for injuries at a hospital.

 

Whitey Bulger, make room for a real crime spree on the mean streets of Boston:

 

Driver blames spider inside car for crash

WHDH (Boston), September 18, 2009

WEYMOUTH, Mass. — An “itsy bitsy spider” caused a big crash in Weymouth.

Amber Buckner, 26, was at the corner of Princeton and Bridge streets when she was distracted by a spider inside her car.

She rear-ended the car in front of her, which went straight up onto two wheels and collapsed on top of her car.

Buckner, her passenger and Danielle Evju, the driver of the car she struck, were all taken to the hospital with minor injuries.

“She’s like ‘Oh my God, is everybody all right? I was just paying attention to the spider, the spider that was on my windshield.’ And that’s all that she was paying attention to,” Evju said.

Buckner is being charged with following too closely and with driving an unregistered vehicle.

“I think that it’s absolutely ridiculous, that she should have pulled over, I think paying attention on the road, I mean these are people’s lives.”

Firefighters told Evju that the way her gas tank was hit, she could have been killed.

 

Look, twice it’s Weymouth! Do they breed the motorists especially jumpy there? Fun! I’m off to Boston with my satchel of rubber spiders!

 

Driver who caused Weymouth crash was startled by spider

The Patriot Ledger, September 19, 2012

WEYMOUTH: A woman who began a chain-reaction car crash on a busy street Tuesday morning was distracted by a spider, police said.

The 23-year-old Weymouth woman was heading north on Route 18 near Hunter Terrace when the spider crawled onto her at about 9:12 a.m., police Lt. Thomas Farrell said. The woman tried to swat the spider away and accidentally hit the gas pedal, causing her to strike the car in front of her and beginning a four-car crash.

No one was injured or charged following the crash. Three of the four vehicles were towed.

 

In California, a grizzly account from Officer Baer:

 

Wildomar woman crashes after spider drops down behind her

City News Service, August 23, 2011

A woman lost control of her vehicle, which crashed Tuesday on Interstate 15 in Wildomar, after a spider dropped down on the car seat.

The accident happened around 10 a.m. on southbound I-15, near Clinton Keith Road, according to the California Highway Patrol.

 Maria Perez of Fallbrook told CHP officers that she was traveling around 65 mph when she noticed the spider. Afraid the creepy crawler might touch her, Perez tried to get away, losing control of the box truck she was driving in the process.

“She swerved onto the west dirt shoulder,” said CHP Officer Nathan Baer, adding that the vehicle spun back onto the freeway, where it overturned on its left side.

Perez walked away from the crash, which completely smashed the truck’s front windshield. No other vehicles were involved.

Two of the freeway’s three lanes were blocked for more than an hour. Perez declined medical attention, Baer said.

 

Finally, no serious injuries you say? Yeah, air bags are just another roller-coaster ride when you’re a hitchhiking spider. Peel it off the headliner, it’ll be fine.

 

 Girl trying to shoo spider crashes car

Injuries do not appear serious

Associated Press, October 10, 2011

CONSTANTINE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) — Authorities say a 16-year-old girl was injured after losing control of the car she was driving in southwestern Michigan while trying to get a spider out of the vehicle.

The Kalamazoo Gazette reports the girl had minor injuries from Sunday night’s crash in St. Joseph County’s Constantine Township. She was taken to a hospital for treatment.

The sheriff’s department says the car ran off the road and its air bag deployed.

I told you I can't drive a stick!

I told you I can’t drive a stick! Just let me eat the damn spider!

 
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Posted by on July 18, 2013 in Myths and Calumnies

 

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.


 

 

“I Want a Brave Man, I Want a Caveman!”

A bowling ball would also work, Fred . . .

Spiders have been around for 400 million years, but only two opinions are ever expressed about them in print.

One (the more common): “Ew! Ick! I saw a spider and I’m scared, but it’s kind of funny how much of a coward I am! And I got my man to kill it!”

Actual advice from wikiHow. Imagine the time and resources that went into this graphic. The little red line for gravity, everything. Who, exactly, is thick as a brick?

Actual advice from wikiHow. Imagine the time and resources that went into this graphic. The little red line for gravity, the disembodied hands. Who, exactly, is thick as a brick?

Two (less common, generally in response to the first): “ * Sigh * Spiders are good and not scary. They eat bugs and amaze scientists with their silk.”

(News sites also say this: “Somebody found a spider in a bunch of grapes. Nobody was hurt, nobody ever is—just the spider. An unqualified local person offered a quote about how narrowly this boy/girl/person/idiot avoided painful death.”)

I feel left out because I don’t write any of those things. And no, writing about certain Marvel comic books and the movies derived from them is not a third thing, at least not today, fanboy.

The second kind of essayist has her or his heart in the right place: spiders are good to have around, and the mysteries of their little parts—not only the silk glands, those are just the marquee organs—does lead to fascinating research, some of which will affect human lives. These writers are smart gardeners and animal lovers, scientists and fans of science, and I salute them. It’s just that framing an animal solely in terms of what it gives us grasping, meddling humans is a back-handed compliment at best. Look—we can milk it, harness it, put it to work, therefore it deserves to live!

Has better agent than spiders do.

Has better agent than spiders do.

Again, I must point out that nobody goes out polling the local bald eagle’s nest to see whether the birds are keeping up their numbers at the call center, or have met their quota of feathers for the pillow factory, or anything ludicrous like that. We don’t even question their patriotism, though they pay suspiciously little in taxes. No, bald eagles get to soar along, secure in their own merits, unlike that silk-spinning little indentured servant out there guarding your tomatoes.

The news writers reporting on the Great Grape Massacree? They’re just lazy, or British.

But as for the first type of opinionator, surely there’s a special place in blogger heck reserved for the writer who follows the ancient, ancient path laid by Wilma Flintstone herself, who left, carved into stone six feet down from the top of today’s Grand Canyon, a fluffery account of domestic drama headlined, “Eeek: A Spider!” I’ll let her tell it:

 

“Today I was stirring the Pterosaur Pstew—Betty’s recipe, sez it puts even more hair on a man’s chest, wink—and minding my own business when sha-REEK! The most IMMENSE Arachnosaurus came rappelling down into the kitchen (how do they get in? is it through those holes in the rock we have instead of windows??) and landed on the counter!

“What could I do? Here was this, this, THING, a centimeter long if it was a millimeter (can’t be sure because the metric system hasn’t been invented) that had the gall to exist! And aggressive—running around almost as if something was trying to kill it! I grabbed Pebbles and stuffed her under a boulder, chucked Dino out the window, and picked up a flaming torch and waved it around like a majorette, since all those things would make the situation safer. Well, obvo!

“To my surprise, panic and stereotyped behavior didn’t help. So I doubled down—on the stereotypes, I mean, and must I remind you which of the genders carries the club in the natural-history diorama?? Not this blogger in the mammoth-fur coat!—and hollered for Fred.

“Actually, Fred’s as scared of spiders as me, don’t let that slip, but you know how this fossilized melodrama is gonna play out. Barney was watching and smirking. Betty was helping me hyperventilate; neither of us had the strength to scoot the spider into a cup but we had no trouble leaping on a table and standing on tiptoe. Pebbles needed to get out from under that boulder, and the pstew was getting pscorched. So dear Fred played his part. Good thing there’s never a shortage of rocks in this house! Or thick skulls!

“So WHEW, now that’s done, and we can get back to our cozy life dodging asteroids, blaming diseases on invisible forces, and dying at 30. Dead spiders, ladies, am I right? I’m writing this down alongside the creek to show the wusses, wimps, and hacks of the future that Wilma got here first and she PWNS your scary spider story, plus its headline, too, regardless of whether you pick ‘Along came a spider …” or “No itsy-bitsy spider …” HA! Cenozoic out!!”

Wilma and Fred

 
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Posted by on May 24, 2013 in Myths and Calumnies

 

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.

 

 

“The Great Big Hairy Spider”

A Musical Interlude (or: Raffi’s Nightmare)

 

C’mon, kids, sing along!

Ohhhhhhh …

 

THE GREAT BIG HAIRY SPIDER

[To the tune of “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider”]

The great big hairy spider

Leaped out and killed a bug

Sucked the corpse dry

And dropped it on the rug

Then it hunkered down

And laid a million eggs

And a million baby spiders

Came crawling up your legs!

 

Dad! It’s no fun without the puppets. Put down the glass of wine and do it right.

(Sigh) all right . . .

 

♬ Ohhhhhhh … ♫

 

“The great big hairy spider . . . “

” … leaped out and killed a bug”

“Sucked the corpse dry . . . “

“. . . and dropped it on the rug”

“Then it hunkered down . . . “

“. . . and laid a million eggs”

“And a million baby spiders . . . “

“. . . came crawling up your legs!”

 

OK, sleep tight!

 

 
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Posted by on June 21, 2012 in Myths and Calumnies

 

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?


 

 

Meet the spider: Steatoda grossa

Spider-Man, I made you!

It’s almost summer, and that means superheroes. A torrent of them, a plague of them! Not unlike the grim spider army that homeowners report to their local newscasters whenever they see something brown that skitters. This time there’s a big hairy blockbuster movie among the big hairy intruders: “The Amazing Spider-Man.” I’m not a comic book fan, so all this talk about a “reboot” leaves me cold (spiders, the real kind, shiver when you say “boot.”). It opens July 3, so I might as well let my online searches overflow with Andrew Garfield this, Emma Stone that, not to mention “Turn off the Dark” (the Broadway show), until the wires go back to their usual chatter about Invisible Spiders that stalk the unwary sleeper.

Still, I must take note of one rumored change in the Spider-Man backstory. You might recall that one character prominent in the Tobey Maguire version of the “Spider-Man” franchise was a spider. It bit Tobey and made him what he is. Apparently the spider was radioactive, which is one of those fun, wacky 1950s conceits that don’t really scan today … radioactivity leading in fact to death, not superpowers. At the start of that first film, which I saw in pursuit of a Big Dumb Summer Movie, the spider landed on Peter Parker and nipped him. The bite was just Method acting, but the spider was real. It was even wearing spider makeup and carrying a tiny Equity card. The actor was, however, false: a false black widow, or Steatoda grossa.

Fanboy rumor says this year’s Peter Parker gets endowed not by a radioactive spider bite but by something from a lab … genetic tinkering or some such. And I bet they don’t even use a live spider this time, computer graphics having progressed so far. Dang. One more out-of-work actor, and in this economy. Guess it’s back to the back lot for Steatoda grossa, which is probably where the spider wrangler for the 2002 movie found her in the first place.

This common species occupies the margin between medically significant spiders and the innocent, ain’t-hurt-nobody garden varieties. Steatoda grossa practically defines garden variety. The places she likes to live are all over the typical yard (basement, too). She hides under the terra cotta saucer, in the space between shed and fence, in a sawdusty nook by the car, perhaps in the finger of your garden glove—pretty much anywhere you might expect to see a black widow (Latrodectus), except she isn’t one. False widows seem to favor damper places than the true widow, such as the crawlspace under my house where moisture from the clothes drier lingers. Real widows, like Marilyn, like it hot. When I catch Steatoda she usually plays dead, which makes me feel bad, so I let her go, then she ever-so-slowly unshrivels and stumbles away.

Without her makeup on, but still ready for her closeup. (Univ. of Wisconsin, Dept. of Entomology)

Her coloration is variable but the ones I see most often are glossy dark brown with a pale dot or two on her dimpled abdomen. She (or her male counterpart) might be marbled like halvah. If you look close you see she has oddly glittering eyes, gleaming with Hollywood ambition. The posterior median ones, I think. They sparkle like flecks of glass in the flashlight beam—and not just from the front, like the usual spider eyeshine. (You don’t know about eyeshine?! One of the wonders of spider watching. More on that later, if I can get decent pictures.)

It’s funny how many people think any old brown spider is a recluse, but I can’t blame people for thinking Steatoda is a black widow; they are relatives, after all, in the big happy Theridiid family, and favor the same look and the same turf.

In Britain they go all barmy over a cousin called Steatoda nobilis, a mildly medically significant non-native creature that’s got everyone’s rugby shorts in a bunch. “The most venomous spider in Britain!” Oi, you’d think it was the Blitz. And most of the tabloid cases quote Wallace or Gromit saying, you guessed it, “Never saw the little bugger who bit me,” and even the visible buggers are usually identified by the nearest Cockney chimneysweep and not by anyone who’d actually know. Still, there are a few confirmed Steatoda bites here and there. This isn’t one of them (hint: Steatoda nobilis, like Peter Parker, lacks the power of invisibility).

Fun fact! Scarlett Johansson is neither black, nor a widow. She is actually a divorcee.

After Steatoda grossa had her big moment in “Spider-Man,” lots of people were surprised to learn that the spider wasn’t computer-generated. An insect wrangler had supplied the false black widow and dolled her up in red and blue to make her look sinister. Although Steatoda has the right figure for the part (sleek, glossy, tapering, and can I mention Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow here? No? Aw), she can’t do radioactive without having some work done. National Geographic ran a fun story about the bug boss who cast Steatoda for her big part.

You can induce Steatoda grossa to bite you, not that I have, using the technique of rolling over on her or trapping her in clothing. I’ve never found any indications that the bite is worse than a bee sting. This is the usual pain yardstick that’s meant to reassure people but kinda doesn’t, given how much we all enjoy being stung by bees. Reported symptoms include “blistering” and “malaise.” Once in a blue moon a bite creates significant medical problems, and at least one study has shown that antivenin developed for bites of the redback spider (Australia’s native widow) works for Steatoda as well. But you takes your chances: people have fatal anaphylactic reactions to antivenin, too.

The false widow is neither hero nor villain in her contacts with the human world, falling into the category of small animals that should be acknowledged but not feared. As with most spiders it’s quite obvious what kind of business she’s about: not stalking people (although do shake those garden gloves) or pursuing evildoers, but rather pursuing bugs for dinner, spinning her sloppy yet effective web, lying low, making more of her kind.

She doesn’t have any superpowers, and I do wonder why her bite made Peter Parker shoot silk out of his … wrists. Is the moviegoing public not ready for an anatomically correct Spider-Man? Bet Howard Stern could have fun with that.

Some relatives of the false black widow do have special talents beyond scaring British people. They can live together without killing each other. These are among the social spiders—like social butterflies, I guess, but with fangs and venom. Life in the spider colony is sure lively, what with prey-capture cooperation, shared egg-sitting, and occasional mass emigration. How they work it out is a mystery, though the uncommonness of this arrangement suggests to some scientists that pallin’ around with your fellow cannibals might not be the best idea for spiders in the long run.

As for long runs, let us prepare for a summer of super spiders and bats and men in black, leading perhaps to new impressions in the Hollywood Walk of Fame, though if there’s a spider there in the concrete you can guarantee it was stepped on. Fame is the ultimate false mistress, poor Steatoda grossa.