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Category Archives: Netlore

<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?

 

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

 

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.


 

 

Guest Post: Check out the Peacock Spider!

Rainbow afro circus time! Maratus volans photo by Dr. Jurgen Otto

Rainbow afro circus time! Maratus volans photo by Dr. Jurgen Otto

 

Today, Tru wants to chat about a recent spider discovery:

 

Note: Information from Wikipedia article, Maratus volans.

 

If you see spiders which just aren’t that attractive or you’re just bored of, well this spider is NOT for you. This spider is called the Peacock (or gliding spider) or in Latin, Maratus volans. It is a species of jumping spider.

It is confined in Australia. Octavius Pickard-Cambridge (I think the discoverer) noted in his original description, “It is difficult to describe adequately the great beauty coloring of this spider” because it has a unusual trait of having flap-like extensions on its abdomen which rise upward to get ahold of the attention of the girl peacock. While approaching, the male vibrates and begins its groovy dance. If the female doesn’t like the male, she’ll eat him. They reach to about 5 mm in the length of the body. Maratus volans means “flying” in latin. There’s an urban myth that they can fly, but it’s not true.

Thanks for reading Spiderhugger™

Article by: Truman Lindsey

 

(P.S.: Here’s the link to the amazing, unbelievable, indeed groovy dance of the peacock spider, as narrated by Dr. Jurgen Otto)

 
 

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

 

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.

 

 

Meet the spider: Pholcidae

We three Dads

The cellar spider has a wonderful gothic, childlike, shivery myth attached to it. Have you heard? Omigod, the daddy long-legs has the most poisonous venom ever discovered! but, like, its little fangs can’t penetrate human skin so nobody even knows, so you could be totally killed by it, but nobody ever is.

This wacky idea actually seems to be dying out, even among the swaggering schoolchildren who answer most Internet queries. “Mythbusters” got around to addressing it a while back (yes, Adam got bit. No, he didn’t die. Maybe he exaggerated a bit about the bite, which he didn’t even show, but how long can a camera show nothing happening?). It probably takes a hit Discovery program to begin to turn the tide of Internet nonsense, especially when it comes to such a durable and colorful tale.

The cellar spider, one of several dudes dubbed “daddy,” looks like something made out of mini-marshmallows and pipe cleaners. A spindly, fragile thing that offers the most florid display of timidity in nature: if you touch its web, it trembles. Think of that, you “Lord of the Flies” schoolkids with your misspelled boasts about pulling off its legs, one at a time. It just shivers and waits for you to go away.

Who’s your daddy, long-legs? Now about that name. You have to brush past the stiff angry online Commenters who shout that the daddy long-legs is NOT a spider or else the daddy long-legs is TOO a poizinus spider and one bit my cusin and her elbo fell off and get to the place where it’s clear that “daddy long-legs” means three different animals:

 

GOOD VIBRATIONS: a cellar spider.

1. A spider. Two common species (very common, actually) of the family Pholcidae that live in my area are Pholcus phalangioides and Holocnemus pluchei, the latter known as the marbled cellar spider. Neither belongs here; they’re among those pushy Eurotrash species that arrived at some unknown time, eclipsing the native spiders. And they really like it here.

 

 

WALK ON BY: a harvestman.

 

2. An arachnid called a harvestman. Strange little striding bug, it looks like the invader vehicles you imagined the first time you read “War of the Worlds,” with a tiny gondola suspended at the vertex of eight immensely long, thin legs. Not a spider, not venomous. It eats everything in the garden but can’t bite you. Defends itself by making a funny smell.

 

 

COME FLY WITH ME: a crane fly.

3. A crane fly. California has more than 400 species of this bug, which turns from a grub in the ground to a flying insect. Harmless, though it resembles a giant mosquito. Scientists identify a larva by looking at its rear end, through which it breathes, and which is decorated with eye-popping, grotesque patterns that look like Mardi Gras masks (below). In my family we called crane flies gallinippers, a name I thought my own daddy made up because he has a knack for wordplay (big mosquito = gallon nipper), but I learned that not only is this a folk name, but “gallinipper” is also used for an actual huge bloodsucking mosquito and not just the innocent crane fly.

This is one crane fly’s southern exposure! Aw, I’m gonna have nightmares now. (Nephrotoma virescens illustration © Chen Young)

Also it’s a bluegrass band, one that proudly proclaims “The Gallinippers is on Facebook!” And so they is.

Also, there’s a silly poem:

. . . Then Mr. Daddy Long-legs

And Mr. Floppy Fly

Rushed downward to the foamy sea

With one sponge-taneous cry;

And there they found a little boat,

Whose sails were pink and gray;

And off they sailed among the waves,

Far, and far away.

(Edward Lear, “The Daddy Long-Legs and the Fly”)

The cellar spider is the dad I know well. It lives in a world of dim sunlight, sawdust, splinters, old storage smells. Your basement, attic, or garage. Or, if you’re casual about housecleaning, the no-dad’s-land behind a desk or sideboard or bookcase. The spider makes a messy web that it’s agreeable to sharing with fellow spiders, where they all hang upside-down, snagging flying bugs, vibrating like little cell phones when disturbed.

Even the pest-control folks, always eager to suggest ways of annihilating local fauna, have nothing bad to say about the cellar spider except that the webs are “unsightly.” It was still worth several people’s time to write about the best ways to keep those dirty dads under control, though (hint: vacuuming and judicious use of pesticide).

The only thing I dislike about Daddy is that he poops in corners. Any nook occupied by a cellar spider is going to have dark-and-light spatters on the floor or shelf below. It’s not the easiest of spooges to clean up, either, and it makes the surroundings look drear and grimy. The cellar spider, not the tarantula or widow, is the spider that should have the role of Halloween gloom-meister, since its presence indicates a place disused or abandoned or otherwise atmospheric. Otherwise it’s about as spooky as a kitten.

It’s not scary and (unlike a jumping spider) it can’t dance—in sharp contrast to Fred Astaire, title character of the silky 1955 musical “Daddy Long Legs.” Watch as the grand old hoofer ensnares young Leslie Caron in a web of dance, for which she is grateful and adorable and extremely French. Sweet story. It surprised me to learn how many versions of that film were made in the last century, with different actors as the daddy. Sometimes the leggy leading man—harmless, never venomous—snares Mary Pickford, sometimes Janet Gaynor, once an anime orphan, once even (gasp) Shirley Temple, though in that version (“Curly Top,” 1935) Daddy does the nuptial dance with the moppet’s grown-up sister, not Shirley (*whew*).

What do those old movies have to do with cellar spiders? Nothing, though for once it’s nice to associate a spider with a silly fable not having to do with gangrene. And by the way, I’d take Leslie Caron (“Daddy Long Legs”) over Theresa Russell (“The Black Widow”) any day.


 

 

Meet the spider: Latrodectus hesperus

Ladies of the night

The widow tends her parlor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Meet the spider: Zoropsis spinimana

The new (big) kid in town

Zoro salutes you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2012 in Netlore, Zoropsis