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Category Archives: Pholcidae (cellar spiders)

Gift of the Spider Woman

Maternal metal monster invades Tokyo!

Once you see one big metal spider, you start seeing them everywhere.

Morgan Hill, California, now has its glow-in-the-dark tarantula perched alongside a parking garage. I don’t know of any other spider so glam, so wow, so poised to startle late-night pedestrians.

Bonjour, Maman! My, what big . . . everythings you have. (Photo by Charles Lindsey)

 

But there are others. In fact, I took a picture (above) of one last summer in Tokyo, little thinking that it was famous and had siblings around the world. I neglected even to inquire about it, assuming (as one would) that in Tokyo you must see large creatures stomping around all the time. Godzilla, after all, hangs out in Shinjuku when he’s between movies and nobody bats an eye.

The big bronze spider I saw is Maman, or “Mommy,” the creation of French-American artist Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010), whose works late in life included many varieties of metal spider sculptures. The original Maman, created in 1999, is made of stainless steel and lives at the Tate Modern in London. Six other castings, all in brooding bronze, are on display in Tokyo, Ottawa, Bilbao, Seoul, Qatar, and Bentonville, Arkansas (in Alice Walton’s museum).

Others of her spidery work include Spider (1996), which guards the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, and five other sites. It also roams. And racks up record sales figures at auction: $10.7 million, at the time a record for a female artist.

But Maman is Bourgeois’s biggest spider, more than thirty-three feet wide and thirty high. It was a tribute to her mother, who died when Bourgeois was twenty-one. Here is how she explained the work:

The Spider is an ode to my mother. She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver. My family was in the business of tapestry restoration, and my mother was in charge of the workshop. Like spiders, my mother was very clever. Spiders are friendly presences that eat mosquitoes. We know that mosquitoes spread diseases and are therefore unwanted. So, spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother.

This is how artists make us see differently. Arachnophobes cringe at the sight of a work like Maman, especially if they peer upwards and see that the matriarch carries eggs, made of marble, in a giant sac. Bourgeois tried to cast those views, so to speak, in a different light. And like almost all spiders commonly found in the real world, her spider is benign, aloof, committed to a task that has nothing to do with those who gawk at her. They’re sturdy but delicate, menacing but protective.

“The spider is a very lonely creature,” Bourgeois said in one videotaped interview. “Of course, she is very strong. She has an invading power.”

“The Nest,” offering inspiration, and maybe disturbing dreams, at SFMoMA.

Her work The Nest (1994), above, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art depicts a whole family of metallic spiders, each one guarding the smaller one below it. Spider Couple (2003) has just two, entwined in a leggy embrace. Crouching Spider (2003), below, on the other hand, hums with that invading power, eyelessly challenging the viewer to pounce or be pounced upon.

“Crouching Spider,” lurking along the San Francisco shoreline for a tasty hipster.

Bourgeois’s New York home is being renovated with an eye toward public tours. She liked the place cluttered and utilitarian, once saying, “I’m using the house. The house is not using me.” Oddly, despite all the interviews and documentaries about this famous artist, I’ve been unable to find any information about how she felt about real spiders. I have no doubt the cellar spiders were weaving away in the corners of that studio when she lived there, and are working there still.

 

Spiders in the Land of Little Rain

What a long, spiderless season it’s been.

Winter was creepy-weird: 90 degrees in January, brutally dry, sun beaming down on dead annuals, leafless trees, comatose landscaping. The East and Midwest were buried in blizzard after blizzard, so we had no right to complain, but in the West each rainless day was another drip in a sort of waterless water torture.

And then spring lurched into summer with no preamble, except for the plants that (seemingly) miraculously sprang back to life to offer the mask of a normal California year. Since then it’s been months of broken rhythm and mocking sunshine.

Every living thing is still off. Plants bloomed too early or too late. The comforting reserves of water we use to beat back the desert—and it’s all desert, pretty much—no longer wait behind hose or faucet. On a recent road trip passing through the hazy-hot Salinas Valley, the hills were not golden. They were gray.

What you learn from skilled news reporters: historically, droughts in California have been known to last for long years, sometimes decades. Though not since modern recordkeeping began, which is why we’re all so gobsmacked by the seriousness of it. But in archaeological records, sure, plenty of evidence of drought wiping the shine off the Golden State. A state now so foolishly full of grass, golf courses, recreational lakes, orchards, and other thirsty things.

You also learn that ocean temperatures thousands of miles away, far off in the Pacific, are shuffling the cards you’ll be holding in fall, when the rains might or might not return. The view from my dead lawn is too small, in both time and distance, to take it in.

What it means for spiders is that I’ve seen very few. Insects, too, other than bees and mosquitoes. The county is fogging for West Nile virus vectors, which means the mosquitoes will diminish as well—something I’d normally applaud, but this year we all seem acutely aware of how missing bugs mean fewer birds, fewer green and growing things, fewer signs of life.

You get a better sense of who the survivors are. The cellar spiders, they never seem to go away; perhaps they’re generalist enough and skinny enough to survive on whatever blunders along. In our micro-ecosystem they probably benefit from the earthworm bin, which breeds tiny flies, and the mealworm boxes (kept for the geckos), where the flour moths roam. Flying fodder eventually comes their way.

And the widows: they’re stationed along the fence posts and in the downspouts just as they always have been. Maybe a tad smaller, but the summer is young and there’s still time to grow round. I go out at night and assess them by flashlight. Drought is nothing to them. Widows like it hot and dry; the females keep cool in their all-black outfits by the simple trick of being nocturnal. The small, loitering males await their moment.

Otherwise the spider places seem oddly empty. I haven’t spotted even a young orb weaver yet, much less one of the large females knitting her radial web. The wolf spiders you find by following their eye shine: where are they? Almost absent from the lush leaf litter where they usually live. Lumbering Zoropsis, the big Mediterranean hitchhiker, also has been lying low.

I met a tiny bronze jumping spider last week, let it hop around a few minutes, then freed it and wished it luck.

The_Land_of_Little_Rain_title_pageThe most notable absence in our domain is of false widows (Steatoda grossa). We’ve always had lots of them hanging around the flowerpots and crevices. This year I’m concluding they could be a sort of indicator species in our microclimate, a signal of what being less wet, less buggy, might mean. They’re pert, glossy spiders that have never caused us a bit of harm, and I would miss them. But they’re a worldwide species and could easily take a California habitat retreat in stride. More easily than we could.

We have short memories here. It’s part of our charm—that disappointment never chases you too far. There’s always going to be summer, and always going to be the rains. Or so we think. Me, I’m going to take down my old copy of a tiny book called The Land of Little Rain. Mary Austin tramped around desert California—lands people admire and fear, lands that change (if at all) only over thousands of years. She found it beautiful, and aloof, and surpassingly skillful at teaching humans their place. It might be time to build longer memories.

 

 

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.

 

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.