Category Archives: Loxosceles (recluses)

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.


<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?


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.



Calm down, arachnophobes

I couldn’t ask for a better poster spider for launch week. A fresh wave of worry about the brown recluse has just washed over the blogosphere, apparently because of a scary tale about a Texas woman bitten by a recluse who then posted lavishly gross pictures of her ailment online. This happened last year, not sure why it took so long to get about.

I’m going to write more about those reckless recluses. There are a lot of fascinating things about Loxosceles, some of them in the folkloric vein and some in the scientific (did you know the Binford Spider Lab in Portland, Oregon, focuses on the recluse and related species? All kinds of research coming out of there). But for today, I’ll point out with minimal comment how the words “brown recluse” trigger a most predictable response in humans, and I’m not talking about rotting flesh or horrible death. I’m talking about hyperventilation.

The Texas woman was bitten on the neck in one of the unusual cases where a spider (any spider) was actually caught in the act. Yes – most of the “spider bite” cases we hear about and read about involve a species (to be profiled later) I call Aranaeus invisibilis, the North American stealth spider, and no, I never learned Latin so please school me on a better name. A sore erupts; people blame a spider they never saw. I don’t trust news and blog reports of the Texas case far enough to know whether the spider was actually a recluse, though that is plausible, given their range. The original report suggests it was identified in the emergency room, which usually sets off some warning bells because few doctors can ID a spider on sight, and even when they’re mistaken their “spider bite” diagnosis is taken as holy writ. Loxoscelism is the actual term for a reaction to a recluse bite, but physicians chalking up a mystery sore to loxoscelism is like saying “I know it was a brown recluse because this is a brown recluse lesion.”

Penny for your thoughts?

But even if the Texas spider is provably a recluse, such necrotic bites are not common. No recluse bites are. Then there are dry bites (no venom), and non-symptomatic bites. And as for the spider being “deadly” … no. [Read all about it at the Burke Museum in Seattle, where Rod Crawford, curator of arachnids, takes on this myth.]

It’s laughably easy to post gory pictures on the Internet and say they came from a spider. People believe you immediately when you say it was a brown recluse, even if you acquired the wound hundreds of miles away from any recluse habitat. Even if it happened under circumstances (such as being in prison) that cry out for a more rational explanation, such as MRSA, or drug-resistant staph, which is far more dangerous than any spider. MRSA: now that’s an evil bug.

By the way, the Texas woman rapidly got better. The bloggers panting that the spider almost made her go blind – well, the bite caused one side of her face to swell up and close her eye for a while. There’s been nothing reported about any threat to her vision.

“Hyberbolic media crap!” pronounces the estimable spider expert Rick Vetter of UC Riverside, who’s talked himself hoarse trying to set the public straight on the recluse and other spiders. When such stories hit, reporters not too lazy to do a bit of research call up Vetter and get some bracing counter-quotes like this one. Everybody else just goes with the hysteria.

This story seems to have erupted in the Daily Mail in excitable Olde England, where spiders hardly ever get a break. It got an even bigger push when people dragged in a recent study suggesting that climate change is going to change the recluse’s distribution in the United States and then … radically misinterpreted that part, too! Shouts and alarums: the recluse is on the march! Coming to a gardening glove near you! When what the study said was that a warmish shift might … MIGHT … cause the recluse to spread north from its accustomed Midwest/Southeastern range but also to VANISH from parts of its existing range.

Oh. Where’s the fun in that? And the irony is that the public widely, devoutly believes that the brown recluse is already swarming across the country, biting coeds’ necks wherever it can find them. Heck, there’s that vampire slander again. That’s also cognitive dissonance, believing that 1. The recluse is spreading to new turf and 2. The spider is already everywhere in teeming masses. Just par for the course for Loxosceles reclusa.