Stiff upper lips missing in action

It’s official: the last Briton capable of stepping outdoors has now surrendered to spider hysteria and barricaded himself inside his thatched cottage with a lifetime supply of Weetabix and oolong. This just in:

Postman refuses to deliver letter because of a ‘massive’ spider web blocking path to front door

Postmen often have to keep an eye out for aggressive dogs while trying to make their deliveries.

But rather than a hound, it was a large spider that stopped letters being delivered to the home of Stuart Robertson-Reed.

Instead of a cheque the business analyst was waiting for, he found a note written by a scared postman which read: “No access – massive spider web in front gate.”

Stuart Robertson-Reed contemplates his doom! (Daily Mirror)

Stuart Robertson-Reed contemplates his doom! (Daily Mirror)

The story goes on in hilarious (and, thankfully, skeptical) detail about the “massive” beast whose web the postman feared to touch. The spider in question, the timid orb weaver pictured here, was described as the size of a 10p coin–just about an inch in diameter.

Actually, I think the wailing and breast-beating over Steatoda nobilis, the insignificant yet somehow “deadly” spider that’s triggered so much blithering such as this, is peaking. Even the tabloids can’t keep up the silliness much longer.

Nothing in all the coverage I’ve seen of the false-widow panic has changed my mind about what’s happening. S. nobilis, an imported species, has lived on the Sceptered Isle for more than a hundred years. Nobody has ever died from its bite–in fact, I’m still hunting for irrefutable evidence of any bites at all. There was the guy with the hoodie, who had a dozen stinging welts on his back and says he found a spider in his jacket. He made the news because he passed out cold when he saw the spider, not because the venom had liquefied him. Painkillers was all he needed. But I never found a second-day story with a confirmed identification of the spider. Even if it was S. nobilis, how much more trivial can a story be: “man bitten by bug”? I had a hundred worse experiences with ants when I was a kid, and a smaller but still memorable number with wasps, hornets, and bees. I got chomped by lizards, snakes, rodents, and mosquitoes. The tabloids never came calling.

The rest of the S. nobilis victims “never felt a thing” or were assaulted–as if by space aliens–while they slept. Amazing how many Invisible Spiders they can fit on that green and pleasant land.

No, what’s happening here is folklore in the making. A decade from now, after the Internet has immortalized all our foibles and silly beliefs, we’ll all have a gruff chortle with the good people of Britain about the Year of the Rampaging False Widows. There will never be an end to the modern equivalent of the tarantella hysteria, of course. That hard-wired threat detector that keeps us pattern-seeking apes alive will never be silenced–nor, I guess, should it be. But it will be some other bug’s turn to be the witch of the moment.

Ten pence for your thoughts? Let's be a little more lion and little less lamb, folks.

Ten pence for your thoughts? Let’s be a little more lion and a little less lamb, folks.


A Prayer for Araneus

Wheels within wheels

I’m not a Hindu or a Buddhist and never will be. But I have borrowed something from them and I’m not sorry. It’s a word and a shape:

Mandala (Sanskrit:  Maṇḍala, ‘circle’) is a spiritual and ritual symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism, representing the Universe. (Wikipedia)

With eight legs, is yoga easier or harder? (Photo by Thomas Quine)

With eight legs, is yoga easier or harder? (Photo by Thomas Quine)

It’s also a spiderweb. Not every mandala you see on the Internet looks spidery, but they all suggest the identical cosmic micro-focus—the radial lines and paths, the corners and turning points, the mystery of who waits in the center, the truth that something barely there and supremely beautiful will blow away tomorrow. But endure. Mandalas guide the quest for insight.

Dr. Internet says mandalas are visual signposts in the Christian view too—some people see sacred spirals in rose windows and Celtic crosses. They’re even found in Jung’s overgrown garden of myth.

A spider doesn’t care what psychologists or monks think about circles and spirals. The first principle that leads a spider around her spinning wheel is simple hunger—or even, deeper than hunger, unremembered memories from spiders eons older who were hungry, and who turned within webs, and lived. She doesn’t know beauty or utility. She knows food and unimaginable patience. A week before the Bodhi tree would be less than a wink from her unblinking eyes.

Nice work! (Cool hat, too.) Can you keep doing it for a couple million years now?

Nice work! (Cool hat, too.) Can you keep doing it for a couple million years now?

The remote being at the center—we can never know how she gauges the physical strains, and measures the yawning canyons she has to bridge, and chooses her materials and gates, and pivots and dances to draw that silken mandala—the one that’s more perfect for being imperfect.

A machine could draw a perfect circle. But an orb web unique to its place, unique to its hour, then destroyed and forgotten … that’s art and science, devotion … futility.

So I meditate on the mandala in my yard, and the mute worker who labors over it. I suppose I have to call it meditation, damn the woo. If that’s not enough to dazzle my brain shut, I repeat these words: four hundred million years. Four hundred million years. The lives of this animal, this adept.

Nirvana by porchlight? Araneus marmoreus, seeking enlightenment near Crittendon, Kentucky.

Nirvana by porchlight? Araneus marmoreus, seeking enlightenment near Crittenden, Kentucky. Maybe illustrating that thing about one hand clapping? We’ll never know. (Photo by Barbara Marshman)

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Posted by on October 9, 2013 in Araneus (orb weavers)


<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 “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 ( but she's wrong, wrong, wrong about spiders.

Allie is a wonderful cartoonist and writer ( 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


As Easy as Herding Tarantulas

Let’s go on a spider safari

This one goes out to all you screamers who won’t pick up a spider in a paper cup and put it outside. In case it, you know, leaps for your throat or lays eggs in your hairdo or something else that happens all the time.

In South Africa, a road-widening project ground to a halt last year when workers found a bunch of baboon spider burrows in the way. The two species encountered, Augacephalus junodi and Ceratogyrus darlingi, are protected, so the spiders had to be relocated.

Helloooo, Blondie. Augacephalus junodi, the golden baboon spider, had to pick up stakes when the road came through.

Helloooo, Blondie. Augacephalus junodi, the golden baboon spider, had to pick up stakes when the road came through.

Augacephalus is one of the most beautiful species names ever. Auga refers to the rays of the sun and cephalus means head; the pattern on this spider’s cephalothorax looks like a big, golden sunburst. Ceratogyrus has a little horn.

Baboon spiders are tarantulas. Hairy, hefty. They even sound big, though by tarantula standards they’re not especially. Tarantula hobbyists like to show them off, which means the populations are at risk from the illegal pet trade.

So did the road workers all faint in unison at the prospect of herding tarantulas?

Of course not: South Africans, folks! they’re tough. They wrestle lions before breakfast. Instead the workers, advised by a team of scientists, rounded up the big spiders by rooting them out of their burrows and collecting them by hand. Out of 400 spiders relocated (cue “Kingdom of the Spiders” footage, hello Bill Shatner), only two of them bit anybody, and the game-reserve adviser on the project shrugged it off with, “It is like a bee sting.”

A scientist (you can tell, only scientists wear wristwatches anymore) shows one of the relocated baboon spiders  around her new digs. New burrow holes were dug with an auger, with grass and such added for curb appeal.

A scientist (you can tell, only scientists wear wristwatches anymore) shows one of the relocated baboon spiders around her new digs. New burrow holes were dug with an auger, with grass and such added for curb appeal.

I love this place! Then the team dug hundreds of artificial burrows for this shy, retiring animal, which lives most of its life in the same hole in the ground. The refugee spiders accepted the carefully located new burrows, which featured moistened soil and a scattering of plant material outside for shelter. The project turned out so well that other construction projects in South Africa started sending their spiders to the new habitat, too. Adjust your safari plans accordingly.

A side note: I’m sure you’ve noticed how eager energy companies are to trumpet their environmental credentials. These spider wranglers worked for a South African mining concern called Exxaro, which was widening a road to a power plant. I know nothing of their record and of course this story makes them look good—especially the part where some of the spiders set up housekeeping in a pile of ash next to another coal-fired power plant. Still, if oil companies can pass themselves off as cormorant-hugging do-gooders, I suppose this mining concern can use tarantulas as spokes-spiders for sustainability. After all, they coulda just squished them.

Ah, that new-home smell. Hope the neighbors are friendly.

Ah, that new-home smell. Hope the neighbors are friendly.

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Posted by on August 20, 2013 in Spider science, Tarantulas


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:



“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, 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.



Spider with a Blue Dress, Blue Dress

Will these startups have legs?

No matter how you spin it, turning spider silk into a product is tough. For thousands of years people have understood that it has certain qualities humans can put to use, mostly based on how amazingly strong and light and tough it is. But nobody has ever created or engineered spider silk on a commercial scale, even in an age where technology blossoms as never before.

A fun book, aimed at younger readers, explores the quest to commercialize spider silk. Lots of cute goat pictures and modest Canadian optimism.

A fun book, aimed at younger readers, explores the quest to commercialize spider silk. Lots of cute goat pictures and modest Canadian optimism, eh.

Remember the goats? They’re still around, but the effort to cash in on “spider goats” is moribund, despite what Al Gore said at SXSW just a few months ago. Feta is easy, fiber is hard.

The simpler, lower-tech method of wrangling spiders—patiently unspooling them by hand, like so many little bobbins—is never going to go big. There’s just too much effort for too little product. And they kinda bite. I’d say the livestock were also too small, but that’s never seemed to inhibit the silkworm industry. No, the problem is output.

Then there’s Spiber, a name so goofy it’s being used twice: once by a Swedish research company and again by a Japanese startup. A contraction of “spider” and “fiber,” I’m sure, but I’d call myself Spfiber instead, or SPiB (pronounced “spibe”), or I don’t know. As long as a name’s going to sound wacky, go the whole wack. Both have cool futuristic websites, though the Japanese company has more of the coveted Steve Jobs “my future is your future, plus lots of white space” look.

Spiber of Japan is surging ahead in the business press because it says it’s almost ready to produce for real. It can already cook up a kilogram of spider silk protein a day, so the company says, which if I read right equals 29 million feet of synthetic silk thread. It hopes to produce far more as soon as 2015. The process uses “microbial fermentation,” which is rather elegantly vague. Both companies in fact hijack a bacterium, the notorious E. coli, to synthesize the protein that’s the basis of their silk.

QMONOS my house: This shimmering blue number is billed as the first garment ever made entirely from artificial spider silk. QMONOS is a shouty version of kumonosu, Japanese for spider web.

QMONOS my house: This shimmering blue number is billed as the first garment ever made entirely from artificial spider silk. QMONOS is a shouty version of kumonosu, Japanese for spider web (“Here at Spiber, the only thing missing is ‘U’!”)

What to do with oceans of artificial cobwebs? The Japanese are talking lightweight car parts and have linked up with Kojima Industries, a Toyota partner. Both outfits mention medical technology such as scaffolds for culturing tissues, wound healing, and bone repair.

These products are apparently made without the need for the second part of the spider’s magical apparatus, the spinneret. Those little aimable, controllable spigots are how a spider takes liquid silk and tugs it into the miraculous chain of proteins. The lack of such a mechanical device has been the downfall of other spider-silk ventures in the past. The Spibers are cagey about how they get around this problem.

Have the Spibers got what it takes? A dorky name is only half the battle, even for true beliebers. Wait and see.


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Posted by on June 24, 2013 in Spider science


“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