Once Bitten, Twice Defiant (but Probably Not Bitten)

Who you gonna believe, me or your lyin’ eyes?

I like to say I’m self-taught, but at least I’m taught. We’ve all heard that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” but you know what’s worse? A total lack of knowledge. Fear the void. Ignorance is not bliss. It’s fear and confusion.

Writing about spiders is fun! There are always lots of myths, misunderstandings, misreportings, and mirth. There are medical realities unknown even to the well-informed. There are arcane and bizarre biological facts. There are opportunities for pleasant anthropomorphism: Jumping spiders dance and they look like kittens! Baby spiders fly! Since few people know anything at all about spiders, a modest amount of research always digs up new and surprising things.

But if the Internet has taught us anything (has it? discuss), it’s that “a modest amount of research” will be not only opposed, but often emotionally and even angrily opposed, by some people who haven’t done any research. Once in a while the arguing doesn’t stray too far from rational turf, even if it’s loud. But in the spider realm, lots of what people say on social media and in news articles takes that weird turn. Stubborn, accusing, insulting. Facts don’t seem to matter. That’s because it’s all about beliefs.

Now I’m in for it. What puts “spider beliefs” in the same category as political, religious, or ideological delusions convictions? I can’t say with authority, having successfully avoided philosophy and psychology for many years. So I’ll just guess.

Years ago, I read everything I could find about urban legends. Folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand (still with us at 90!) was my favorite author. It was great silly fun to see him take colorful stories I’d been told—you were, too—by friends of friends and show them to be just campfire tales. The subtext made this phenomenon even more interesting. People retold those legends, and swore by them, not just for entertainment: they were coded warnings. Urban legends worked their magic when they took something scary and unexplainable—such as a random murder, a ghost story, an uninvited spider—and built it into a tasty, shareable anecdote. And then they told you what to do about it: don’t park in isolated places, do avoid weird strangers, say your prayers, fear nature, tell a friend, trust your gut!

In other words, believe your lyin’ eyes.

The stronger the danger, the stronger the belief. Teenagers who sneak off to dark places really do get murdered now and then. Nature really is out to get you. Cast a skeptical eye upon weird strangers and you might avoid getting robbed or, I don’t know, drugged and dragged into a white van. (Then again, if the weird stranger is actually a hitchhiking Seraph who fingers his flaming sword while he solemnly announces “the Apocalypse is coming” right before vanishing, don’t be skeptical.)

Almost all spiders pose no danger at all in the ordinary run of things, but people never learned that. They’re untaught yet primed to be suspicious. Through a combination of passed-along phobias and an eerily durable sense of disgust provoked by hairiness, legginess, and facelessness, spider anxiety settles into many people’s mindset before they’re even aware of it, and good luck dislodging it. The gut warns us where the brain doesn’t: ignoring the spider menace might bring illness, scars, death!

But even that’s not enough to firm up a spider phobia. Sealing the deal demands an alarming experience; this too is right out of the urban-legends playbook. Either personal (“I was bitten by an invisible spider” or, less often, “I found a spider and it must have bitten me, because what else?”) or very close to personal: “My neighbor’s uncle was bitten by a spider—no, he never saw it, he was just waking up—and somebody identified it as a brown recluse, and he was seriously sick for a long time and are you calling me a liar?”

That last sentence is practically the script for online spider comments. The “somebody” who identified a nonnative (usually invisible) spider is always nonrecoverable. Was it a doctor? Pest control guy? College professor who knows some Latin? Dear old Dad? We’ll never know. That part of the story is lost to time, just like the dead brown spider (if any), but the scary experience lives on.

You know the thing about extraordinary claims. They require extraordinary evidence. And blaming a sore on a spider that you never saw, that doesn’t cause sores, that’s never been seen in your town, and that doesn’t live within a thousand miles of you all sounds pretty extraordinary-claim-y, right? Just as it would be extraordinary if your average Joseph could identify a spider—by species, no less—that he never even saw. That’s not even guesswork. That’s miraculous.

Michael Shermer already has the best book title of this genre: “Why People Believe Weird Things.” It’s worth a read, especially for the way it shows how common, and how human, it is to be fooled. In the case of spiders, we can give this brief answer to Shermer’s title: “Because they’re scary and someone got hurt. By something.” That’s too short for a dissertation (I’ll do better next time, Professor Brunvand) but good enough, I think, for Facebook and Nextdoor.

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Posted by on March 1, 2024 in Envenomation, Loxosceles (recluses), Myths and Calumnies


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Jumpin’ Joro!

Big, colorful spider is fiery, but mostly peaceful.

The joro spider (Trichonephila clavata) has landed! Or so say the news reports of the past few weeks. Like most spider announcements, this one is a combination of fact, wonder, fear, and utter spew.

Is it big? Yes, kinda, though not on a tarantula scale. Is it eye-catching? Oh yes; it looks like a bunch of party balloons got married. Is it spreading? So it seems, since this Asian orb weaver likes living in the US and has been established in the hospitable South for a while—principally Georgia, so you know Florida Man will be running into it soon enough—and is poised to stretch its legs, legs, legs up along the Eastern Seaboard. A related big species, T. clavipes, has been in the Americas all along yet nobody’s panicking.

GENTLE: The joro will not be ignored! But she’s shy and would rather be left alone maybe to read in bed. [Christina Butler—Creative Commons]

But does it jump? Or “parachute”? Well, no . . . I think we all have too much military invasion on the brain these days. Giant joro spiders do not plummet from the sky. Like many other species of spiders, their young (emphasis: tiny, tiny young) will disperse after hatching by releasing silk into the air and “ballooning.” This is a magical process that scientists are learning more about all the time, since it employs a hidden mechanism that’s not nearly as straightforward as “point your butt at the sky and hope for a breeze.” Read up on it if you’re a science geek, and marvel.

If you’re just an arachnophobe, be still your beating heart. If a juvenile joro wafts into your garden, you won’t even notice it. If it grows up there and gets to work on its typically large web, you will.

And here in California, we’ll just have to look at pictures on the Internet. Hi, joro! There’s no sign of the big guys and gals here.

Oh, and the name? From Japanese mythology. Here’s the definitive rundown. The beautiful spider-woman (not the kind that kisses? I guess) can scare you or thrill you, or reel you in with her silk, or have you for dinner. She sounds nice.

THAT’S NO LADY: In case you’ve been running low on nightmares lately. [Artist: Mona Finden, by permission]

I don’t know whether the US news media are getting better at spider stories—at least some of them—or whether the tide of joro panic has yet to hit. Most of the reporting has been fairly factual. Headline writers have been tempted to screech, but for the most part they’ve been somewhat subdued. “Harmless but scary” may be the best we can hope for in terms of information, and yeah, that’s sort of like “fiery but mostly peaceful,” but if the alternative is the typical UK-style hyperventilation, I call that progress.

I’ve noticed this on social media, too. A neighborhood group I weigh in on has been inching forward on spider postings, so that at least one or two stolid, fact-based neighbors are sure to comment when a photo is put up for identification, or someone recalls a grisly medical event he blamed (with no evidence) on a spider that was never seen and doesn’t live around here anyway. There’s still the comment chorus (if they were a band, they’d be called The Monotones) who post KILL IT WITH FIRE or BURN DOWN THE HOUSE or a handful of other moldy responses that my savvier neighbors warn are sometimes actually taken seriously. When panic meets fire, hilarity does not ensue.

If giant spiders are not invading the homeland, there is one point on which “invasion” is the word of the day. These spiders don’t belong in the United States. Many, many species are here without permission, not just arachnids but reptiles, insects, birds, plants . . . and the Southern states are often where these species set up a base for expansion. Even in my city, most of the common spiders I see are non-native species and seem to have crowded out the natives. You’d think that a black widow (Latrodectus hesperus) would be able to hold its own in the soft suburbs, but maybe not. Creatures that frighten suburbanites aren’t always much of a threat to a rival small animal that’s managed to unlock the secret of being Baddest of the Backyard. In Southern California, for instance, in many places the brown widow (Latrodectus geometricus) is pushing out the black widow. How? What’s the secret sauce?

Steatoda nobilis, a false widow spider that doesn’t belong here, is abundant in my spider-hunting spots. Five years ago, I saw none. Steatoda grossa was queen, and L. hesperus lurked around the edges. Now those latter two species appear to have shipped out. S. grossa might have gone back to Hollywood to try to rekindle its movie career, but I think that with the universal acceptance of computer graphics, that ship has sailed.

The joro spiders’ impact on their new homeland is still unknown. They might be beneficial in some ways, such as eating mosquitoes or agricultural pests, or their presence might tip the ecological balance the wrong direction like those monitors and fat pythons lounging around Florida . . . or it might be a wash. Every invasive species is a variable, and nobody can solve the equation with any certainty.

FRANKLY . . . : Is this Georgia peach fated to be gone with the wind? We’ll see. [University of Georgia]

But what’s certain is that joro spiders aren’t going to hurt you, or your pets. And since they move slowly (been in Georgia since 2014, haven’t moved much since), you still have plenty of time to get that arachnophobia taken care of. Therapy is cheaper than a new house. Especially in California.

A HANDFUL: Let’s shake on it. Not too hard. [University of Georgia]

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Posted by on March 13, 2022 in Myths and Calumnies, Netlore


Meet the Spider: Cheiracanthium

Little night stalker has a reputation worse than its bite

You’ve met this spider before. I say that with great confidence. Members of the genus Cheiracanthium are found worldwide and, far from being reclusive, are often out and about. We encounter two species: C. inclusum (native to the Americas) and C. mildei (a sneaky import). You find the yellow sac spider in houses and in foliage, prowling and patrolling, hunting for food. When it’s resting in a house during the day, it’s likely to be snoozing in an elongated sleeping sac tucked into a corner where a wall meets the ceiling, or two walls meet. That’s the “sac” part of the common name. It also favors rolled-up leaves and ground debris, like bark.

HERE WE GLOW: A Cheiracanthium spider photographed in Guelph, Ontario. Note the extra-long first pair of legs, which help with identification. (Ryan Hodnett—Creative Commons)

The yellow is variable: it can be golden, brownish, lemony, or even greenish. In our place we call it the “glow in the dark spider” not because it has such a superpower but because the lemon chiffon color reminds us of toys or stickers that shine when the lights go out. And because it’s a creature of the night.

Cheiracanthium is worth talking about not only because it’s widely encountered but because it has a reputation. It can bite people, and does—but of course spider panic kicks in when people learn of this fact, and the yellow sac spider gets saddled with all those ghastly rumors about unhealing sores and swelling, with gross overkill pictures delivered by Dr. Internet. In truth, the bites start with a sting and turn into redness and itching. That’s pretty much it, not that it sounds like fun.

WAITING FOR DARK: A Cheiracanthium inclusum strikes a typical outdoors pose. The yellow sac spider is at home indoors and out, wherever there are bugs to be found. (Cletus Lee—Creative Commons)

Can’t a pest just be a pest? That’s not just my assessment, by the way. That’s the word the viniculture people apply to the Cheiracanthium spiders that loiter in the vineyards and fields of my fair state, stickying up the vines with their silken retreats and occasionally nipping fieldhands. Actually, it’s a pest that eats other pests, which is considered a plus if you’re trying to cut down on the agricultural pesticides.

I bet a lot of those spiders end up in the crush come harvest time. But c’mon, you asked for organic! It wouldn’t be the first exotic undertone in your fancy, fancy yellow wine.

This is a spider that’s maybe harder to love than others. But hear me out.

The estimable Spider Club of Southern Africa, my chums in the Southern Hemisphere, posted not long ago on their Facebook page: “The sac spider, yellow sac spider or house sac spider, has been declared ‘not guilty’!” What was the alleged crime? Necrotic wounds. Cheiracanthium spiders in South Africa had been accused, on disputed evidence, of causing the same kind of serious sores of which brown recluses are capable. More:

The media got hold of this research, it was repeated many times in both scientific and popular literature without rigorous investigation and a legend was born. Recent research, however, has concluded that their venom does not contain the compound that causes necrosis and that this reputation is undeserved. House sac spiders are no more or less dangerous to humans than any other spider and like all spiders they try their best to avoid contact with us. (Dangerous Spiders in South Africa, by Astri Leroy, revised 2015)

Envenomation is a complex phenomenon. To some wildlife experts in South Africa, for instance, Cheiracanthium is still not in the clear. The African Snake Bite Institute expresses a cautious view that the local species, C. furculatum, might indeed cause serious problems, although it concedes most bites are still little more than nuisances. Some components of its venom call for further study. Among other variables, the institute says that “scratching may introduce bacteria from the hands/nails of the victim to the wound.” And it’s undisputed that these bites tend to be itchy.

Let’s pause there for a moment. The yellow sac spider doesn’t stand in the dock alone. There’s broad research trying to pin down whether, and when, an otherwise insignificant spider bite might cause health problems simply by breaking the skin. Necrotic wounds and the bacterial skin infection known as cellulitis, for instance: those are very likely to be caused by staph bacteria, which live on normal human skin and in the environment. And what can break the skin? Anything pointy or scrape-y. Not just invertebrate mouthparts but spines, thorns, nettles, wood splinters, rusty tools, dog toenails, dirty fingernails.

So why is a skin wound from unknown causes instantly called a “spider bite” anyway? Too often, even experienced medical personnel will shrug that it’s a spider bite because it looks like a spider bite. Notice how very often the news articles claiming to report on a ghastly spider bite add, “The victim never actually saw the spider that bit him.” Both of these statements are beliefs, not evidence-based conclusions. That’s why experts have a general rule that if a spider was not seen in the act of biting, and then identified by a spider expert, it’s unwarranted to call something a spider bite. And you really don’t want to call something a “brown recluse bite” if you live thousands of miles away from any and all brown recluses. But oh, people do.

And it’s not just idle chatter. Crying “spider bite” is a potentially dangerous tic if it leads a doctor down a blind alley trying to fight a nonexistent venom when he or she should be fighting an infection. And it sows confusion if it makes everyone in your social media circle afraid of something that doesn’t happen. (Yes, fifty million British tabloid readers can be wrong.) As I’ve mentioned before, arachnophobia can kill: consider the person in the car you smash into while flailing around at a harmless spider, or the burn victims who tried to KILL IT WITH FIRE.

And don’t forget stress. If you spend your life in fear of small animals that are always part of your environment, that just has to shorten your life, not kidding.

SACKED: “Well, I’m off to disable somebody’s Toyota. Those emissions-control hoses aren’t going to clog themselves.(Joseph Berger—

Yellow sac spiders may not be cuddly, but that’s no reason to make them monsters. Sober scientific folks are still looking into cases of envenomation of our sallow friend, but the evidence on balance is that bites, when they happen at all, are a nuisance.

Speaking of nuisances, these vagabonds do clog up certain vital parts of cars with their sticky little webs. Cars are a great place to lay low during the day. No worries, this too shall pass. Soon we’ll all be driving electric Futuremobiles without a lot of important hoses and tubes under the hood. But there still might be a glow-in-the-dark spider roaming your electric car’s glowing dashboard. Just wave as it goes by.

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Posted by on November 18, 2021 in Cheiracanthium (sac spiders), Envenomation


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Why I Love Spiders

Spiders occupy a completely alien world that’s literally right under our noses. Anything you find out about spiders, from where they live to how they mate to how their bodies work, is bound to be astounding. Most people have surrounded themselves so thoroughly with ignorance and fear that they’re nowhere close to appreciating what marvels these small creatures are. And once you start seeing them as objects of endless interest, the excessive fear goes away. It really does—I’ve seen it in so many people.

Spiders are a window into one of the multiverses, if I can stretch the term, that we occupy. Contemplate some of the small animals going about their business, oblivious to us and harmless to us, and it gives a new depth to your human identity. Actually, I believe that’s true of bigger creatures, too, as well as humans we might think of as unlovable. Find the empathy to study and respect the lives of others, whether they’re spiders or homely stray cats or homely stray people, and it strengthens your bond with the world you were born into—and that will continue after you’re gone, for eons yet, hopefully filled with people who’ve cultivated the talent, and the gift, of cherishing their fellow animals.

A bit theoretical there, sorry. I love spiders because I love astounding facts and I enjoy breaking through misunderstandings. Spiders are weird and fun. And man, can they dance.

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Posted by on April 24, 2019 in Myths and Calumnies


Day of the Deadly Daddies

Hey, Cellar Spiders: I’m in Your Corner

I’ve figured out the problem with Quora, and maybe other Q&A sites. You can thank me later. The problem is Siri. And Alexa, and the Google Lady. Especially the Google Lady, because she’s so smart and so prompt, and I think she’s the best example of that “bray your question into the air and I will answer” phenomenon we’re all being sold.

So, the problem: people don’t read other people. In the dim days when the Internet was fresh and friendly, it was promoted as a place where knowledge accumulated, like a library. And like a library, it required that the initiate search for answers. It was a lot faster than a card catalog and a scuffed trestle table somewhere, but it still required an awareness that your question had been asked before—and likely answered.

You’ve seen it: the question posed on Facebook or Quora, and answered well or semi-well. And then someone new drops a post as if the first were invisible. Then that one is patiently fielded, and a link provided. Then more and more people stumble in, each one reacting only to the initial post and oblivious to the new ones. Or they start feeble side arguments. The informed posters keep offering the same answer, and get frustrated. In the end, only a couple of people get the news, while everybody else is just bottled up in some kind of Brownian motion of cluelessness: still asking, still reacting, shouting “Photoshopped!” even if they don’t know Adobe from a doobie, or “Fake news!” or “Trump!” as the bump into each other’s random views.

That brings me to spiders. There are spider-smart people out there, and smart curious people. Then there are the fools who feed the British tabloids, and the vast groups of people who sustain the most ridiculous myths about spiders, and the less ridiculous ones, and the whole silly corner of the online multiverse is sustained by one fact: people just won’t read the comments.

How many years will people ask “are daddy-long-legs spiders really deadly? But their fangs are too short to bite people?” I enjoy writing about the daddies, I really do. But the truth is out there. If folks took the time for a smidgen of research—just a couple of clicks, all I ask—we’d have time to tackle deeper or more mysterious things.

Here’s how I responded to this old chestnut on Quora just the other day. At least the questioner turned it into a “why” question. Like a lot of the better Quora questions, a little twist on the premise keeps it from being just a lazy schoolchild’s attempt to collect homework fodder. And I bet I’m ahead of the Google Lady this time. “Alexa: pat me on the back.”

“Alexa: Is it true this spider wouldn’t hurt a fly?” “No, it would definitely hurt a fly. But not you.”

Q. Why do so many people firmly believe a daddy long leg spider is very venomous?

A. Because the “deadly daddy” myth harmonizes so well with how urban legends are usually born. It’s . . .

Pleasantly counterintuitive: the stickiest urban legends always have an element of “wow—I didn’t know that!” You’ll never be able to launch an urban legend that rabid dogs are dangerous, or that Mister Rogers liked peanut butter. But if you can concoct a tall tale about how rabid dogs were responsible for the breeding off the Goldendoodle, or Fred Rogers is a former military sniper and current Satanist, you have an audience. People enjoy having their ears tickled.

In this case, the sweet counterintuitive fact is that daddy long-legs spiders (Pholcidae) are weak, spindly, shivery little things you could blow away with a gentle breath. So to learn that they’re actually military snipers, uh, deadly creatures, packs a powerful “Wow! Who knew?” That supercharges the legend.

Told to you by a friend: Think about all the times a vague, wacky story has come your way. Likely it was from a friend, relative, agreeable stranger, or favorite celeb. Jan Harold Brunvand, the godfather of the urban legend research, dubbed this the “FOAF” phenomenon: friend of a friend. The person telling the tall tale rarely claims to be the person it happened to; no, it was always “my girlfriend’s uncle,” or “my dad’s Army buddy,” or “a TV comedian recalling something he was told.” Removing the origin of the myth from the hearing of it insulates it from fact-checking. And since the original source is often unknown or forgotten or even dead, it makes debunking the tall tale impossible.

Whoever told you the daddy was deadly was likely a school chum, an acquaintance, or somebody who spends too much time on the Internet and too little time at the library. Maybe it was your mom, trying to get you to stop torturing poor helpless arachnids. Whoever it was, it was somebody you trusted—often for no good reason.

Ever-so-slightly plausible: Daddy long-legs spiders are venomous . . . but so are all other spiders, except for a few small groups. They do have little fangs (again, like all other spiders). Conceivably they could bite someone; after all, they bite bugs all the time. They might even kill a black widow now and then, and since widows are genuinely potentially harmful to people, doesn’t that mean that the cellar spider is actually even MORE of a boss?

A dash of cold water: the only investigation I’ve ever seen into the deadly daddies was on “Mythbusters,” in which Energizer-bunny Adam Savage burned up multiple screen minutes trying to get a box full of pholcids to bite him. In the end, he claimed that one had, yet all he got was a tiny red spot. But since he’s a ginger, I was never convinced he wasn’t just calling out a freckle.

And . . .

Spiders always have it hard. Most of what you know about spiders is wrong to begin with, so this libel against the frail and harmless pholcid is par for the course. Our parents or grandparents used to tell wild tales about the “deadly spider in the beehive hairdo” that killed girls of the “American Bandstand” generation. And during the Southwest decoration trend of a few decades ago, we all heard creepy tales of the “erupting cactus”: a plant brought in from the desert that started shaking and suddenly disgorging thousands of deadly baby tarantulas! And who could forget the breathless childhood stories about spider eggs in BubbleYum? Aaack! All lies, of course. But so thrilling.

Today, we pass around grisly pictures of open sores that are supposedly caused by brown recluse spiders, wounds that erupt thousands of miles from where any brown recluses actually live. Crypto-crazies head off to the wilds of Africa even now to hunt for mythical mystery spiders the size of golf carts. And panicky British schoolmarms shut down entire schools out of fear that a harmless invasive spider, the false widow, is going to run amok, snatching apple-cheeked pupils like something out of Harry Potter.

Face it, spiders are the go-to creature if you’re going to tell colorful lies. And the daddy long-legs spider is everywhere, just minding its business (and yes, making a bit of a mess), and always ready for its closeup.


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.


Spider in the sky with diamonds

Oh what a lovely web we weave . . .

I finally got a look, a proper nighttime look, at the marvelous tarantula sculpture mounted to the wall of a parking garage in Morgan Hill, California. Here it is!

That’s Venus shining down, by the way. Tell me this ain’t a sight you’d drive all the way to Morgan Hill to see. [Photos by Charles Lindsey]


Recall how the art-loving (and publicity-friendly) civic leaders of this horsy Bay Area town withstood the faint cries of arachnophobes and naysayers and commissioned this sculpture to beautify the garage, which, like all parking garages, could be made more beautiful by practically anything. But in this case, the artwork is a stunner.

You won’t forget where you left your car. (Insert joke about Fiat Spider here.)

The glittering tarantula, by sculptor Gordon Huether, is a tribute to the native tarantulas that prowl the foothills in search of mates. It gleams with the beams of multiple car headlights—I bet you never thought of building a giant spider out of old car parts, did you?—and gives Morgan Hill’s modest downtown a shot of color and charisma.

That glitter rocker who was talking about spiders from Mars? They probably looked like this.








But the surprising thing to me is how spidery it is. The proportions, the graceful bend of a knee, the sense of aloof purpose—all those really do evoke the tarantulas that stride around in the fall. People caricature spiders with the dripping fangs, and the red eyes, and all the other grotesque nonsense, or they draw ticklike silhouettes like the Richmond Spiders mascot  and it’s obvious they have no idea what spiders even look like. Is it any wonder they think spiders are invading beds, and biting British tots, and leaping around, and infiltrating beehive hairdos? Not surprising at all.

Still handsome by day. Just not as electric.

But Huether got it so right. His spider is built on a structure of red metal beams, and like other skilled sculptors he turned that rigid material into a shape suggestive of both grace and heft, like a tarantula itself. Those strong femurs, narrowing down to the delicate tarsi and toes; the front legs raised slightly as the nearsighted animal investigates its path; even the multiple little orbs across its back, reminiscent of a mama wolf spider carrying its babies around. It all evokes not only movement but natural movement.



A spider of that size really would walk, and climb, and pause that way. Here, of course, I need to acknowledge the law of scaling that insists a living spider that big is impossible, at least on our planet. It wouldn’t be able to take in enough oxygen or support its weight, although I bet some cool steel prosthetic legs would help.

Also: laser eyes, as long as we’re blue-skying physiological improvements.

As for the sculpture, I don’t see any room for improvement. It’s perfect. Long may it glow.


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Posted by on February 3, 2017 in Tarantulas


Downtown Spider Brown

Nothing says you’ve arrived like a GIANT METAL SPIDER

Wouldn’t want to be a fly on that wall.

On the up-and-up: Spiders are coming for your SUV! Mind the silk. (City of Morgan Hill)

Movin’ on up: Spiders are coming for your SUV! Mind the silk. (City of Morgan Hill)

Not with that arachnid dangling right alongside. See it? It’s just about to pounce on that plump crossover.

This is Morgan Hill, California, a booming ‘burb in the southern reaches of the San Francisco Bay Area. It seems to be managing its growth pretty well (the spiders are sure filling out). Only a few decades ago it was a sleepy satellite of big San Jose to the north. Horse country. Drowsy businesses off the freeway. The kind of town you’d visit in the fall for pumpkin patches and corn mazes.

Now Morgan Hill is adding not only new and sometimes palatial houses (they still have the horses) but also restaurants and shops. And it’s wielding the D-word heard in every aspiring community: downtown. Twenty-five years in the area, and I didn’t know Morgan Hill even had a downtown. Where there’s downtown, there has to be parking. And where there’s parking there’s . . . this giant spider.

The city is about to christen a new downtown garage adorned with the sculpture shown here. It’s in homage to the lovelorn tarantulas that stroll the golden hills outside Morgan Hill in the fall. My kind of town!

The spiders honored by this artwork make themselves known in October and November as the males wander in search of a mate. Nearby Henry Coe State Park has its annual Tarantula Festival in which kids and adults buddy up to the leggy, shaggy California tarantulas that would give up all that fame and fortune and commissioned artwork if they could only find a partner. Then, of course, they die.

The Morgan Hill Times reported “impassioned discussion” about the proposed sculpture, the work of Napa artist Gordon Huether. The artist will also put a less intimidating sculpture honoring a native stone, poppy jasper, on the opposite flank of the garage.

One resident launched a petition to squash the spider, but had no beef with the jasper. “My children will be frightened and therefore we won’t be coming downtown,” wrote a signer.

Another wrote, “I do not feel that the spider sculpture reflects what Morgan Hill is all about.” To be fair, the artist probably couldn’t figure out a way to sculpt a giant, metal property-tax bill. The petition fizzled out.

Morgan Hill Life, another local paper, urged town stalwarts to take a stand for “daring works of public art” like the spider. The artist, for his part, maintains that the spider art was meant to be “whimsical and cheerful,” and he believes the naysayers will eventually come around.

I’m not sure. Arachnophobes tend to be an irrational and impulsive lot.Morgan Hill spider closeup

“Red Tarantula was inspired by the tarantulas that visit Morgan Hill every October,” Huether confirms on his website. “The installation is composed of hundreds of vintage headlights for the spider’s body and is adjoined by eight vibrant red powder coated steel outstretched legs spanning the wall. Red Tarantula is not only a humorous addition to the parking structure, but is a witty response to Poppy Jasper on the façade.”

The $200,000 metal spider is chunky and shiny. The original design, it must be noted, didn’t look like a tarantula at all. It was more svelte and curvy, reminiscent of a widow or other cobweb spider. The local tarantulas, like all such, are more like plus-size models: big and beautiful. But Huether shows they can wear the sparkles too.

My turn to shine! A close-up of the leggy supermodel and its beautiful eyes, eyes, eyes. (Gordon Huether/Art Matters

My turn to shine! A close-up of the leggy supermodel and its beautiful eyes, eyes, eyes. (Gordon Huether/Art Matters

Morgan Hill has vineyards, so surely it has black widows too. If you’re gonna alarm arachnophobic shoppers, why not go all the way?

Huether could have festooned his design with a giant bunch of grapes, tapping into the perennial hysteria about black widows among the produce. Or maybe a banana, a nod to the hysterical Brits and their banana splits. A few months ago it appears someone was actually bitten by a refrigerated widow trying to escape its plastic prison. This is the first time I’ve ever heard of a spider in the grapes biting anyone. The victim was in pain for a while and then the doctors sent her home, much as if she’d stepped on a rusty nail. But all bets are off when the reporters find out.

Hurrah for Morgan Hill and its civic daring! Mass tarantella dancing to follow. That’ll bring them downtown.

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Posted by on November 3, 2015 in Tarantulas


There Once Was a Spider, Begorra . . .

. . . that set off a new tale of horror

The terrified folk

Couldn’t take a wee joke

When their grocer left fauna on flora


Why the limerick? You’ll soon see.

Tesco, which has this tasty recipe on its website, is obviously into spider cuisine. (Tesco Realfood photo)

Well, no wonder Tesco food is crawling with spiders. Here’s a recipe from Tesco’s website. They’re obviously into spider cuisine. (Tesco Realfood photo)

Tip o’ the hat to the supermarket chain Tesco, which calmly handled a customer’s complaint of finding a spider egg sac on a banana, and then actually identified the spider as harmless. This, as any news junkie knows, never happens. The untrained banana-buyer’s warrantless identification of the egg sac as belonging to “the world’s deadliest spider” is brayed far and wide by the media. Then the story, like the spider, dies. We never find out what happened when moonsuited pest techs descend on the humble cottage with their flamethrowers and collect the banana or the egg sac or more rarely an actual spider—all of which are bruised and mushy, like the story itself.

In the latest case, in Limerick, Ireland, the family, not knowing quite how to react, actually baked the banana and its egg sac in the oven for an hour and a half at 250 degrees (see photo). That is one goth recipe for bananas foster.

Is it done yet? Kitchen tip: next Halloween pop the egg sac into the microwave and the spiders will be RADIOACTIVE! (Limerick Post photo)

Is it done yet? Kitchen tip: next Halloween pop the egg sac into the microwave and the spiders will be RADIOACTIVE! (Limerick Post photo)

I’m half frustrated by this story, still, because the Irish media stopped at conveying Tesco’s reassurance that it was all about “a harmless spider.” That’s definitely the phrase to highlight if you’re serving the public. But inquiring minds also want to know . . . which harmless spider?

The banana-spider scare is a perennial: one of the few ways spiders regularly make the news. (Another is the neverending saga of the Invisible Spider, a baddie not-seen on every continent, which gets blamed for every nip and sore regardless of whether the victim is a prisoner, an athlete, or a hardcore, liver-abusing rock god.) You wouldn’t know it from the tabloids, but spider scientists have been devoting attention to the banana story, too, from both a pest-control and a research perspective.

Not every wandering spider in South and Central America is the same. There are species of medical concern (most notoriously Phoneutria, of which several species are of minimal concern and one of greater) and several others that are indeed harmless.

Now, harmless doesn’t always mean small and cute, like that dancing jumping spider with the rainbow afro that you saw on Facebook—the one its discoverer nicknamed “Sparklemuffin.” (Call off the unicorns, please. Sure, jumping spiders are literally tiny kittens, but let’s not get carried away.)

Harmless might mean big and fast, like the tropical spider Cupiennius. Or big and fast like huntsman species, which live all around the world and like to skitter about walls and ceilings and doorways.

(I learned something fun about Heteropoda (huntsman spiders) in Australia. They do bite. That’s not the fun part. Someone carried out a thorough study of when people in Oz are actually bitten by spiders, and the number one circumstance for the huntsman was “when catching the spider.” I come from a family of five brothers, I savor knuckle-headedness.)

All of the above (not Sparklemuffin) will occasionally show up as “banana spiders.” Studies like this indicate that the harmless or less-harmful species are the ones most likely to pop up in British (and now Irish) fruit bowls. The Vetter paper I just cited suggests that’s because Phoneutria fera, the one whose bite is most troublesome, lives far from the banana-growing regions that export the fruit to Europe and North America. Concerned mums and dads shouldn’t be so quick to panic.

And it’s worth repeating: when all one sees is an egg sac, there’s no risk whatsoever. The wee ones, even if they hatch, won’t survive that far from home and they can’t bite anyone.

There’s another spider amidst the fruit salad: the black widow. It’s grapes the widow hides in, not bananas. She’s in there to catch insects and gets accidentally caught in the harvest. Despite the well-known toxicity of their venom, I don’t know of any case in which a black widow lurking in a bunch of grapes ever injured anyone. (Do you? Tell me.) Unlike wandering spiders, which are fast, black widows are slow and clumsy; you’d have to stick your finger right into one’s face or web to be bitten, and even then she’d be desperately trying to escape.

Some people think there have been more spider sightings in fruit in recent years because of reduced pesticide use. I don’t know if either of those things is true. If anything, you’d think grocery stores’ fumigation would be getting even better at keeping out critters. And even organic bananas are subjected to some pesticides.

The number of spider reports? Naw, they’ve always been out there. But now that we can all share a shriek with folks as far afield as Limerick or London, the tales (rhyming or not) have a better chance of racing round the world. As they do.

Miss Tuffet, er, Pottle, took her spider and fruit back to Sainsbury's, which gave her a gift card and a spot of reassurance: her spider was not only dead, it was harmless. She doesn't look reassured. (Bournemouth Echo photo)

Last November, Miss Tuffet, er, Pottle, took her spider and fruit back to Sainsbury’s, which gave her a gift card and a spot of reassurance: her spider was not only dead, it was harmless. She doesn’t look reassured. (Bournemouth Echo photo)



Save the Horrid Spider!

Why protect this endangered money spider? Here’s my two cents

This is just adorable. And if it reminds you of Monty Python, me too. If it were me, I’d title this campaign “Life of Brian (the Spider)” or perhaps “Ministry of Silly Walks (with Eight Legs).”

Buglife, which calls itself “the only organisation in Europe devoted to the conservation of all invertebrates,” is crowdfunding on behalf of the horrid ground weaver spider, Nothophantes horridus, whose English habitat is threatened by development.

Nothophantes horridus, the horrid ground-weaver spider, is so poor that it can't even afford color. Actually, no. It's kind of brown.

The horrid ground-weaver is so poor it can’t even afford color! Actually, it’s kind of brown. [Illustration © Fergus McBurney]

Best spider name ever.

But even better! The little arachnid is of a type known as a money spider, a universally harmless breed with a friendly, colorful common name. Why do they call it a money spider? Because legend has it that seeing one, and protecting it, will bring you wealth and good fortune.

Because, you know, it will. Look at me: crawling with both spiders and gelt! “If you want to live and thrive, let a spider run alive” is a great old (also English) proverb that your crumpet-baking granny taught you when you were a sprat. The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, which should know, cites its use among Kentish grannies as far back as 1867, though everyone thinks it’s much older.

(In the UK, by the way, money spiders are converted to pounds sterling, thus making them “pound spiders.” No wonder they’re endangered.)

Buglife cheerfully points out that the spider isn’t horrid at all, unless you consider unshaven World Series players to be horrid:

The spider’s name comes from the fact that its body is rather bristly—the Latin origin for the word horrid [horridus] is bristly.

The conservation group worries that a planned housing development at an abandoned quarry in Plymouth will wipe out one of just three places where the tiny spider is known to live. Buglife conducted a petition campaign on the horrid spider’s behalf and is now crowdfunding for a proper scientific survey to find out its range and how to protect it with an emergency preservation plan. As of February 4, they’d raised £1,504 toward a goal of £9,600. The money spiders had better start shaking those trees.

Cool activism. Not just waving around picket signs or blocking traffic or chanting monotonous slogans, but putting time and money into concrete solutions. And on behalf of a small creature most people have never seen, and would probably squish if they did.

Who says spiders aren't made of money? In Canada they are, eh.

Who says spiders aren’t made of money? In Canada they are, eh.

I’m weary of crowdfunding appeals; they’re either worthy but far too numerous, or flaky and self-aggrandizing. But this appeal for the horrid ground weaver is no hipster smirk, unlike the guy panhandling online for his mac-and-cheese recipe. Everyone knows biodiversity is good and that it suffers every day from our roads, buildings, conflicts, and other ways we use our landscape to eat, find shelter, and make money. A few bucks to protect this money spider is spare change, well spent.

UPDATE: Another day has passed, and the horrid spider fund has reached £2,654! That’s, like, ten kilometers! Good show, crowdfunders, for putting your money where your webs are.

SECOND UPDATE: They made it! “Team Spider” reached its fundraising goal and is proceeding to arrange the habitat survey. And how could I have overlooked the YouTube animation? “Not everyone likes spiders, but no one likes extinction” is a slogan to remember.

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Posted by on February 4, 2015 in Netlore, Spider science