Monthly Archives: August 2014

Do Spiders Love the Smell of Gasoline in the Morning?

Drive Me to the Corner of Myth and Spider—And Step on It

First, I present another great book about how obvious explanations are wrong, and sometimes aren’t even explanations at all. That description of Everything Is Obvious (Once You Know the Answer) doesn’t do it justice; it’s a really rich read. But that’s enough to get us going on today’s spider story.

Car spider Halloween

Not a Suzuki, not a real spider, but a real contender for scariest occupant of the car pool lane.

The Suzuki Kizashi, a nice sedan no longer sold in the USA, is the latest car to fall victim to the yellow sac spider (Cheiracanthium sp.) and its habit of building silken retreats and egg sacs in small spaces. Previous news stories have involved Mazdas and Toyotas. The sac spider gets inside hoses and weaves a web that clogs vents and drains in the pollution-control and air-conditioning systems, so the car has to be recalled and fixed.

The auto press loves these stories, and the spider-phobic public runs amok. You see, clogging a fuel-tank venting system could lead to cracks in the tank and leaks and fires and DEATH! A plugged AC vent isn’t quite as dramatic, but an obstruction in that line causes condensation to build up and possibly overflow into the car’s interior, perhaps on your new shoes or, worse, your car’s electronics. This happens to my truck and is the reason it smells swampy (though I don’t know whether to blame spiders or messy trees). Toyota recalled 870,000 cars out of concern that shorted-out airbags might deploy without warning.

There’s already a lively literature of fear involving cars and spiders, and this adds another layer. I don’t think anybody’s gone nuts over the dangers to your car posed by bunnies, but given a slow enough news day, that could happen, why not.

But you see? It’s spiders that reliably make some people stupid. The ever-present meme accompanying these car stories is “a certain spider loves the smell of gasoline.”

Think about that. All the times you’ve been filling your tank, or peering into the fuel hole, or gassing up the mower . . . remember those times when legions of spiders would come racing toward you, jostling to get inside that chamber full of intensely poisonous refined petroleum product?

Me neither. That’s because spiders aren’t attracted to the smell of gasoline. Or, in the spirit of skeptical reasoning, I’ll do radio announcer voice and say “there is no evidence that spiders are attracted to gas fumes.” And it’s not just me: read what actual arachnologists say about this myth, not car journalists or ordinary spider haters. Also here.

Long-legged Sac Spider - Cheiracanthium inclusum ♂

On the prowl: Cheiracanthium inclusum. Rolled-up leaves make a great spider retreat, but apparently not as good as your car’s emission-control system. (© Cletus Lee, Creative Commons)


The spider in question, which lives all around the world, is both commonly seen and a bit secretive. It’s an active hunter, meaning it doesn’t weave trap webs. So it walks around at night looking for things to eat and, if it’s a male and the time is right, for potential mates. By day it builds a retreat, which looks like a full-length spider sleeping bag. Look close and you can see the spider tucked in there. You notice these retreats in crevices, sometimes where wall meets ceiling, and in tight spaces where the spider feels safe by day. Females also build sacs for their eggs. The silk can be surprisingly strong and papery, making a tearing sound when you pull on it. It could easily clog some small, crucial vent.

The Cheiracanthium I encounter (there are two common species) is a pale yellow, spindly creature with dark feet, likely to be found outdoors as well as indoors. In the yard its usual domain is shrubbery: the lemon tree, leaves, grapevines.

Statewide, this spider is very common in vineyards, and as such occasionally shows up in packages of table grapes. Scientists who study its role in vineyards say that it’s both a nuisance (annoying pickers, leaving bits of web around) and a helper, in that it eats bugs that damage the grapes.

You know, there’s quite a spidery cast of characters in those California vineyards. If we’re faithful to the “attracted to gasoline” mythology, we must conclude they’re all a bunch of winos.

Anybody who’s worked on a car has seen cobwebs inside taillight housings, nooks and crannies in the chassis, and—yes—behind the gas flap. But that doesn’t mean you’re hosting invertebrates with a fetish for taillights, undercarriages, or gasoline. It means the spiders are hiding. And your car, with all its secret spaces, hoses, doors and whatnot, is a wonderland for a small creature that needs to lie low by day.

After all, it needs a good day’s rest if it’s going to pop out while you’re on the freeway and provoke a good crash.

The one true thing about Cheiracanthium is that it’s been implicated in a fair number of bites, though (again with the mythology) they’re medically minor, if annoying. I’ll get to that another day.

The mythology of what spiders are and do is so wonderfully florid. They like huffing gasoline! They chase parked cars (they even prefer certain models), where they lie in wait instead of lurking, well, everywhere around you. They even drive Justin Bieber to make further unwise decisions.











Tarantulas Go Marching In, Hurrah, Hurrah

Talkin’ ‘Bout Mygale . . .

Tarantulas were my first love. Not the exotic pet sort of tarantula, but the rangy, shaggy, Tootsie-roll-colored spiders that roam the California hill country every fall. (Mygale is French for tarantula, which I need to mention so as to make sense of that headline.)

First name, Aphonopelma. Last name . . . not sure of species. But you can call me Mr. T. (Photo by Toiyabe--Creative Commons)

First name, Aphonopelma. Last name . . . not sure of species. But you can call me Mr. T. (Photo by Toiyabe–Creative Commons)

Incredible. You spend your whole life somewhere and don’t even notice an animal that lives right next door—though to be fair, they do lie low. Most people know that male spiders of all kinds saddle up and begin to wander as the year winds down, because that’s when everybody is sexually mature and preparing for the next generation. But house spiders are one thing; you can shrug at a wolf spider hustling across your rug. A slow-motion marathon of big, lovelorn tarantulas ambling across the trail is another thing entirely. Yet I had never noticed them.


One year I was living not far from the golden slopes of Mount Diablo in Contra Costa County. A story in the paper mentioned the striding tarantulas, which emerge from the ground in September and October to prowl the hills. Dry weather after the first autumn rain is said to encourage them. So I took my bike up the mountain (riding uphill . . . uphill! I used to do that) and bumped into a number of tarantula guys on walkabout.

What a sight! They’re leggy spiders, these Californians. The males are lean and look almost all leg; the females are chunkier, like the classic pet-store tarantula, but you won’t get to meet them because they’re waiting in their burrows for gentleman callers. I followed a few of the males and took note of the delicate sounds they made when walking across the leaf litter; it’s quiet on the mountain. I worked up my courage and put a flat hand in front of one of them; he crossed it without breaking stride. I didn’t bother them otherwise, knowing they were on their first and last mission.

The tarantulas on this mountain (Aphonopelma smithi) are known as Bay Area blonds, though to be honest they look more like dirty blonds (makes sense, I guess, for a guy who lives in a hole. And a Californian at that). And what looks like aimless wandering is just the prelude: male tarantulas sniff for a chemical signal, left on silk, that indicates a female’s burrow is nearby. Then they follow their chemoreceptors, as guys will do. Perhaps some of the males I saw that day got lucky; I’ll never know.

A lovesick tarantula is one of the better ways to engender sympathy among otherwise spider-fearing humans. You empathize with him . . . It’s hot, he’s lonely and lost, he’ll never see home again, but if he can find the one, his genes will outlive him and the spider walk will continue. After I let that tarantula cross my hand, I understood. He was supremely indifferent to me and all human schemes. He had his one priority, which was not biting people and was not terrifying bloggers. He just had to live long enough for his life to have meant something.

I had nothing to fear. But he did.

It’s tarantula season again, and if you can bear the suspense a fine way to celebrate the spiders comes October 4, when Henry W. Coe State Park holds its annual Tarantula Fest and BBQ. Tarantulas will not be barbecued—only steak, chicken, hot dogs, and vegetarian burgers. Last year at the fest the dirty blond spiders were not in abundance, and I wonder if the continuing ultra-drought will affect them this year too. But there are other spiders, music, and wonderful views. You can get a T-shirt stenciled with spiders and watch kids be brave. Unlimited refills on the spider solidarity.



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Posted by on August 21, 2014 in Tarantulas


Kill a Spider, Write a Blog

Sorry Writers Say They’re Sorry — But Not Very

Today’s critique of the “I’m so wussy about spiders” bloggers:

It’s a mixed bag. A multimedia reporter in Visalia takes a weird excursion into his childhood, when he apparently thought black-widow spiders were made up by Disney. Then as a college student he finds a spider in his soda can, probably not a black widow but certainly dead. It was a Cactus Cooler—what do you expect? Was ever a pop more insecticidal? Then as an adult he finds a spider in his bath water and has a full-on Huck Finn moral crisis as he decides whether to kill it or turn into a nasty ol’ abolitionist and go to hell for saving it. He decides to kill it (blaming his wife’s potential reaction . . .  interesting) and then announces he is a man.

That might be a stretch.

I almost kind of wanted to like this column, in which a spider-hating woman writes a businesslike memo to the spider she’s about to slaughter. The interesting part to me is how it reiterates this recurring idea of a “contract.” Lots of anxious bloggers proclaim their tolerance of spiders who know their place: in the yard, OK; in the sink, no; in the upper corner of the window, no objection; ambling along the baby blanket, no way.

Contracts are a specific thing, though. It takes two parties to make one. You gotta wonder about these fantasy-prone writers who think they’re drawing up legal documents with an arachnid. More likely they’re making deals with themselves, or with God.

Seriously. Even maximum arachnophobes seem to feel guilty about killing a small living thing without provocation.

Apparently this sight  casts terror into the hearts of creatures that outweigh the spider a few thousand times over AND have control of the faucet.

Apparently this sight casts terror into the hearts of creatures that outweigh the spider a few thousand times over AND have control of the faucet.

So instead they build this mental scaffolding that absolves them of the killing if they have a good reason, such as a violated contract.

When I’m reborn as a college student I’m going to create an interdisciplinary major in tort law and arachnology. Instead of pro bono I’ll work pro hobo.

Wait till the bloggers get hold of this! A new study reports that a certain kind of orb weaver, Nephila plumipes, gets plumper and presumably more fertile in urban Sydney than it does in the countryside. There’s more to eat (especially around streetlights and other illumination), fewer parasites, and more warmth. But to a blogger all that says is BIG SPIDERS GET BIGGER, REFUSE TO SIGN CONTRACT TO STAY OUT OF MY SINK. Watch for it.







The Burning Question about Spiders

Never Bitten, Quite Shy—Why Are People Arachnophobic?

A few more people have torched their houses in pursuit of a spider. First this guy in Seattle used a can of spray paint and a lighter. Then another man, this time in Wales, tried the same thing. A woman in Kansas, not to be outdone, scattered burning towels—burning towels—all round the place in her attempts at arachnicide. (She, at least, was arrested on suspicion of arson because the other half of her duplex was occupied. Not by spiders—by people.)

I don’t know what causes people to be terrified of spiders, and I don’t think anybody else does either. Not yet. Look into arachnophobia research (there’s a lot) and it runs the gamut from plausible to puzzling.

What’s also puzzling is how rarely people acknowledge that arachnophobia is not just irrational but also seriously dangerous. Not just for firebugs (see above). For people who let go of the steering wheel when a spider strolls across the dashboard (and who then endanger other drivers’ lives too). For people whose flailing, crippling anxiety makes them climb out of windows. Or swing baseball bats in the house, slam their fists into drywall, shriek and panic in public places.

Some forms of therapy are said to work. And there’s a carnival of potential explanations for the fear’s origin. You should know that . . .

1. Entomologists (scientists who study insects) are sometimes arachnophobic themselves. Shouldn’t they know better? Answer: sometimes they do, and sometimes they’re just maggot-lovers.

Great book! I intend to review it soon. Suffice it to say you'll never look at a lubber grasshopper the same way again. Or maybe a spider. This book is a great short introduction to insect- and spider-fear. Bonus: none of the photos will make you scream or even say ick.

Great book! I intend to review it soon. Suffice it to say you’ll never look at a lubber grasshopper the same way again. Or maybe a spider. This book is a great short introduction to insect- and spider-fear. Bonus: none of the photos will make you scream or even say ick.

2. Some researchers say arachnophobia happens because people find spiders disgusting. Disgust is triggered by the dread of contamination: dirt, disease, putrescence, feces, etc. But that’s no answer at all. Why would phobics think spiders are disgusting? They don’t cause disease, are no dirtier than most other animals, and have nothing to do with rot and excrement.

3. Other researchers think it’s because the potential for spider fear is evolutionarily handy. As in, if you’re primed to acquire arachnophobia, it will protect you against spider-like threats to your existence. Again, though . . . why? What threats are those? Spiders are overwhelmingly benign in human existence, and what evidence is there that things were ever otherwise? If you’re primed to be terrified of heights, that’s smart! Falling from a great height kills you. But arachnophobia is by and large a burden, not a tool. Given the hysterical reactions people have to spiders, arachnophobia makes you worse off in daily life, not better.

4. There’s that thing called “otherness.” Too many eyes, too many legs, too hairy, they skitter. Yeah, maybe.

5. People don’t like sudden movements. Spiders move unpredictably and pop up where you don’t expect them. Many prowl around and are suddenly just there. Some move super fast as they dive for cover inside your home. So they startle you and they’re weird and you don’t know where they went.

6. Spiders bite. But bees, wasps, hornets, ants, and flies also bite or sting, and all of them are much, much more likely to bump into people. Besides, most spiders don’t bite. If you were asleep and didn’t see what caused your itchy bump, you can’t blame a spider.

7. This part is actually true: women are far more prone to fear of spiders than men are. It’s still no excuse for a thousand blogs squealing about how the author had to round up a manly man to squish a spider in the tub—that’s just lazy. Why doesn’t anybody question the sexist undercurrent: that ours is a world of dainty, timid gals and spider-dismembering strongmen? C’mon, cavewomen. I bet your genes could tell a much more interesting tale.

The roots of arachnophobia could be buried a long time yet, but meantime let’s point out a couple of things. One, you can get over a fear of spiders. Lots of people have. I was never actually afraid of spiders, but I used to carry around the usual vague dread about them, mostly fear of being bitten. Gardeners know what happens next; they have this kind of revelation all the time: once they fit themselves more calmly into the web of life, they start to salute its other inhabitants and stop fearing them. Maybe people should just spend more time outdoors, turning stuff over.

Also: people with debilitating arachnophobia should get help. We feel tickled and smug to read about some doofus burning down his laundry room to kill a spider (stories like that are also cheap clickbait for sham news sites or plagiarizing bloggers). Or freaking out on camera when spotting a spider, or (oh my, this happens a lot) crashing the car when a spider appears. But I don’t want those people on the roads, or working around machinery or open flames or my kids, and I bet you don’t either. I also don’t want them to suffer.

I read an interesting theory about love for animals, a love that arrived rather recently among our species. People acknowledge that animals feel pain, have their own interests, and possess at least a qualified right to live. This didn’t used to be. It’s among the things that make modern people modern. It’s also, according to one school of thought, something humans actually need in order to be humane toward each other.

I have no idea if biophilia holds water or if it’s just an excuse for philosophers to mud-wrestle. But I do know that once you give spiritual space to your first unlovely living creature, be it a mutt or a yard possum or a baby, compassion only grows.

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Posted by on August 11, 2014 in Myths and Calumnies, Spider science