Category Archives: Myths and Calumnies

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


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.


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)



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.











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


Meet the spider: Dysdera crocata

Meet me in the garden . . . at night

The woodlouse spider (Dysdera crocata) is a lovely creature with a dashing personality and striking looks. My son and I were flashlight hunting the other night and found one beneath a bucket in the yard. They tend to alarm people.

Jaws wide open, ready to roll with the roly-polys. (Creative Commons/© Joseph Berger)

Jaws wide open, ready to roll with the roly-polys. (Creative Commons / © Joseph Berger)

You can see why. Amid the usual dark-colored scuttlers abroad at night, Dysdera might make you gasp (as it did my son) because of its coloration. The cephalothorax is a glossy red-amber that seems even bloodier by flashlight. The abdomen is a silky buff color, its texture such that it looks like a bobbin of silk thread. The legs are slender and pointed. There are six eyes—not the customary eight—in a horseshoe pattern, the curved part on top. It’s not a big spider, maybe the size of a quarter including legs, and you rarely see it in the open—and never dangling at nose level like those prankster orb weavers.

But those jaws! No magnifying glass is needed to see them. The woodlouse spider has long fangs folded into its chops like a pair of switchblades. It’s believed that the fangs are specially adapted for piercing sowbugs, which at the scale of Lilliput look like armored personnel carriers. A predator hoping to snack on a roly-poly needs armor-piercing weapons.

Another common name is “roly-poly killer.” I’m sorry, but that sounds a bit like “teddy bear assassin.” Or witty-bitty Jack the Wipper.

Then again ... maybe I just want a salad. Like brussels sprouts, maybe pillbugs just aren't to everybody's taste. (Creative Commons / © Joseph Berger)

Then again … maybe I just want a salad. Like brussels sprouts, maybe pillbugs just aren’t to everybody’s taste. (Creative Commons / © Joseph Berger)

But there’s always something more to learn about spiders. It appears that Dysdera may attack the miniature crustaceans through their more vulnerable undersides, not through their dorsal armor, using just one fang to stab and the other to grip. That indicates a certain finesse, yes? Yet there have been several studies challenging the idea that Dysdera prefers pillbugs at all. What next—we learn the Goliath tarantula actually identifies with David? The mind reels.

Dysdera also sometimes bites people. It’s among the spider species that are ready to defend themselves—which means people malign them as “aggressive.” No, folks—defensive. Poke at Dysdera and she might poke you back. And since she’s the kind of garden spider you’re apt to encounter as you grub around among the kale without noticing where you set your hands, you might get a bite. (They’re also found in damp places like basements, where as a rule everything is scary.) But she will never chase you.

Bites by this spider are no big deal. Here’s a good article about them, using data from eight verified Dysdera bites (Actual data! Beautiful, beautiful data! No blame for the mysterious Invisible Spider this time). They’re like bee stings, or even less worrisome, since they don’t seem to provoke dangerous allergic reactions.

But: myths. Easy to see why this spider would make a good villain. It’s bright red on the front part, which sets off an instinctive danger signal in people. It has big fangs, the better to chomp you. Sometimes it really does bite. It stalks about at night, so you might never have seen one before. It loiters underneath things (as a hunting spider it doesn’t use capture webs). All it takes is a little misinformed push, and there will be online articles singling it out as a “dangerous spider” till the end of time. Here’s a posting from the Burke Museum’s FAQ on “myths about dangerous spiders”:

In 1993, a man with no medical or arachnological credentials somehow managed to get an article published in the respected New Scientist about a roommate who felt “a rapid series of jabs” while carrying furniture and later became seriously ill and noticed blistered skin around “puncture marks.” A spider found running across the floor hours after the supposed bite was Dysdera crocata, called the woodlouse spider because it preys on those land-dwelling crustaceans. Nobody should have taken seriously the conclusion that this spider was responsible for the man’s symptoms, but they did, and the “poisonous” nature of Dysdera entered folklore. According to one off-the-wall online comment, Dysdera venom “in very rare occurrences . . .  can be fatal as a result of an allergic reaction” (that person must be psychic, since no such case has happened to date). This spider has very large and strong jaws, and can penetrate deeply when it bites humans, but a 2006 study of 16 verified bites showed that the main symptom was the pain of the puncture and that the venom had little effect. Unlike most spider bites, puncture marks from this spider’s impressive fangs can actually be seen about half the time.

I meant that to be comforting. Maybe it is? You can think of Dysdera the way you’d think of a bumblebee: a small animal that you shouldn’t hold, but that isn’t thinking about you and can’t do you much damage even if you’re careless.

We caught that night-roaming spider and kept her in a terrarium for a few days, even dropping in some lively pillbugs to see what she did. She did a lot of nothing, besides shrinking back from the roly-polys and trying to hide under the leaf litter. When she did move about, it was with a graceful stride, not that manic flailing a lot of captive bugs exhibit. Hmph. Some dangerous spider.

Soon enough, as usual, the minor guilt of taking an animal out of its home—the only home it will ever know for its short, short life before it has to DIE or be stepped on by the yard guy and re-enter the Circle of Life, blah blah—compelled us to set her free where we found her.

Remember, if you need a reason to let a spider live, Dysdera keeps the population of little gnawing garden pests under control. And provides a bit of wonder for children, both young and overgrown, who like to turn things over to see what lives underneath.

If Dysdera wants to move into those old gardening gloves I forgot to bring in out of the rain, go ahead. And we have roly-polys to spare.


BONUS: There’s a French band called The Woodlouses. They have a murky, angsty, indie tune called “Dysdera Crocata.” I didn’t hear the word “spider” among the lyrics, but maybe it was lurking under something else. Did I mention this spider is considered “cosmopolitan”?