Category Archives: Species

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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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


Have Yourself a Spidery Little Christmas

Come into my parlor, my pavuchky

If you were born in a barn, there were probably spiders nearby. I wonder if that’s the real reason for the folk tales about Christmas spiders. But in the legends these spiders aren’t hanging curtains for Baby Jesus, or weaving the swaddling clothes or making sure the manger is bug-free. Instead they’re scurrying around a family’s humble Christmas tree, admiring the ornaments and leaving behind silk strands as they do, and when the Christ child arrives to bless the home, he turns the cobwebs into silver and gold tinsel.

O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum, I don't know the word for "spider" . . . (pictured: festive decor from the Dusty Raven Gallery,

O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum, I don’t know the German word for “spider” . . . (pictured: festive decor from the Dusty Raven Gallery,


Wonderful! And it resonates with something I often discover when taking down the family tree. Spiders do live in them!

In our part of the country, cut Christmas trees come from the frosty Northwest. Somewhere along the way, maybe in the tree farm, our fir usually collects a small hitchhiker: a shiny, almost metallic jumping spider (Salticidae) with a taste for heights.

She or he is at the tip-top of the tree when I go to take it down after New Year’s. Why there? I don’t know. There’s no spider food nearby, unless you count stale popcorn and candy canes. But the spider is almost always there, sometimes snug inside the star itself, surveying the New Year with its sharp eyes. I set it free in our winter yard, wishing it luck, hoping it doesn’t miss its hipster Oregon friends too much.

I don’t know its species, if indeed we see the same kind every year. Salticids are the largest family of spiders, with some 5,000 named species. This particular elf could be completely new to science, who knows? Stranger things have happened at Christmas time, Ebenezer.

Who's keeping the roaches out of your stockings? Me. (Erika Smith -- Creative Commons)

Who’s keeping the roaches out of your stockings? Me. (Erika Smith — Creative Commons)

The Christmas spider legend is usually attributed to Ukraine, which has a tradition of hanging web- and spider-shaped ornaments (pavuchky, or little spiders) on the tree. Since I don’t have a Ukrainian babushka, I’d never heard the story. The tale involves an archetypal poor widow and her hungry children. A pine cone falls to the floor and grows into a fir tree, but come Christmas the family has no money for ornaments. They go to bed sorrowful, but in the night the household spiders clothe the tree in silk tinsel, the Christ child leaves swag, and the family is henceforth happy and prosperous.

The tale may have originated in Germany, where ancient tree worship sprouted into the modern Christmas tree tradition. But Ukraine has rich Yule and new year’s traditions of its own, as well as a tradition of revering spiders and depicting them in embroidery and weaving.

I learned that the Christmas tree in Ukraine accompanies an older symbol of the year’s end, the didukh, or sheaf of grain. “The spirits of the ancestors come into the home in the didukh for the holy days,” Orysia Paszczak Tracz writes in an article about Ukrainian traditions. “They had lived in the fields in the grain helping the bountiful harvest.”

That sounds just like my treetop spider. She comes indoors for a spell: a warm home, festivities, reflection, and rest. And then resumes, during serious winter, more serious pursuits.

So raise a toast to the well-intentioned, harmless house spider. She’s pals with Jesus and a dutiful housekeeper, in her own way. Look for silken strands amidst the gold.



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Posted by on December 9, 2014 in Salticidae (jumping spiders)


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.







Spiders in the Land of Little Rain

What a long, spiderless season it’s been.

Winter was creepy-weird: 90 degrees in January, brutally dry, sun beaming down on dead annuals, leafless trees, comatose landscaping. The East and Midwest were buried in blizzard after blizzard, so we had no right to complain, but in the West each rainless day was another drip in a sort of waterless water torture.

And then spring lurched into summer with no preamble, except for the plants that (seemingly) miraculously sprang back to life to offer the mask of a normal California year. Since then it’s been months of broken rhythm and mocking sunshine.

Every living thing is still off. Plants bloomed too early or too late. The comforting reserves of water we use to beat back the desert—and it’s all desert, pretty much—no longer wait behind hose or faucet. On a recent road trip passing through the hazy-hot Salinas Valley, the hills were not golden. They were gray.

What you learn from skilled news reporters: historically, droughts in California have been known to last for long years, sometimes decades. Though not since modern recordkeeping began, which is why we’re all so gobsmacked by the seriousness of it. But in archaeological records, sure, plenty of evidence of drought wiping the shine off the Golden State. A state now so foolishly full of grass, golf courses, recreational lakes, orchards, and other thirsty things.

You also learn that ocean temperatures thousands of miles away, far off in the Pacific, are shuffling the cards you’ll be holding in fall, when the rains might or might not return. The view from my dead lawn is too small, in both time and distance, to take it in.

What it means for spiders is that I’ve seen very few. Insects, too, other than bees and mosquitoes. The county is fogging for West Nile virus vectors, which means the mosquitoes will diminish as well—something I’d normally applaud, but this year we all seem acutely aware of how missing bugs mean fewer birds, fewer green and growing things, fewer signs of life.

You get a better sense of who the survivors are. The cellar spiders, they never seem to go away; perhaps they’re generalist enough and skinny enough to survive on whatever blunders along. In our micro-ecosystem they probably benefit from the earthworm bin, which breeds tiny flies, and the mealworm boxes (kept for the geckos), where the flour moths roam. Flying fodder eventually comes their way.

And the widows: they’re stationed along the fence posts and in the downspouts just as they always have been. Maybe a tad smaller, but the summer is young and there’s still time to grow round. I go out at night and assess them by flashlight. Drought is nothing to them. Widows like it hot and dry; the females keep cool in their all-black outfits by the simple trick of being nocturnal. The small, loitering males await their moment.

Otherwise the spider places seem oddly empty. I haven’t spotted even a young orb weaver yet, much less one of the large females knitting her radial web. The wolf spiders you find by following their eye shine: where are they? Almost absent from the lush leaf litter where they usually live. Lumbering Zoropsis, the big Mediterranean hitchhiker, also has been lying low.

I met a tiny bronze jumping spider last week, let it hop around a few minutes, then freed it and wished it luck.

The_Land_of_Little_Rain_title_pageThe most notable absence in our domain is of false widows (Steatoda grossa). We’ve always had lots of them hanging around the flowerpots and crevices. This year I’m concluding they could be a sort of indicator species in our microclimate, a signal of what being less wet, less buggy, might mean. They’re pert, glossy spiders that have never caused us a bit of harm, and I would miss them. But they’re a worldwide species and could easily take a California habitat retreat in stride. More easily than we could.

We have short memories here. It’s part of our charm—that disappointment never chases you too far. There’s always going to be summer, and always going to be the rains. Or so we think. Me, I’m going to take down my old copy of a tiny book called The Land of Little Rain. Mary Austin tramped around desert California—lands people admire and fear, lands that change (if at all) only over thousands of years. She found it beautiful, and aloof, and surpassingly skillful at teaching humans their place. It might be time to build longer memories.