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.







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


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.



This Spider’s Got It Made (But There’s No Shade)

Make me one . . . with everything

The Maker Faire is coming back to the Bay Area, presumably bigger and better than ever, and stickier (from all those glue guns). I love the idea but I’ve never been. You know why? There are too many crafty people around here, and they snag all the parking and crowd the tofu-dog stands and get in the way so I can’t see the robots doing yoga! Or the self-washing dogs, or the bamboo cars. Um, I’m not exactly sure what they have on tap this year.

Spiders are makers, too, to be faire (heh). Not just takers, although they do have to take life to exist. A blog posting today from the esteemed biologist Jerry Coyne points out a spider that makes what looks like art but has some deep, and still undiscovered, purpose.

You already know about the spider that makes piñatas.

Coyne singled out a Namibian spider that lives in the ground and arranges rocks around the entrance of its burrow. It’s been noted that it usually chooses seven rocks, but as Coyne explains, that could just be due to the size of the spider and of the typical local rock. The pattern the rocks make is a purty flower (below).

Daisy, daisy, give me your answer, do. The flower bower of a Namibian spider in the family Segestriidae. (Photo by G. Costa et al., Journal of Arid Environments, 1995)

Cute, of course. But why? As usual with spiders, they’ve had 400 million years’ practice at keeping secrets. They’re masters at “no comment.”

Coyne’s possibilities include: the rocks help keep wind-blown sand out of the burrow, they disguise the spider’s hideout from predators, they somehow attract prey, or they serve as landmarks for the very nearsighted spider. No experiments have been performed to make these anything other than guesses, he notes.

The most tantalizing part of the whole setup—it’s a little eerie—is how the spider arranges its daisy. The narrow part of the rock points in, the broad part outward; that’s what makes the flower shape so lovely, so natural-looking. There has to be a well-engineered reason for that. But now we’re talking about how a mason would think. This spider, mysteriously, has enough brainpower to comprehend how the rocks fit. And they’re not even touching.

Radial symmetry is the heart of what web-spinning spiders do; we’ve all seen those marvelous mandalas in the garden. The orb weaver’s talent for engineering is well studied. But the Namibian spider is a reminder that every small animal has its bag of tricks, tools honed for its environment and often entirely unseen by us.

The yellow sac spiders that bivouac in the cracks spin a silk sleeping bag that would be the envy of any mountain climber. The black widows in the fence (yes, they came back from wherever they went during construction) maintain a tangled, most haphazard capture web, but look close and you see that it couldn’t be more perfect for catching prey, slowing down intruders, and giving the clumsy widow a fighting chance at escape.

If I can make it here, I'll make it anywhere! (Maratus volans photo by Dr. Jurgen Otto)

If I can make it here, I’ll make it anywhere! (Maratus volans photo by Dr. Jurgen Otto)

And the jumping spiders—they’re a little more obvious, I guess. Anybody could figure out the survival value of a rainbow afro or really good dance moves. Preferably combined! If the jumping spiders ever discover Namibian flower power, they’ll be unstoppable.








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”?



Top Six Spider Myths (and SEO Bait!)

One weird trick to attract lower car insurance before being banned by Google!

The listicle you’ve all been waiting for.

1. There’s a spider within three feet of you, right now. No, no, it’s three inches. She’s perched on your collar, in fact, slowly slooowly opening her jaws, a drop of venom forming on each glistening fang, and looking for exactly the most sensitive part of your undefended neck. If you reach up your hand—no, the left—and carefully work your index finger up the edge of your collar, by by bit, right toward her open fangs, a little farther, you just might…

2. You swallow a dozen spiders in a lifetime. That depends entirely on what you’ve had for dinner. If it’s garlic-heavy, like pho or hummus or Sriracha-drenched ice cream, you might attract that many spiders in a single night. Since they are curious animals, many of them transplanted from countries with savory cuisines and sociable customs, they love spices and good times and will come tumbling into your mouth as fast as their legs can carry them. That explains why sometimes you wake up with a sore throat for no apparent reason (and you thought it was the beer–ha!). It’s from the spiders jostling down your gullet, scrawling spider graffiti (they call it “art,” of course) such as “OCCUPY PHARYNX!” everywhere and drumming till dawn.

Little Debbie has moved on from snack cakes.

Little Debbie has moved on from snack cakes.

On the other hand, if your tastes run to soda crackers and Diet Coke, no spiders. They only live a year or so anyway so they’re not going to risk being bored to death in your uncool stomach. They leave that stuff to the cockroaches. Oh hey, didn’t you know that you swallow a hundred cockroaches every year? It’s quite a story…

3. The daddy long-legs is the most venomous spider in the world, but its fangs are too small to bite anybody. This one’s half true. The daddy long-legs is actually the most venomous living being on the planet, not just the baddest spider. Travel to Southeast Asia and you’ll see king cobras sprawled out dead along the roadside, always with a tiny, vibrating spider at their throat. Closer to home, everyone who lives in the Western United States has had the experience of going out into the garage for a screwdriver and finding a full-grown timber rattlesnake, eight feet long if it’s an inch, caught in a dirty cobweb in that corner by the water heater—and again, a single, almost invisible spider hovers over the carcass preparing to feast. Check out Pinterest if you dare. This is why timber rattlesnakes are endangered, by the way.

But even the most gullible schoolchild begins to wonder at this point … where are all the dead people felled by a spider that lives in almost every home or cellar or barn all around the world? Ah, but you have to understand the beast. There’s no glory in that. Spiders are vain, the deadly ones the most vain of all. A daddy long-legs will ambush a Siberian tiger, wrap it in silk, and eat it, as happened at the San Francisco Zoo last year, for the sake of bragging on social media, but a human … they die too easily and too often. If not accidents or car crashes, there’s cancer and heart attacks, gangfights and wars: people kill each other for no apparent reason, and to no clear end. So the spiders lie low and take their time. A tasty bear will have to saunter by eventually. Plus they really get off on having a secret identity.

4. Brown recluses live everywhere and deliver lots of scary bites. In fact, the vast majority of dangerous spider bites are delivered by Invisible Spiders. I use the common name because nobody has managed the taxonomy of an animal that can’t be seen—obvious when you think about it. Invisible Spiders live all over the globe—I think—and are especially attracted to people who have underlying medical issues that could cause skin lesions, issues such as diabetes, exposure to staph bacteria, cuts or scrapes acquired under less-than-sanitary circumstances, and so on. Right-thinking people always label these wounds “spider bites,” as you’d expect. The spiders also tend to pile on when a person has been bitten by a mosquito, louse, tick, mite, bedbug, ant, conenose bug, fly or other creature, mostly because (remember! Spiders are vain!) they want to hog the credit when the oozy wound appears on the Internet with a long string of misspelled comments and idiot advice.

The persistent belief that brown recluses thrive all around my home state is entirely due to misidentified Invisible Spiders. See, this is California. Like everybody else, they start out invisible and then they get a tan. But if you told somebody you’d just spotted a brown Invisible Spider, you’d sound pretty stupid.

5. Black widows eat their mates. Only if they’re coated in garlic (see #2).

"If I had a hammer ... I'd hammer on the spiders ..." Meanwhile, Pete Seegers wonders, "Where have all the spiders gone?"

“If I had a hammer … I’d hammer on the spiders …” Meanwhile, Pete Seeger wonders, “Where have all the spiders gone?”

6. Hobo spiders are invading my state. This myth took off because it was the title of a song by the late Pete “OCCUPY PHARYNX!” Seeger (left). I can’t reprint the lyrics here because they’re copyrighted, but suffice it to say that Seeger’s ode to footloose arachnids riding the rails, pluckin’ banjos, and feasting on Siberian tigers made a deep impression on the American psyche. (Fun fact: “Wimoweh!” is the sound you make when a hobo spider bites you on the ol’ plectrum.)

Really, all the public needs is a fun nickname (“hobo spider”) and a jingle, and we’re off to the races. That’s how we learn stuff. We don’t want any irritating facts to get in the way of how we determine what we like, what we hate, and what we’re terrified of—so if Eratigena agrestis proves to be another harmless spider imprisoned by notoriety and unable to set things right—probably because it’s already hopped the next southbound freight—all we can say is “tl;dr.” Which might be what you’re saying about now.


A Spider Looks at Winter

A modest-sized orb weaver has been living outside the workshop door since summer. We noticed her around August when she’d become big enough to alarm the timid (though she is not big by orb weaver standards) and had begun maintaining a pizza-slice-shaped web near one of the security lights. By day, she huddled in a crack with a bit of dirty silk and tried to look like a dead leaf. But at night she would unfold, all legs and confidence, take up station in the center of her oblique net, and sit poised and patient, waiting for the doomed insects who bumble toward the light.

We named her Natasha. We have a habit of naming spiders that pass by, even ones we know just long enough to carry them outside.

“Oh, look at you, Derek. What are you doing in the sink? Again? You scamp.”

“My, my. Danielle has put on a few. Must be that time of year, right? Why don’t you go raise some kids outdoors?”

“Maybelline! That is not a good place for a web. Out you go.”

Natasha reminded me right away of the character played by Natasha Lyonne on “Orange Is the New Black.” Flamboyant, fierce, comfortable in her skin, not to be messed with. You’d be on your guard even if you got on her good side. But she’s good-hearted, if eager to pounce.

Our Natasha suspended herself above eye level; but for the grace of spider discretion, she could have been one of those autumn orb weavers who dangle in front of your forehead at night when you’re taking out the trash, and make you do the spider dance for an hour afterward. An in-your-face kind of spider.

Natasha is dying. The little angel of death is withdrawing toward her own, sure as winter. She held out longer than most—the annual tide of scare stories, the half-thought spider nonsense you read online, abated many weeks ago, even among the tabloid-reading Brits. Late summer and fall is when you read about many such dangling Natashas and their roving male counterparts as they remind inattentive reporters and bloggers that spiders exist. The females dine and wait, growing fat in the warm-weather afterglow. The males dash about in search of their own posterity, carrying out their desperate last steps long before the nights turn long. By mid-December they are gone, save for a lonely few.

That’s what gave me the chance to know Natasha better than the other small creatures taken by winter. She has played her part deep into fall, and played it well. She still rests in her retreat by day, but with nights dipping below freezing I don’t see her venture out onto her web anymore. Clearly there are fewer flies, moths, and other ephemeral food to make it worthwhile. But more: she knows. There was a time to await mates, and a time to cease waiting. A time to harvest, and a time to be harvested.

Winter comes in a few days. Stealing a thought from Frost: Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild/ Should waste them all. . . .

Slow, slow!

For the grapes’ sake, if they were all,

Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,

Whose clustered fruit must else be lost—

For the grapes’ sake along the wall.

E. B. White gave Charlotte her children, or else his spider’s tale would have been too hard to bear. I’ll look for Natasha’s children in spring, along the wall.

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