It’s Halloween and that means it’s time for a serious chat about an icon of Halloween creepiness: spiders.
My first memory of spiders comes from a toy we got when I was around 7 years old (this would be in the mid-1960s). It was called Creepy Crawlers.
The kit came with molds of bugs, spiders and scorpions and lots of goopy stuff you poured into the molds, then baked. Whatever possessed my parents to buy this toy for us is beyond me. Seriously, what was my mother thinking?
At that tender age my mind got molded, too, into a common perception that spiders were just plain scary. Now, of course, I know better, and wish I still had that Creepy Crawlers toy, which now lists for as much as $350 on eBay!
Fast forward to present day and I’ve had a few interesting encounters with our eight-legged friends. One such incident occurred while I was sleeping. A spider must have crawled on my face and when I unconsciously swatted at it, bit me on the lip. The next day I woke up looking like I had been in a fight. My lip was itchy, red and swollen and I was in a bit of pain but thankfully all those symptoms went away in a few days.
Spider bites are not common. My bite was typical of many native Maryland spiders that have small amounts of venom but — with the exception of the black widow spider — do not cause serious harm to a person.
The brown recluse spider is the only other arachnid in Maryland that is potentially harmful to people. It sometimes hitchhikes on cargo from the mid-West, but it is not native to the state. Unfortunately, it is often confused with native wolf spiders, which no doubt causes many of them to be promptly discarded.
I used to be one of those people who would whack them to death before figuring out whether they were friend or foe. Years of wisdom have mellowed my approach considerably. If they aren’t too big — as in less than an inch or two — I try to catch them under a glass, slide a piece of cardboard over the opening, and release them outside.
I even have some fondness for the small ones that show up in our bathtub from time to time. I call all of them Felix (how I came up with this name is still a mystery). By giving them a name, though, I can relate better to their plight of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They get relocated to the great outdoors and hopefully better hunting grounds for whatever they’re after.
However, when they’re big, I struggle a bit for what to do with them.
A few months ago, I met some friends of birding buddy Sharon, who told a great story about a three-inch fishing spider in their shower (I would definitely be intimidated by a spider that big). The wife was home alone and about to step into the shower when she spotted the spider. Her reaction was exactly what I would have done: scream and run! Her son came to the rescue and got rid of it, but was also shocked by how large it was.
A recent BBC article I read discussed why we have such a fear of spiders. According to journalist Zaria Gorvett, part of our problem with spiders is their otherwise alien appearance.
It is hard to relate to a creature with multiple eyes and eight legs, among other things. Even worse, they don’t give you that warm and fuzzy feeling like a puppy or kitten would. In addition, Halloween horror and sci-fi movies and television have accentuated the creepier aspects of spiders and insects in general. Where we should really focus our attention is on what we have in common with them.
For instance, they live their lives strategically to survive much like we humans do. Some spiders are able to process complex tasks, too, like humans can.
I need to work on my spider-saving skills because spiders do so much good for us. Their superb hunting skills help keep a lot of harmful insect pests under control, including disease-carrying insects. Did you know that around the world they kill millions of tons of prey each year, including around your house and gardens and agricultural crops?
It is fascinating to see them in action, too. I watched a spider and praying mantis in a takedown match one day. I was sure the spider would win, but it was obvious that its venom was no match for the mantis.
I frequently see their webs in the grass and on the trees. Most of the webs are from orb weaver spiders who spin a series of elaborate concentric circles. On average, it takes them about an hour to make a web. The garden variety orb weavers build a new web each night to avoid being dinner for birds during the day.
I have two favorite spiders, both of which are native to Maryland.
They include the marbled orb weaver and the jumping spider. I’ve only seen a marbled orb weaver once. It was on a pine tree in our woods.
I consider it the quintessential Halloween spider. It has a bulbous, brightly colored orange-yellow abdomen with intricate black designs on it. The legs are red, white and black. Not only is it quite beautiful, it eats invasive brown marmorated stinkbugs, too! It doesn’t get any better than that.
Tiny jumping spiders are another cool spider to watch. They’re less than an inch long, often brightly colored, fuzzy and have a pair of large beautiful eyes (the other three sets of eyes are much smaller). They’re great jumpers and runners and can tether themselves like rappelers when hunting prey. When it comes to spiders, they are the poster child of cuteness and a good reason to take up macro photography for their disarming looks.
Spiders get a bad rap, especially around Halloween. It’s time we rethink our relationship with spiders and learn to live with them and appreciate all they do for us.
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Note of interest: If you are a bird lover and want to help citizen science, Project Feederwatch starts Nov. 13. FeederWatch runs from November to April. It surveys birds at your feeders or in your yard. You don’t need a feeder to participate. Learn more about it online at feederwatch.org.