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Web of lies: One reporter's complicated relationship with spiders

April 16, 2017 Updated: April 16, 2017 at 4:20 am
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Closet monster - a species of funnel web spider that's harmless to humans and commonly found in homes in Colorado - on its way to new digs. Photo by Stephanie Earls.

A monster has taken up residence in my closet, and I'm totally cool with it.

We've got a deal. My monster snacks on (other) unwelcome guests and makes itself discreet when I'm around, and I pretend that its presence doesn't send ripples of terror through my every molecule.

Yes, the fight-or-flight, kill-or-be-killed instinct, that primitive goose of the nervous system our ancestors honed over generations surviving mortal threats and alpha predators, is triggered in me not by a wooly mammoth but a timid arthropod the size of my big toenail.

Seems like a waste of adrenaline, considering humans live peacefully alongside spiders on a daily basis, but it does keep me on my toes - and on guard, occasionally with a capture cup, gloves and boots.

Things can get complicated when you're a functional arachnophobe with biocentrist leanings.

One oft-cited British study found that in Western societies, about 55 percent of women and 18 percent of men admit to a fear of spiders. In the decades I've shared living quarters with fellas, I've always been the one faced with the life-or-death ultimatum: If a wee beastie was going on my Spidey Schindler's List, then I better get in there and deal with relocating it right now. Otherwise - crunch!

I do, and I will, but can I just ask - if you're so nonchalant about spiders, what's the big deal? Sure, you're in the middle of something and (now) only wearing one flip flop. But is it not worth the effort to save the life of a tiny, harmless (to humans) and beneficial creature that doesn't creep you out at all?

My theory about your spider bravery is that it comes from the sole. Really, what you're not afraid of is a dead spider. A living spider, with all those legs and sneakiness, is another thing entirely.

Trust me, I get it. Each and every close encounter with a noteworthy spider, from the first time I saw one on the back porch in Maryland when I was 3 to the one I met in a Maui outhouse last summer, is burned into my brain in cringe-worthy high def.

On the other hand, I've always found spiders fascinating. Like old romance novels spine-cracked at the good parts, the Earls family's science books and encyclopedias all fell open, naturally, at arachnids. In each and every distant place I've lived and worked as a reporter, I've written at least one story about the region's spiders. Know thy enemy, as they say.

Rod Crawford knows my enemy, and he is their champion. The noted spider myth debunker and curator of arachnid collections at Seattle's Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture questions the commonly touted "fact" that no matter where we are, we're always within reach of a spider.

Spider proximity can vary wildly based on location. That cozy estimate "was assuming someone was inside a dwelling, but again the exact distance would depend on what dwelling and what city and what part of a building," Crawford said. "Any house with a crawl space, you can probably assume spiders are in the crawl space - unless it's a desert, and there's no water source ... in which case you'd have fewer, but not zero."

The spider content of homes remains relatively constant because, on average, fewer than 5 percent of the spiders found indoors ever have been outdoors. In fact, most come from lines that have been hanging around our abodes since long before we arrived.

"Houses are already full of house spiders, which descend from numerous generations living in the building. Even if the house was brand new when you moved in, it probably had some spiders that came in on the building materials," Crawford said.

Although some species of indoor spiders can survive outdoors, most cannot.

"If you put it in the middle of the lawn or in a bush or a tree, it's going to a place where it's not adapted and its chances of long-term survival are probably less than even," Crawford said. "If you put it in something like a garage or carport, a shed or woodpile, then it stands a bigger chance of finding a favorable houselike habitat."

Which means spider saviors like me aren't as altruistic as we'd like to believe.

For dealing with eight-legged housemates, Crawford's advice is simple.

"Just wave as it goes by," he said. "After all, there are numerous household insects that do damage to your goods - and a few may even suck your blood. Spiders do none of the above and they're helping to control the insects. The bigger the house spider, the more insect pests it must have eaten to get that way."

Spiders are a peckish bunch. According to a study published in the journal The Science of Nature, the global spider community consumes up to 800 million tons of prey each year. Good news for humans who don't mind subcontracting out domestic pest clearance; bad for arachnophobes who read reports about the findings that contextualized spiders' collective appetite as one capable of devouring all of humanity and scampering away hungry.

For me, it's all about location. A chubby workhorse house spider minding its own business in a crawl space or closet is one thing; a chubby spider on the move, possibly nursing a vendetta, is another.

Last week, I found the closet web abandoned and my spidey friend decamped to places unknown. The next day, I was going through paperwork in the living room and flipped over a folder. There was the spider, chilling on the underside, looking slightly plumper.

After a few paralyzed seconds, I steeled my nerves, scooped it up and took it outside to the far corner of the property, where I watched as it crawled away under a gap in the fence ... and into the neighbor's woodpile.

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