Spiders' bad reputation might be undeserved

Wednesday, November 12, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:44 p.m. CST, Thursday, November 13, 2008

Rod Crawford is the curator of arachnids at Washington's Burke Museum. His name was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.

This summer I lived in a 24th-floor Chicago apartment. Outside my window, two spiders spent a few weeks building a web together, then they flipped a coin, one left and started building his own home. After leaving a window open, I realized they were feeding off a steady stream of gnats blowing up from the city. Three weeks later, I woke up with a swollen eyelid that kept getting worse. At the doctor’s office, I had to tell him: “And, there are two spiders outside my window, so—”

“You think a spider bit you?”


“Everyone thinks that.”

Rod Crawford, curator of arachnids at University of Washington’s Burke Museum, doesn’t appreciate the flack spiders get.

“The number of spiders that pose even a mild hazard to humans is vanishingly small,” he said.

It’s just hard to believe that one of those Chicago spiders, with their fat thoraxes, couldn’t get me.

Crawford loves spiders, handles them all time, thousands and thousands of spiders, and has only been bitten twice. How many spiders does the average person swallow in her sleep, then?

“It’s amazing to me that people waste so much time worrying about totally harmless spiders, while in the meantime there’s a nest of yellowjackets that’s 1000 times more dangerous.”

Spiders are about as dangerous as pound cake. 

Maybe it’s time to bury the hatchet with spiders. They’re fairly well-respected anyway; most people don’t kill them. We get that they snag bugs, but they’re not embraced like geckos or chameleons. Maybe it’s time to point at spiders with the same glee as water lizards and bullfrogs. What about taking down the bird feeder and putting up webs with tasty treats so the spiders can flock to it?

Spiders aren’t insects, but if the lines were redrawn — a la Dave Chappelle’s racial draft — based on cultural identity, they would cross over. Insects have some lovable characters like bees and ladybugs and butterflies. Being an arachnid, though, might be too difficult to overcome. Scorpions are just too dangerous, and they scuttle. Ticks, as Pliny the Elder put it, are "the foulest and nastiest creatures that be." Spiders should be in their own class; they're that good.

Spiders display agency. I never find spiders slamming into my face or masochistically bumping into hot lamp bulbs like moths. Typically, I let non-predatory insects live their lives, but I wash moths down the sink simply because I resent their thoughtlessness. Gnats teem, locusts swarm, flies buzz loudly and get themselves stuck between screens and windows. Spiders are autonomous, which I respect. There are elements of the lone-wolf, John Wayne "Searchers" character at work here. Although Crawford told me if I dig up a square meter of soil, I will find hundreds.

Spiders are industrious. The Chicago Two held down their webs through thunderstorms, rain and high wind. They worked stoically even when I tapped on the glass to throw them off. The hub-and-spoke orb webs have a beautiful symmetry; plus the threads are home grown. Ant hills can be impressive, but they’re still dirt. Honeycombs are still, by far, the most scrumptious, but spiders got the Web.

Spiders are predators. Respect the hunter. Jumping spiders use pressurized internal fluids to propel themselves and tether sticky silk to their release point as insurance against falls. Wolf spiders are just old-fashioned search-and-destroyers. Most species, though, mesh their predatory and industrial skills perfectly into a closed, environmentally sound, system where food fuels the web. With such a perfect renewable-energy model, spiders spare themselves the shame of digging through trash and the degradation of circling feces (yeah, you, flies) — or, rolling around in dung like beetles.

Spiders get play in fiction and comics. Charlotte was a conscientious predator, telling Wilbur, “Do you realize that if I didn’t catch bugs and eat them, bugs would increase and multiply and get so numerous, that they’d destroy the Earth?” E.B. White’s protagonist provides young readers with a wise and purposeful spider to balance the misunderstood weavers of the world. She lives above the rest of the farm animals, doling out nuggets of life knowledge and spinning words out of silk. White still keeps her on the fringes with quotes like, “I drink their blood. I love blood.”

"Charlotte’s Web" might have been the premier spider story if it hadn’t been utterly eclipsed by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man. To be fair, Charlotte is a true spider, and Peter Parker is a mythical mortal who appropriates spider-like qualities to save the world from evil. Crawford, who I thought would revere Spider-Man, says he was a D.C. Comics fan, not Marvel. He also hates movies from after 1960, so he’s not interested.

“I have no problem with Spider-Man," he said. "It’s nice to have positive spider models around."

Greg T. Spielberg is a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism and a former assistant city editor for the Columbia Missourian. E-mail him at

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Charles Dudley Jr November 12, 2008 | 11:25 a.m.

The Brown Recluse a spider very native to Missouri is the one you do need to worry about.

One nasty spider with a nasty bite.

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