Beneficial insects

So Many Legs, So Many Eyes, Who Is Afraid of Spiders?

Today, I will brave my own phobia with you… it’s Halloween after all! So yes, I must confess: I, Audrey, biologist, have a phobia of spiders.

A shoemaker with bad shoes? Bet your ass I am!

Harry Potter imitates the jaw of a spider
I must have had the same expression as Harry at Aragog’s funeral the whole time I was writing this article…

Why Are We Afraid of Spiders?

Just like the phobia of snakes, this one would be written in our genes. I’ve already talked about the evolutionary advantage of this fear in the article It Slithers, It Hisses… Ugh! The Fear of Snakes!, so find out there about the method used to discover that this fear is innate.

Scientists measured the brain activity of babies by showing them different images. When the image of a spider was presented, the sensors detected an increase in the brain activity of these infants (who are too young to have experienced trauma or learned to fear certain animals).

For a less scientific (but just as convincing) method, you can always come to my home when I’m gardening… you’ll probably hear me scream. You may even see me rolling in the grass to get away from the terrible monster, cold sweat on my brow!

Ron Weisley from Harry Potter in a state of panic at the approach of a giant spider.
Who else has experienced childhood trauma at the movies watching Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets? You know, when they visit Aragog, the giant spider…???

5 Things That Are Impossible, Except in Hollywood

1. Small Bugs Don’t Eat Big Bugs.

How many times did my mother repeat that to me? First of all, Mom, you should know that it’s not true: many spiders eat insects that are larger than themselves! But, grant you, they won’t eat me…

To feed, spiders bite their prey and inject it with venom. This liquefies the inside of the insect. Mrs. Eight Legs only has to come back later to drink up this delicious fly smoothie from the carcass. Yes, you can say it: yuck.

A spider eats a bee
All spiders have venom: they couldn’t feed without it. However, very few can pierce human skin, and even fewer have venom that is truly dangerous to us. Note that a spider bite can affect each person differently (like reactions to wasp stings).

2. Eight legs, eight eyes

Not necessarily! Eight legs, yes (and that’s two too many in my opinion), but not always eight eyes. In fact, it depends on the kind of spider. Some have more, some have less, or even none! What’s interesting is that their eyes don’t all have the same function. Some are used to see during the day, and others to see at night. Moreover, they are not all on the front of the head, some can be on the sides or even on the top.

Close-up view of a spider's face
If you spot it, it’s probably been watching you for a while…. Brrr! Photo: ROverhate, pixabay.com.

3. Photoshop

I sometimes see pictures on social media of spiders as big as a house. Thank you Photoshop for the joke. I’ll just go on with myday trying to forget this horror.

Goliath mygale next to a human hand of similar size
Goliath birdeater (Theraphosa blondi). The largest spiders in the world are up to 12 inches (30 cm), including legs. It makes me sick just to talk about them. Photo: sebsantpag, iNaturalist.com.

4. Spiders Are Not Insects

Ant on a leaf
Insect: 6 legs, 2 antennae, body divided into three parts, can be pretty. Photo: Alexas_Fotos, pixabay.com.
Spider
Spider: 8 legs, no antenna, body divided in two parts, always ugly (What? Me? Biased? What are you talking about?).

The confusion stems from the fact that both groups are arthropods. The latter can be recognized by their chitinous exoskeleton.

What?

Chitin (pronounced kitin) is a more or less hard material that looks a bit like your fingernails. It replaces the skin of arthropods and allows them to keep their shape since the inside is soft and without bones. Chitin therefore acts as a skeleton, but on the outside of the body: exoskeleton. Crustaceans are also arthropods, it is the exoskeleton that you remove before eating them.

Here is an overview of the different arthropod groups.

5. Spider’s Web

We’ve all had the terrible experience of walking through a spider’s web. And, you’ll agree with me, this delicate thread may be called silk, but it’s anything but pleasant to feel its caress on our face. Hollywood likes to capture humans in giant spider webs.

Frodo from Lord of the Rings in a spider web
This scene from the Lord of the Rings haunts my nightmares.

In fact, Hollywood has a point here… If a spider that big existed, its webs could totally capture us. Welcome to my nightmares, everyone!

Spider silk is the strongest biological material (produced by a living being). Hard to imagine, isn’t it? It’s so fragile and delicate when you see it… And yet, a spider’s web has the ability to stop a large dragonfly in flight, without breaking. With enough threads, or with a big enough spider, a plane could be stopped in mid-air!

Dragonfly in a spider web
Dragonflies are predators known to be very fast and quite large. Photo: sandid, pixabay.com

Studies are being carried out on this exceptional material. The difficulty lies in harvesting. The silk cannot be harvested already in the web nor can a large quantity be taken directly from the spider. It is not like traditional silk, which is harvested from a caterpillar cocoon then carefully unwound.

However, the shape of the fabric has also been studied and has even inspired architects to build more earthquake-resistant buildings.

Uses in the garden

Like many other animals, spiders are predators. Although we have several kinds, they are all useful because each specializes in different prey.

Snakes, birds, frogs, spiders, centipedes, bats or dragonflies don’t all feed on the same prey. That’s why you need to have spiders in your garden (to my horror).

Peacock spider that seems to dance
Some will tell you that the peacock spider (Maratus volans) is cute. No. Just no.

Fortunately for us, very few spiders can harm us. Some hairy ones have what are called urticating hairs that itch for a few hours to a few days if they come in contact with human skin (especially tarantulas). Others have a bite that feels like an insect’s. And still others have a powerful venom that is dangerous and requires a trip to the hospital for antivenom. There are fortunately very few of these in the world!

In Quebec, we don’t have any spiders or tarantulas that are life threatening. Learn more about spiders in your area and wear gloves when gardening. If you see one, do what I do: throw a shovelful of dirt at it, roll it through the grass to another side of the garden and wait for it to disappear. Scream too. That won’t scare it, but it feels good… and it makes the neighbors laugh!

Illustration of a spider waving

Audrey Martel is a biologist who graduated from the University of Montreal. After more than ten years in the field of scientific animation, notably for Parks Canada and the Granby Zoo, she joined Nature Conservancy of Canada to take up new challenges in scientific writing. She then moved into marketing and joined Leo Studio. Full of life and always up for a giggle, or the discovery of a new edible plant, she never abandoned her love for nature and writes articles for both Nature sauvage and the Laidback Gardener.

7 comments on “So Many Legs, So Many Eyes, Who Is Afraid of Spiders?

  1. A Blackwell

    Silly Arachnophobias they always try to imagine the worst instead of just studying up on them to find out which ones to be worried about which is few, and which ones to love which is mostly the case. I can understand why people don’t like webs because actually most of the ones to avoid spin webs to catch prey and the ones that don’t spin webs are in all but one or two cases very friendly to humans! The thing that gets me the most is the number of people who will be scared of spiders but happily stand on a lawn that has hundreds of spiders underneath. Mind you they don’t spin webs and they would prefer to run from humans and are harmless.
    By the way if a proper study was carried out on babies I’m sure that lots of things would send their brain into a spin as all things are unknown. Also the fact that people feel safer from spiders by wearing gloves amazes me because if a spider drops into a glove it feels stressed and can’t escape so bites the nearest thing. As an example when I work near ants I take my gloves off so I can brush them off quickly as I’m very allergic to some ant bites.
    Alan

  2. Arachnophobia? I sort of get it, not because I am unreasonably afraid of spiders, but because I know someone who is. You might find this to be amusing.
    https://tonytomeo.com/2017/11/11/arachnophobia/

  3. Paul Douglas

    In our house, we appreciate spiders. The only ones we actively kill are the Black Widows. We may capture and transport outside others, but we appreciate them.

  4. Jt Michaels

    Like many folks, I allow many spiders to live in my house and welcome them into the gardens… with the exception of the Goldenrod Spider (as seen in one of Audrey’s photos). Those bee eaters get squished whenever I see them!

  5. Donna Slater

    Well written. We all have foolish fears!

  6. I certainly don’t go looking for spiders, but I do applaud their web making skills because they are unbelievable artistic feats. As for snakes, I head away as fast as I can go. 🙂

    • I don’t want them crawling on me but I am always amazed at the different colors they sport as well as the intricate webs they spin. When I find them in the house I carefully capture and put them outdoors before my husband stomps on them.

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