A belief in medieval Europe held that the bite from a wolf spider caused tarantism, a condition where the victim jitters around in an uncontrollable dance, eventually collapsing in exhaustion after three or four days. This myth helped solidified human fear of spiders. Yet even though we have such a condition running rampant today, I don’t see anyone hanging effigies of Lady Gaga out to scare people on Halloween.
From some reactions to the sight of a spider, you’d think they were carting off young children instead of flies for feasts on the neighborhood web. This is nonsense: as any adult knows, it’s hard to hold a squirming toddler when you weigh 150 pounds, much less 3 grams.
That’s where venom comes in. Like parking the kid in front of the television, venom keeps prey quiet and semi-conscious until the spider can eat or wrap it up for later (this scenario is anecdotal; I’m not suggesting you park your child or stun it with venom). Almost all spiders are venomous, but the majority aren’t harmful to humans.
Did you hear the one about the black widow always killing her mate? Though generally not true, this is my favorite myth whenever I need to remind my spouse of the dangers of annoying me. In reality, of the black widows in the USA, only one is known to kill the male after courtship: the eastern ones, Latrodectus mactans. Western widows consider it rude to dine on their dates.
Yet even eastern males often make a clean getaway. That is, unless she’s hungry – a state that drives females of many species to murderous action. But if he’s careful and she’s well fed, she won’t kill him.
Does everybody swallow spiders in their sleep? According to snopes.com, this myth started in 1993 as a magazine columnist’s demonstration on how anything can be said in email spam lists and gullible people believe it.
Spiders don’t have any reason to get into our mouths, unless you go around with it hanging open so insects can live there. They prefer drier locations, ones that don’t snore or mumble.
The biggest myth state spider experts hear is that the Brown Recluse (Loxosceles reclusa) is here in Colorado. This is completely false, according to Dr. Paula Cushing, Department Chair and Curator of invertebrate Zoology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Though the black widow is everywhere, few people ask her about it. Instead, she fields hundreds of questions on brown recluse, a spider whose bite can cause a wound that grows but won’t heal.
Colorado isn’t part of its natural range, but due to the miracle of the internet, many people think it’s here. Occasionally it hitchhikes into the state on lumber or in moving boxes, but so far it hasn’t established colonies and settled down to raise families.
Learn more about spiders on the museum’s Spider Survey website.
This post was previously published in the Longmont Ledger.