A few days before Halloween, eeriness is in the air. Even on NPR. Driving across the state last week, I heard some very scary things.
The most frightening was a “Science Friday” interview with two arachnologists who were terrifyingly enthusiastic about spiders. I had never before heard anyone use “spider” and “adorable” in the same sentence. They were especially excited about the peacock spider, named for the bright colors and pattern on its body, which according to them is not only adorable but is also gorgeous.
Given the season, the interview focused on scarier critters, the black widow and the brown recluse. The scientists were quick to explain that, even though their bites can be dangerous, these spiders are still adorable because they don’t really want to bite you. The reason? Energy conservation. It takes a lot of body energy to create venom, which of course is intended to paralyze prey so the spiders can eat. Efficient little critters that they are, they’d rather save the precious stuff for their next meal than waste it repelling enormous and inedible humans. They will only bite if they believe their lives to be in acute danger.
If you see a brown recluse spider, it probably isn’t. They weren’t named “recluses” because they run around in public. They prefer their privacy and will be happy to leave you alone if you leave them alone. Their brown violin-shaped body markings are also shared by many other harmless spiders, like the wolf spider. You can easily tell the difference, because wolf spiders have spiky little thorns on their legs and brown recluses have fine little hairs. Also, wolf spiders have eight eyes and brown recluses have six eyes, arranged by twos in a tidy symmetrical pattern.
So if you see what you think is a brown recluse spider, there’s no need to panic. All you have to do is sneak up on it until you’re close enough to count its eyes and see the tiny hairs on its legs. About, oh, an inch away from the end of your nose ought to be close enough. Just be careful not to appear threatening, so it won’t bite you.
Actually, all of this information about the harmlessness and general adorability of spiders was quite useful the morning after I heard it. I was about to step into the motel shower when I realized I was sharing the bath mat with a fuzzy brown spider the size of a Shetland pony. Okay, okay, that’s an exaggeration—it was only the size of a Chihuahua. Just with longer legs.
Well, maybe not quite that big. But big enough that, even without my glasses, I could clearly recognize it as a spider. Big enough that I really didn’t want to share my bathroom with it. And definitely big enough that I wasn’t going to stomp on it with my bare foot or whack it with my hairbrush. Besides being a reasonably live-and-let-live kind of person, I didn’t want to deal with the yuck factor of spider innards all over the bath mat.
So arachnicide was not the answer. Instead, I flapped a hand towel at it, herding it out of the bathroom. It disappeared around the corner. Out of sight, out of mind: problem solved. I enjoyed my shower in privacy.
But when I came out of the bathroom, the spider was just a few feet away from the door. Not moving. It was staying camouflaged against the brown carpet while it caught its breath, I decided.
I detoured around it as I went across the room to get dressed. I detoured around it again when I went back to the bathroom to dry my hair. I detoured around it again when I went over to the desk to check my email. I went to breakfast. I came back half an hour later.
The spider was still in the same spot, looking smaller somehow and not at all threatening. Because it was dead. I swear, I never touched it. I never even got close enough to count its eyes.
The arachnologists forgot to mention one thing. Apparently, it’s possible to frighten a spider to death.