SciTech

Spiders? Don’t be so scared of them

Catherine Scott explores amazing arachnids in her blog, SpiderBytes, ( http://spiderbytes.org) where she details the ways in which spiders serve as useful members of the ecosystem – and why we shouldn’t be so scared of them.

Q. What intrigues you about spiders?

A. Until about five years ago, I was afraid of spiders and didn’t really know much about them. I first became interested when I got a summer job helping a Ph.D. student study sexual communication in black widow spiders. Until then, I had never thought about how spiders might communicate, and I found the idea really fascinating. The male black widow does a courtship dance on the female’s web, sending her vibratory messages through the silk. At the same time, he lays down his own silk all over her web and even wraps it around the female. This silk probably also transmits chemical messages – pheromones – from the male to the female. Spiders use combinations of vibration, smell, taste, touch and vision to sense their environments and communicate with one another, and learning more about their sophisticated communication systems is my current passion.

Q. Spiders seem to make many people’s lists of most-loathed creatures. How do you try to change that?

A. Fear of spiders is widespread, and even I sometimes get startled by a house spider scuttling across the bathroom floor. Something about their many legs and the way they move seems to just creep people out. Most people don’t realize that spiders have absolutely no reason to bite people, unless their lives are being threatened. Unlike many other arthropods, such as mosquitoes, mites, and bedbugs, spiders do not depend on blood meals for their development.

Q. Your blog says you handle black widows regularly. How do you stay safe?

A. I feel very safe handling black widows for my research, because I understand their behavior and treat them with respect. I have never been bitten, nor am I likely to be. Black widows are actually quite hesitant to bite, and will typically only resort to biting defensively if they are being crushed. Spiders are far more helpful than harmful, and if you spend some time observing them, I’d bet that you can’t help but start to appreciate their beauty and fascinating behavior.

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