Photo of the Week – August 21, 2015

How could you look at this spider and not think it’s cute?

Jumping spider. Helzer yard. Aurora, Nebraska.

This beautiful jumping spider was in my background last weekend.  I cajoled it onto a piece of cypress mulch and took its portrait.  The crazy green color in the background is the underside of a maple leaf I put beneath the wood chip.  Doesn’t it look like a cute little teddy bear?  (Or an Ewok?)

Unfortunately, many people will look at this photo and recoil.  I’ve gotten so used to handling and admiring spiders and other invertebrates that I forget most of the human population is much less comfortable with them.  I wish I could help; spiders (and other “creepy” invertebrates) are incredibly important, but it’s hard to have a conservation discussion about them when the person you’re talking to is covering their face in disgust and fear.

I get that many people have a very strong visceral reaction to spiders (and/or snakes), and I’m not trying to minimize or mock that.  In fact, I can relate.  My own initial reaction to seeing a snake in the wild is usually to take a quick step backward.  However, I’ve spent enough time getting comfortable with snakes that after that first backward step, my next move is usually to try to catch them to get a better look.  Experience helped me conquer my discomfort and turn it into admiration.  I think the same would help most people deal with snakes, spiders and others, but getting the majority of the public that kind of direct exposure and experience seems unlikely.

Here’s a compromise.  We don’t need everyone in the world to love spiders and snakes to the point where they try to cuddle every one they find.  Instead, it’d be great if people could just understand that spiders and snakes are critically important components of complex ecological systems rather than nasty creatures to stomp on or chop with shovels.

I don’t expect anyone to transform from spider hater to spider cuddler just because I say spiders are cute and ecologically valuable.  However, maybe I can nudge the ball in the right direction by pointing out some mythology about the danger of spiders.  Let’s start with this:  Almost no one reading this blog post will ever encounter a spider that will pose any danger to their health.  Seriously.  The vast majority of spiders can’t even bite you – their little fangs can’t penetrate your skin.  With very few exceptions reported “spider bites” turn out to be something else.  SPIDERS DON’T WANT TO HURT YOU.  I’ve handled countless spiders of many many varieties and have never had one act aggressively toward me, let alone try to bite me.

I’m not going to tell you there are no dangerous spiders.  There are a few species that can cause you harm, but the chances of running into one of them are pretty slim, especially in Nebraska and most other midwestern U.S states.  Really slim.  And if you do happen to encounter one, they’re not going to jump up and bite you on the throat.  I promise.  Also, they are not going to lay their eggs inside you so that your face (or other body part) swells up until it eventually bursts and thousands of tiny spiders come out.  Not going to happen.  That’s a particularly vivid, but completely false urban legend.

Spiders are just tiny creatures trying to survive in a dangerous world.  Just like you, though possibly cuter – I don’t know, I haven’t met all of you.  Maybe you don’t want to pick spiders up and play with them.  That’s cool.  But  maybe you don’t have to kill every spider you see because you figure it’s either them or you.  It’s not.  They’re just trying to find something to eat and avoid being eaten themselves.  Ignore them.  Or catch them in a cup and take them to a safe place.  Or, if you’re feeling really crazy, pick them up, put them on a wood chip and take pictures of their adorable little faces.

Here are two more links that talk about spider bites and other myths, in case you’re interested: