Halloween is for celebrating the scary: imaginary monsters—ghouls, goblins and ghosts—along with real but scary-seeming creatures such as bats, black cats and spiders. It’s also the one time of year people buy fake cobwebs en masse and purposefully decorate with oversized arachnids.
Although spiders are common houseguests year-round, during October they finally get their due, although it’s not necessarily favorable. With over 47,000 described species, around 3,400 of which live in North America, most Americans have spiders as roommates whether they like it (or even know it) or not. It’s extremely likely that you’re sitting in the vicinity of a spider at this very moment, in fact. Look around—is it in the potted plant? The sink? The windowsill? Wherever your local spider happens to be, don’t be spooked: it’s actually a good thing.
While spider density depends on habitat, they occupy every dry niche imaginable: grasslands, forest canopies, desert floors and, luckily for us, homes, garages, and gardens.
Instead of killing a spider by blunt force or with poison, people should learn to live in harmony, assuage their fears and appreciate these animals for the role they play in the ecosystem and in our lives.
These arachnids (part of phylum Arthropoda) eat billions of insects yearly—mosquitoes, for example, which ruin our enjoyment of the outdoors vastly out of proportion to their tiny size. So thank your backyard orb weaver for feasting on these annoying bugs during your next barbecue.
That’s not all: spider silk glues together hummingbird nests; envelops pesky insects burrito style, and tantalizes engineers who are working to uncover the secret of its amazing strength and elasticity. Some spiders are pollinators, and many are at the base of a complex and necessary food chain—which is to say, if you like birds, dragonflies, and lizards in your yard, keep plenty of spiders around.
As far as houseguests go, spiders are among the best tenants you could imagine. They’re quiet, they eat flies and they don’t leave dishes in the sink. A house with spiders tucked unobtrusively in the corners has fewer insect pests. Even black widows hiding in the outdoor shadows are a barrier to other invertebrates entering the premises, which they catch and prey upon. Nature’s best, cheapest and healthiest pest control solution happens to have eight legs.
Fortunately (this should come as a relief to arachnophobes), spiders want nothing to do with humans. Over the last hundreds of millions of years of their evolution they’ve never once shown a propensity to take a blood meal from us, unlike ticks. They are predatory but not on people or pets. Spiders can’t fly; many can’t even jump; and none of them want to get into our business. Their best defense is camouflage: crab spiders perfectly mimic the coloration of flower petals, and flatties are practically invisible against lichen-covered rocks. They just want be left alone.
Even the dreaded tarantula is more of a gentle giant than a threat. In Arizona, where I live, desert blonde tarantulas sometimes wanders into the garage, but these relatively enormous spiders, admired by arachnophiles around the world, rarely bite or act aggressive—although their bulky physiques and hairy bodies manage to intimidate both nosy coyotes and amateur naturalists. I’ve been carefully handling tarantulas for decades, but I can’t tell you what their bite feels like, since it’s never happened to me. While a predator would think twice when encountering a tarantula, I’m inclined to give it a high five—or, rather, a high eight.
To be sure, black widow and recluse spider bites can be dangerous, especially to children, the elderly or those with compromised immune systems. However, the vast majority of reported spider bites are misdiagnoses of other medical conditions, including bacterial and fungal infections, diabetic ulcers, herpes, chemical burns, and dermatitis from poison ivy and poison oak.
Spiders play a critical role in our ecosystem, and we should all appreciate how they enhance our homes, our gardens, and our lifestyles. However, it’s understandable that some people prefer to enjoy them from afar. If you want to help a spider vacate your premises, simply get a cup and a piece of paper. Put the cup over the spider (it doesn’t matter if it’s on a vertical or horizontal surface). Then, slide the paper underneath the trapped spider. Carry the whole thing outdoors, set the cup down and slide the paper away. Lift the cup and say goodbye and thank you to your new friend. With a trick like that, living in harmony will be a yearlong treat.
As for Halloween, these original “web developers” do have fangs, but that’s nothing to fear—because spiders just aren’t that scary when you know enough about them.