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Spiders: A Closer (Eight-Eyed) Look
Given their status as quintessential Halloween emblems, spiders have gotten a bad rap as harrowing night crawlers. But when you consider their heavy toolbox of survival skills, it’s clear that they’re thrilling in more ways than one.

Kim Connors
A mabel orchard spider. These spiders range from New England to Florida and west to Texas and Nebraska, residing in shrubby meadows or woodland edges.

Miss Muffet wasn’t too keen on her leggy dinner guest, nor are many other folks who encounter spiders. But these silk-spinning arachnids (a class that includes scorpions, ticks, and mites) are good for more than curbing appetites.

Spiders inhabit various types of environments, from forest and mountains to deserts and prairies, as well as our own backyards and homes. Spiders also vary in size. Some are huge (the Goliath tarantula, found in northeastern South America, spans the size of a dinner plate), while others are tiny (a species from Borneo is the size of a pinhead!).

Their impressive web weaving makes spiders the Rumpelstiltskins of the arachnid world. Not all spiders spin the typical geometric marvel, however. Some live in burrows, which they line with silk, and most spiders lay eggs in silken sacs. All young spiders release long strands of silk that they use as a parachute to “balloon” to other places.

There are more than seven types of spider silk, which spiders make from spinnerets—organs in their abdomens. Spinnerets contain hundreds of tubes that shoot silk that hardens into thread. Some silk is also waterproof and can rival the strength of steel.

Kim Connors
The dark patch in the spider’s abdomen contains its spinnerets.

The silk of the golden orb weaver spider is particularly impressive. This silk weighs less and is much tougher than Kevlar, the strongest synthetic polymer in existence today. While developing a fiber comparable to spider silk would seem ideal for items like bulletproof vests or safety ropes, scientists have yet to find a way to truly imitate spider silk technology. In the South Pacific, however, natives have found a lower-tech purpose for spider silk: They encourage spiders to spin silk between two bamboo stakes and use the resulting web as a fishing net.

Aside from their web-building abilities, most spiders are also known for the paralyzing venom contained in their fangs. When a spider bites, it injects digestive fluid into its victim, which then liquefies the prey’s body for easy digestion. But rest assured: The purpose of spider venom is for self-defense or to kill prey—which doesn’t include humans. Spiders will bite people in defense, but won’t purposefully attack. Of the more than 40,000 known spider species, only about 25 are thought to have venom that can affect humans. The two most common culprits in the United States are the black widow and the brown recluse, but they haven’t been found culpable for any human deaths in more than 20 years.

Kim Connors
An orb weaver spider...with dinner, perhaps? There are several hundred species of North American orb weavers. Most orb weavers spin spiraling webs on support lines that radiate out from the center, and many replace their webs daily, spinning them in about an hour.

However, spiders do feed on insects, fish, other spiders, even mice and birds, so all kinds of prey have cause to be wary. Some spiders are camouflaged to blend into their surroundings while others hide from their prey and leap out at opportune moments. The bola spider has an ingenious hunting tactic, by which it “fishes” for moths by dangling a sticky strand of silk containing a substance similar to the pheromone used by moths to attract mates. The ball at the end catches confused prey, which the spider simply reels in. (A bola is a weighted cord used to catch game, so the name of this spider makes sense).

Impressed yet? Another reason to appreciate spiders is their importance as a natural form of insecticide: Some species consume an estimated 2,000 insects a year.

If you’re still not a fan, you can prevent spiders from coming inside by screening or taping any cracks or gaps a spider could crawl through and by cleaning up old piles of newspapers, boxes, and scrap wood that could make a tempting home for them. Of course, walling off spiders could open your house up to creatures that can cause real damage or annoyance, such as termites and houseflies, which spiders might otherwise help keep at bay. Given this alternative, communal living with our eight-legged friends doesn’t seem so scary, does it?

 

Did you know…?

Many of us recall the following nursery rhyme:

Little Miss Muffet
Sat on a tuffet
Eating her curds and whey.
Along came a spider
And sat down beside her
And frightened Miss Muffet away.

According to the Australian Museum, Miss Muffet’s father, the Reverend Dr. Thomas Muffet, thought better of spiders than his daughter: He wrote that having spiders around the house could prevent gout and that spider excrement could cure running eyes. What’s more, he used those spider cures on his daughter. Perhaps that explains the source of her arachnophobia.

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