Season of the spider: WSU scientists ease fears over arachnids of autumn

Hayes holds a tarantula, extending a finger to touch its extended leg.
Abigail Hayes, graduate student and curator of Washington State University's Richard S. Zack Living Arthropod Collection, gets a "high-five" from Arachne, a four-year-old, captive bred tarantula. Hayes shows Arachne at public events to help decrease fear of spiders (Photo by Seth Truscott, WSU).

By Seth Truscott, College of Agricultural, Human, and Resource Sciences

Abigail Hayes’ phone chimes as she tends to Arachne, her shy, pet tarantula. The friend on the other end has found a nasty-looking customer: Big, black, and hairy, with a bulbous, bean-shaped abdomen.

“It’s just another trapdoor spider,” explains Hayes, a Washington State University student entomologist. “It looks scary, but it’s really nothing to worry about. It’s after a potential mate, not you or your pets.”

As cool autumn days arrive, so do the spiders — and the spider questions. In phone calls, emailed photos, and dropped-off specimens, WSU entomologists like Hayes hear frequently from Washington residents who’ve discovered a scary looking spider in their home and want to know if it’s dangerous.

In almost every case, WSU scientists reassure them that the spiders they’ve found aren’t a threat — they’re simply reacting to the change of season. Fall is when spiders are on the move, looking for mates and warm places to hide.

Autumn appearance

Explained in the new publication, “Common Spiders of Washington” (released this fall from WSU Extension), autumn is mating season for most Northwest spider species.

Zack holds a black widow encased in plastic.
Professor Rich Zack holds a black widow specimen at WSU’s M.T. James Entomological Collection. Female black widows are the only medically dangerous spider in the Northwest, but they are very timid and retreat when disturbed (Photo by Seth Truscott, WSU).

“There are hundreds of species of spiders in Washington,” said Richard Zack, professor and extension specialist with the WSU Department of Entomology. “Autumn is when you encounter more of them because they’re out and about.”

Female spiders generally stay put, but males roam fields, orchards and homes, seeking out a mate. When they find one, some species do a special “dance” to show that they’re a potential partner, not prey.

Of the dozens of spiders dropped off every autumn in Zack’s office, “nine times out of ten, it’s a male,” he said, “because they’re the ones wandering around.”

Autumn chores, like hauling firewood, can also bring hidden spiders into the open, while cold weather pushes outdoor spiders into our sheds and garages.

“Spiders are doing exactly the same thing we’re doing: They’re getting ready for winter,” Hayes said. “They want to find some place nice and warm, and if they can find it in your home, they will. They don’t want to freeze.”

Undeserved reputation

WSU scientists study spiders as part of nature’s web of predators and prey — arachnids play a big role in holistic management strategies that keep pest bugs under control.

Extension scientists note in their new guide that the hobo spider — a funnel spider introduced from Europe now common in Northwest homes and gardens — doesn’t deserve its fearsome reputation. Decades-old research theorized that the hobo’s venom was dangerous, but WSU scientists have never been able to replicate that conclusion.

While aggressive and tenacious enough to defend itself if disturbed, the hobo’s bite is no worse than most, and much less dangerous than that of the brown recluse, which doesn’t occur naturally in the Northwest.

The female black widow, with its distinctive red hourglass mark on its small, bulbous black body, remains the only medically dangerous native Washington spider. But that spider is timid, and when disturbed tends to retreat. The best defense against an accidental bite is a good pair of leather gloves.

A brown-colored, spotted spider sits on a wisp of silk, on top of a woody stem.
An orb-weaving spider sits atop a web at its perch near the Snake River in southeastern Washington state. WSU Extension scientists study spiders as part of the web of predator and pest (Photo by Megan Asche).

No more fear

In folklore, spiders have been depicted as mystical weavers, tale-tellers and oracles of fate. Their prevalence in the imagery of Halloween might have something to do with their increased visibility as fall arrives, but could have more to do with our own fears.

“We associate Halloween with spiders because people fear spiders, and Halloween is the night of the year when all the creepy things are celebrated,” said Zack.

WSU entomologists are trying to do away with that instinctual fear. Hayes founded the department’s Living Arthropod Collection as a way to introduce students and children to live insects and spiders — and turn terror into knowledge and appreciation.

“Teaching our introductory class, I was surprised by how terrified some students were of insects and arthropods,” she said.

Hayes has slowly amassed a collection of stick-bugs, hissing cockroaches, and gentle tarantulas, which fellow students show and handle at public events.

“In a natural setting, spiders are amazingly beneficial,” Zack said. “It’s good to be able to show and tell people that spiders aren’t as dangerous as they may have been told.”

“There’s no reason to fear them if you understand them,” Hayes added.

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