From arachnid fear to fascination
The world is full of amazing creatures that we are fascinated by: from giant blue whales that live in the ocean, to tiny kangaroo rats that survive in arid deserts, birds that migrate thousands of miles every year, and ants that can form super colonies stretching across the entirety of Los Angeles. Amongst all of these incredible animals is a group of arachnids that are quite under-appreciated, and even largely feared: the spiders.
Spiders are not often at the top of the list when you ask someone what their favorite animal is, and to be honest, a large amount of the population is quite afraid of them, with around 6% of people who have arachnophobia, which is an uncontrollable irrational fear of spiders. Many people with arachnophobia can barely even see an image of one without being afraid, or even panicking.
However, once you get to know more about spiders, you may come to realize that they are incredible creatures that are just as worthy of our respect and admiration, and with a little bit of work, you may even be able to get rid of your fear of them!
How to get over your fear of spiders
So, what are the steps to not be afraid of spiders? We broke it down into three:
- Learn more about spiders through books and the internet – looking at pictures too
- Observe them up close
- Handle them!
Most people who are afraid of spiders are reluctant to try to get over this fear, which is fair, but bear with us! There are lots of stories of people who were afraid of spiders but with time have learned to at least tolerate them, if not become fascinated by them!
So, to help you get started, you can read this blog to learn a little about spiders, why we are afraid of them, how dangerous they actually are, and how fascinating they can be! You can also watch the video at the end of the article (There are quite a few spiders in the video for you to observe virtually, and we will put some real spider pictures at the end so you can look if you want to!)
Why do people have a fear of spiders?
There are actually quite a few reasons people are afraid of spiders, and the point of this article isn’t to mock people for their fears, but to help them understand and hopefully face them! So why do people fear spiders?
As a spider lover, sometimes it is hard for me to understand why people are grossed out by them, but I can admit that they look a bit odd when you aren’t used to observing them. In the words of a person who is afraid of spiders when asked why:
“They move too fast, are small, hairy, and have too many legs and eyes… I don’t want to talk about it anymore”
So yes, the often rapid somewhat “scurrying” movements of spiders can be off-putting, especially if they startle you, and the long legs and appearance are not exactly puppy-like. However, I also blame the media for a big part of us being afraid of how a spider, more on that below.
I think once you begin to spend more time looking at spiders and trying to appreciate them, some of the features you found creepy before can become quite interesting. Eventually you may even start to recognize that many spiders have an incredible range of shapes and colors – like peacock spiders who are out charismatic champions for the battle to get people to like spiders.
A huge part of this fear is due to our lovely friend and enemy: the media. Unfortunately, the media really likes to blow up cases of deaths or injury caused by animals such as spiders, because big headlines sell papers and get clicks. If you do a quick google, some of the biggest headlines of “death by spider” are merely speculation (i.e. no confirmation that a spider caused the death) or about deaths caused from infections and complications that could have been treated. ( Please note that I am purposely not linking examples because I do not want to fuel their click bait!).
The exact same thing happens with sharks and other “dangerous” creatures that do not cause nearly as many deaths and injuries as it seems, read on to check out some stats below on how likely it actually is to be killed by a spider versus other things.
Then there are a lot of movies (and books too!) that feature spiders as a villain, often blown up to monstrous sizes, given extra large fangs, made look much scarier than they really are, or misrepresented completely. For example, tarantulas are used a lot as the “scary spider” in movies because they are so big, however, most species are very docile and the majority are not even medically significant!
Between the movies and the media, we start to fear spiders way more than we should. So, if your only experience with spiders is from this kind of media, then it makes sense that you would fear them, this is why education and exposure is important to conquer this fear!
Like you will see a lot on this page, we find that myths around animals and things like plants and mushrooms can cause us a lot of harm, and stop us from enjoying the outdoors.
This page from the Burke Museum does a great job of laying out and debunking numerous spider myths, so definitely check it out! But some quick examples of FALSE spider myths are
- All spiders are aggressive and want to bite you – they do not, you are too big to be a spider snack! Actually, it is really unlikely that a spider will bite you and most are really relaxed when handled.
- All spiders are dangerous – many can’t even bite us if they tried, and even more have venom that will not cause significant harm. Also, with medical treatment death by spider is extremely rare.
- A doctor can identify a spider from the bite and symptoms – this is not possible and this is what often leads to false headlines and people blaming spiders for things they weren’t even involved in.
One of the most common, and most ridiculous myths about spiders that I wanted to address here is this one:
Myth: Everyone eats about eight spiders a year.
Think about it: First off, why on earth would a spider crawl into your mouth to die? Spiders avoid people in general, and they have no reason to be in your bed in the first place, unless you have an insect infestation (in which case you have bigger problems!). This myth, with the origin ever-unconfirmed, is silly and needs to stop being cited! So, if you see a spider in your home, you can leave it in peace knowing that you do not have to worry about it ending up as an involuntary midnight snack.
Long story short, if the people you grow up around are scared of and disgusted by spiders, you probably will be too. Growing up and seeing people react with fear will teach you to do the same, because that is how we learn what to avoid in our environment.
As a personal example, I had a nephew who around the age of 5 was scared of spiders, since my sisters and mom always reacted badly around them, totally fair! However, I was visiting them and after spending only about an hour with him looking for spiders around the garden – looking at them, handling them, and telling him all about them – and in just that time he started to say that they were really cool! This was a very proud moment for me and a great hands-on example that education and exposure is everything!
Evolution and Instinct
Now, we can’t pretend that having a fear of spiders is entirely irrational, because there absolutely are spiders that are considered medically significant, meaning they can cause negative health reactions and in some cases death, so there is probably a part of us that has evolved through the years to fear spiders to some extent. Despite this, we now have access to so much information about the world around us, and I am confident that we can overcome these feelings with just a bit of work!
In addition to this, if you live somewhere where there are more spiders that can cause hospitalizations, you do have to be more careful about handling them and accidentally threatening one so that it feels like it needs to bite you in self-defense. However, as you will see towards the end of this article, the “dangerous spider” trope, when looked at with real-world stats, is an exaggeration.
Even though there are a lot of reasons that people fear spiders, there are many reasons to think they are awesome!
Why spiders are awesome
There is a huge variety of spiders out there and there are so many reasons to be fascinated by them! Hopefully this article will inspire you to learn even more, but for now, here are 11 fun facts and reasons to love spiders!.. Or at least think that maybe they aren’t so bad.
Spiders are important predators that control populations of pest insects.
The female wolf spider (and some others) carry out parental care. She will carry her egg sac with her, then carry all her babies (sometimes 100s) on her back for a few days until they are ready to go out on their own.
By the way, baby spiders are called spiderlings! Cute!
Not all spiders have 8 eyes, and some are used for different things. The patterns their eyes are in help us to identify them and jumping spiders for example have some eyes to see details and others only for recognizing changes in light and movement!
Some jumping spiders are omnivores as they also eat nectar and can even contribute to pollination!
Not all spiders build webs, some build burrows, some hunt by ambush, some build trap doors and some even fish!
Spiders do something called “ballooning”. Small babies can disperse via air by releasing a strand of web that will carry them in the wind. Though they don’t have control of where they go, it can help them reach new habitats.
There are spiders that are incredible mimics of other invertebrates like ants, so they can sneak into ant hills undetected for a snack!
Despite all their eyes, tarantulas are almost totally blind, so they are poor mobile hunters and have to hang out and wait for their food to come to them!
Males spiders normally have to court their mate. Some species use waving arm movements, some “play songs” on the females webs with vibrations, and some have a “dance and sing” combination where elaborate vibrations are mixed with a sexy spider dance.
This 2022 paper that shows how jumping spiders demonstrate REM-like sleep and suggests that they may be dreaming!
There are a lot more interesting facts about spiders, and hopefully you are inspired to check it out! And to get your started, here are two podcast episodes I highly recommend!
How dangerous are “dangerous” spiders?
So, many people who are afraid of spiders are concerned with how dangerous they could be, but do spiders really cause as much harm as people say?
Now, there are a range of spiders that are considered “medically significant”which is the proper term to use when referring to a venomous animal that can cause serious health effects, but often a spider bite will just result in some localized pain and swelling. As for the ones that can trigger greater problems: the chances of you getting bit by one of these spiders is generally low, the chances of hospitalization lower, and the chance of dying is really low, let’s see some numbers.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room: Australia.
Australia has a reputation for having some of the highest quantity of dangerous snakes, spiders, and in the words of many on the internet “a bunch of things that are always trying to kill you.” In all fairness, someone from Australia should probably be more cautious of which spiders they pick up compared to someone in Canada, but is it really that bad?
An example regarding the danger of spiders in Australia that made quite an impression on social media was when an episode of the children’s cartoon “Peppa Pig” was banned in Australia because it taught kids to make friends with spiders, and many people thought it was dangerous and inappropriate.
Yet, when you break down the numbers of how dangerous spiders really are, we can see the exaggeration. Did you know that more people in Australia from 2000-2013 died from an encounter with a domestic animal like a horse or a dog than one with a venomous animal?
When we look at spiders specifically, there are medically significant spiders in Australia, like Funnel web spiders and red back spiders, but this same study from above shows that though there were 11,000 hospitalizations from spiders, there were no deaths reported. This is because many bites by spiders only cause minor reactions that the body can handle, or in extreme cases patients are given antivenom and are able to recover.
All in all, if you are dealing with spiders of Australia you have more reason to be careful around spiders, but I think we can agree that they have been vilified more heavily than necessary, and with a bit of understanding you do not need to fear them!
What about other places?
Of course each country and region is going to have different medically significant spiders, as well as different levels of access to medical care and antivenoms, but the lesson is just to learn more about the species you are going to interact, and respect instead of fear them.
In the US for example the story is pretty similar, with cows killing about 20 people per year and dogs 28, versus a mere 7 killed by spiders, which on its own is also a bit doubtful, since there tends to be so much misdiagnosis. And although this part is speculation, higher death counts could be due to hesitation to seek medical help due to high costs in the US.
South America as well, being a biodiversity hotspot, for sure has a number of spiders, but the possibly most famous “highly deadly Brazilian wandering spider has only resulted in 15 recorded deaths since 1903.
In conclusion: Yes, some spiders are medically significant and you have to be careful around them, but they are not as dangerous as they are made out to be and do not need to be feared as much as they are.
To wrap things up
There are a lot of people in the world who fear spiders and a few reasons that people are afraid of them, but there are many more reasons why spiders are so cool! Therefore, there is little reason to fear spiders and you can learn to respect them, and maybe even love them, even if it is from a distance.
Though there are medically significant spiders in the world, and you have to be careful around some spiders, the large majority are safe to handle and all spiders have a really important role in the ecosystem. So, take this as a challenge to get out and learn more about the spiders in your area!
Now that you have read all about spiders, feel free to check out this video and look at some awesome spider pictures below it!