Bill Starr: Few creatures as feared and misunderstood as spiders

Published 4:58 pm Monday, October 24, 2016

Little Miss Muffet, sat on a tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey;
Along came a spider,
Who sat down beside her
And frightened Miss Muffet away.
If you are like Miss Muffet then you may be afraid of spiders as well. Halloween is upon us and is usually a time for scary things, a time of creepy, crawly scary things particularly spiders. Spiders can be scary to look at, but they are actually beneficial because they feed on other insects which can be harmful. Few creatures are as feared and misunderstood as spiders.
For the most part, spiders are harmless and generally beneficial by keeping the insect populations in check. Spiders are seldom aggressive and bite only when threatened or injured. Few spiders bite people and the venom of most is harmless. However, the bite of the  black widow and the brown recluse (also known as the Recluse or Fiddle Back) can be quite dangerous.
Spiders, which are sometimes referred to as insects, are not insects at all but rather arachnids. There are many thousand different kinds of spiders. All spiders have eight legs. Most spiders have eight eyes, but some have fewer than eight. They don’t have ears; they feel the sound vibrations with tiny hairs on their legs. Their bodies have two parts, the head and the abdomen. The abdomen is plump. Spider blood is light blue. Blood fills up all the empty space in the spider’s body; it helps to keep the legs stiff so the spider can walk. Spiders breathe, too. As spiders grow, they molt. That means they shed their old skin and grow a new one. They molt many times before they become adults. Many spiders live for only one year, but some, like tarantulas can live much longer. Spiders come in different sizes. Some are fuzzy and others are smooth, and they come in many different colors.
Spiders live in many different kinds of places, water, gardens, houses, and the ground. They live where it is hot and where it is cold. They live where it is wet and where it is dry. Some are poisonous and others are not. They all eat insects and some other animals. Most spiders are small, inconspicuous arachnids, which are harmless to humans. Their beneficial role in keeping insect populations in check far outweighs the hazard posed by the few spiders that occasionally bite humans. Only two groups — recluse spiders and widow spiders — are considered poisonous to humans. Tarantulas, jumping spiders, wolf spiders and some other spiders worry people who mistakenly believe they are seriously poisonous. Although these spiders are often large, hairy and formidable-looking, their bite is typically less harmful than a bee sting. Just recently my wife was in our garage and came and told me very calmly (not really) that there was as she described it the biggest spider she had ever seen. I will have to admit it was a very large spider and very oddly shaped. It looked as if it had survived Chernobyl and was severely mutated. Upon closer examination I realized it was a wolf spider with what seemed like millions of babies on her back. (It was probably only a couple 100). It was scary looking but otherwise it was harmless.
People who are extremely allergic to spider venom, though, react severely to any spider bite. The two spiders we have in Georgia that concern most people are the Brown Recluse and the Black Widow. Out of these two the easiest to recognize is the black widow. The female black widow is shiny black usually with a red hourglass shape or two triangles together on the underside of her round shaped stomach; their coloration can vary considerably. For proper identification, an expert may be needed to examine mature specimens. Like most spiders, widow spiders are shy and retiring. People are bitten occasionally when they accidentally disturb a hidden spider or its web. To avoid hidden spiders, take care when putting on seldom-worn shoes or clothing. In addition to the black widow spider we also have another venomous spider in Georgia, the Brown Recluse. This spider probably gets blamed for more spider bites in Georgia than any other spider. I spoke with Dr. Nancy Hinkle, about Brown Recluse spiders in Georgia (she is a veterinary entomologist with the University of Georgia Extension Service). She responded by saying that Brown Recluse spiders had only been identified and verified in only a few Georgia counties. All of those counties are located in northwest Georgia. Dr. Hinkle says Brown Recluse spiders in Georgia are being wrongly blamed for wounds they don’t cause.
“Most of the state of Georgia doesn’t even have Brown Recluse spiders,” said Dr. Hinkle, an entomologist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. “If the spiders in the state caused all the wounds that are reported as Brown Recluse bites, they would be some very busy spiders.”
I receive a lot of spiders in my office for identification and I have not personally identified a Brown Recluse spider. The Brown Recluse is mostly brown but has a darker, violin-shaped design where its legs attach. With its legs extended, it’s only about the size of a quarter. Most of the spiders that I receive end up being some kind of wolf spider.
Spiders are spooky and creepy looking and most are not harmful to humans; in fact spiders are beneficial to keep insect populations in check. If you have a spider that you find and you need an I.D., bring it by office and I will do my best to identify it for you. And by the way, I think if I was Little Miss Muffet I would be more concerned about eating curds and whey than I would be about spiders.
Bill Starr is Sumter County Extension agent/coordinator with the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service. Contact him at 229-924-4476.