SNYDER: Spiders often get caught in a web of lies

ANDY SNYDER, 505-5403/@ydsports
  • Daddy-long-leggers aren't even spiders and pose no threat to humans.
  • Most tarantulas pose very little threat to human beings.
  • Black widows do pose threats to humans, but their bites are no more harmful than bee stings.

When it comes to causing fear and terror, there's nothing like the sight of a spider scampering nearby.

Few people can truthfully say an eight-legged arachnid crawling toward them doesn't get their adrenaline flowing and their blood pressure soaring.

Spiders, even the tiny ones that slowly drop from the ceiling at night, have a bad reputation.

But do they deserve it?

With very few exceptions, the answer is no. In fact, out of the nearly 3,000 species of spiders native to the United States, the vast majority are harmless to humans.

Over the years, spiders have been the main characters of countless myths. Since most of the stories were probably started by pesky little brothers, few have any scientific merit.

Daddy-long-leggers: One of my favorite myths, is the one that says daddy-long-leggers are the most venomous spiders in the world, and the only reason they don't hurt humans is because their fangs are too short.

Unfortunately for my spider-tossing victims, I learned from a very young age these little guys are nothing to fear.

But besides the screams that could wake an entire neighborhood when tossed at your sister, daddy-long-leggers are harmless. In fact, they aren't even spiders. Their real name is long-legged harvestmen, a ground-dwelling member of the arachnid class.

To be considered a spider, a member of the arachnid class must have two body sections, eight legs and the capability to make silk. Long-legged harvestmen have none of those characteristics.

Beside the fact that they're not spiders, the real fallacy in the myth is the belief that the creatures are extremely poisonous. In truth, they produce absolutely no venom. But don't tell my sister.

Tarantulas: Another myth handed down through the generations is the belief that tarantulas are deadly, venomous creatures. We can probably credit this myth to the movie industry. After all, the sight of a big, hairy spider crawling across the screen has great visual impact.

City-slicker directors originally chose tarantulas for the silver screen because of how easy and safe they are to handle. It wasn't until writers portrayed them as deadly horror-film antagonists that this myth spread like wildfire.

Tarantulas pose practically no danger to human beings.

In reality, most tarantulas pose very little threat to humans. Sure, they contain venom. Almost all spiders do. But a tarantula’s venom is hardly toxic to humans. Most people who have been bit barely feel the bite.

Tarantulas do have hair on their underside that contains chemicals irritating to humans. But if folks who handle the spiders wash their hands when done touching the animal, the hair will do no harm.

No North American species of tarantulas, or those commonly kept as pets, pose even a mild bite hazard.

Black widows: Black widows, which can be found native in Pennsylvania, are one of the few spiders that can harm humans. But the vast majority of the time, the bite is no more deadly than a bee sting, and is far less likely.

Because we are nowhere in their food chain, black widows typically only bite humans when cornered or when they become trapped between our clothing and our skin. Like most spiders, black widows have become the victim of tall tales.

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In fact, contrary to popular belief, female black widows rarely kill their mates. What really happens is a male black widow is rendered impotent after breeding.

With no chance of further procreation, the males find no reason to leave their mate’s web. And since they don’t leave, the female usually seizes the opportunity for an easy meal. But if the male wants to, it is free to leave.    

Spiders are a great example of creatures that have earned an undeservedly bad reputation. Next time you're outside and happen to see one crawling nearby, don't automatically squash it. Take some time to look at it in its natural habitat.

What you see may surprise you. I'd be willing to bet it won't bite.

Andy Snyder writes about the outdoors for The York Dispatch.