Stop worrying so much about spiders, Wisconsin arachnid researcher says | Wisconsin Public Radio
Though biology professor Mike Draney’s field of research is spiders, a big part of his job is focused on humans — mostly reassuring people that spider fears are overblown.
“It’s about us. It’s not about them,” said Draney, head of the natural and applied sciences department at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. “It’s a psychological issue and not so much an issue of them being dangerous to us at all.”
Draney recently appeared on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Central Time” to discuss spiders in the wake of a study examining how spiders were depicted in more than 5,000 news items over a decade. The articles came from 81 countries and were in 40 languages. About 47 percent had errors and 43 percent were sensationalist, The New York Times reported.
On “Central Time,” Draney said spiders shouldn’t even crack the top 100 things Wisconsinites are worried about. He also discussed spider stereotypes, myths and fears.
The interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
Rob Ferrett: Do you see a lot of misinformation and misunderstandings about spiders?
Mike Draney: Absolutely. There’s no question about that. That’s a big part of my job — to reassure people and make sure that spiders are not on their top-10 or even top-100 list of things to worry about.
RF: This study points out that places like Australia have the most dangerous spiders, but their coverage is more calm about it. Places like the United Kingdom and parts of the U.S. tend to freak out more. Why is that?
MD: That’s been my experience, too. I grew up in New Mexico, and I could find 50 black widows in my backyard there. And yet here (in Wisconsin), if you find a black widow, it’s a news story.
I think that’s what it is — unfamiliarity makes people nervous and worry about things. The more you know about these animals, the less, you realize, you have to fear them.
RF: Are spider bites way less common than we think they are?
MD: Absolutely. In general, you have to compare it to wasp stings, right? Has anyone ever asked you, “Hey, is this little red mark a wasp sting?” No, because you look down and there’s a wasp stinging you, and it really hurts.
That’s essentially the way it is for most spider bites, too. You will know if you get bitten by a spider because you will see a spider biting you.
And so, you don’t have to wonder if you see a little red mark. That is very unlikely to be a spider bite. There are so many other things that it could be. Spiders just get the blame.
RF: What about spiders do you think causes people to fear them?
MD: I think there’s something about spiders being sneaky, and you often don’t notice them until suddenly you do. I think the number of legs is very deeply negative to some people. So, it’s hard to say what it is.
But definitely, it’s about us. It’s not about them. It’s a psychological issue and not so much an issue of them being dangerous to us at all.
RF: What about spiders captured your attention and imagination?
MD: Seeing them under the microscope had a huge impact on me, because they really look amazing. I would say they’re really beautiful looking. Essentially, they’re like some kind of tiger or something. But the only reason why they’re not in zoos everywhere is because they’re so small.
They really are a fascinating group. They use silk as a technology to (find) solutions to (nearly) all their problems. And so, in some sense they’re almost more interesting than a tiger or a lion, because they’ve got this unfair tool that they use — silk — to make webs and all sorts of other things, as well.
RF: Do spiders eat a lot of mosquitoes and other bugs?
MD: It has been estimated that, around the world, the weight of the insects that spiders consume every year exceeds the weight of humans living on the planet. So, they make a massive difference in the kinds of insects and the amount of insects that you find not just in Wisconsin, but all around the world.
RF: What are some of the most common spiders we see?
MD: The most common ones and the ones that people see the most are not really the same, because in order to be conspicuous, they have to live by us and they have to be large. So, people are very familiar with wolf spiders. They’re hairy (with) Earth tones, and they run around. People are familiar with jumping spiders. They live in our houses, and they jump around.
But there’s a lot of tiny spiders that live in leaf litter. There are twice as many species of those. There are over 100 species of sheetweb spiders that live in Wisconsin. And yet, few people have ever really seen one … A lot of the big web spinners are becoming adults right now, and those are the ones that people notice around Halloween.
RF: Something I used to get wrong: Spiders are not insects. Who are they most closely related to?
MD: Spiders are arachnids. These are animals that don’t have jaws. They have either fangs or pincers for their mouthparts. Some of the arachnids that live in Wisconsin, we have the mites and ticks. Not everybody’s favorite animal, but ticks are arachnids.
We’ve also got the daddy long legs, which actually are not spiders. They don’t have any silk. And then we also have farther south — not in Wisconsin — all sorts of scorpions, wind scorpions and related animals that live especially in drier parts of the world and in the tropics, as well.