Aug 10 2011 Published by under Medicine

I finally found a use for Google+.  Science writer extraordinaire Ed Yong (rhymes with "song") wondered aloud (as it were) about the following:

1) Are arachnophobes also scared of scorpions? What about mites? They're not scared of insects, right? Crabs?

2) If they're only scared of arachnids, could you use their degree of fear for classification purposes? Are arachnophobes unknowing closet taxonomists?

3) Some spiders mimic ants very well (http://is.gd/pvriwj). If you showed an ant-mimicking spider to an arachnophobe, and they thought it was an ant, would they suddenly freak out if you then told them it was a spider, or would they be okay? Is it the knowledge that something is a spider, or the spidery appearance that's scary?

Aside from the sheer brilliance of the question,  it made me think back to various arachnid-related issues.  While I was up north last week, I had a number of eight-legged encounters.  This guy, for example, showed up on a piece of felt my daughter was playing with:

It's just a dog tick, but it has a big "ick" factor.  The ick factor would have seismically multiplied had it been attached to PalKid rather than a piece of felt.

It seems to have been a banner year for Dolomedes as well.  These guys were all over the place.  I don't like them.  Not one bit.

Despite my revulsion, "dock spiders" are pretty successful predators, snacking on ubiquitous "water skeeters" (striders), and producing many, many offspring.  In all my years hanging around these guys (despite my attempts to avoid them) I've never been bitten, nor have I met anyone who was bitten.  They just aren't that aggressive when it comes to big, hairy (bipedal) predators.

In my practice, patients frequently come to me with "spider bites".  Clinically, these are usually a red welt that is larger than a typical mosquito bite.  That seems to be the sole criterion for calling something a "spider bite".  I cannot recall how old I was when I first heard this little piece of folk knowledge but it was common knowledge on the elementary school playground.  My mother pooh-poohed such bubbe meisehs; "Spiders are our friends," she would say musically as I cowered in a corner of my room waiting for someone to KILL IT!!!!

Despite this widespread belief, most "spider bites" in my part of the country aren't caused by spiders, and probably aren't bites at all.  (The feared "brown recluse" does not live naturally in my part of the country, although importations have been reported.  They do not generally survive through the winter.) The distinction is important for a few reasons.  First, many of us are guilty of wanton arachnicide propelled by our unwarranted fears.  Second, many "bites" are probably bacterial infections and should be treated properly.  Finally, there's my own bias that we shouldn't assume things that aren't so.

12 responses so far

  • Maryn says:

    That paper (or the abstract) is a bit odd. "Demographic risk factors for CA-MRSA"? There aren't any -- or more precisely, there are so many that they're effectively meaningless. Wonder why they didn't go for either culture data or at least the drugs prescribed?

  • hematophage says:

    Those really ARE fascinating questions. Ticks don't bother this pseudoarachnophobe, I get 'em all the time doing field work, I think they're kinda cute. Otherwise, it's the eight legs and how they move. An insect sometimes will startle me until I recognize that it isn't a spider. The legs, though. My least favorite isn't a spider either -- I HATE daddy long-legs.

  • Chris says:

    Anyone who is afraid of spiders should stay away from the maritime climate of the Pacific Northwest. Walking down the front steps in the morning usually involves knocking down a few spider webs that have been built during the night, and repeat on the way up in the afternoon as they rebuild during the day.

    There are also a few that live in the house, some that get quite large. We usually just leave them alone as they keep other pests away (I tried to encourage one to go after the fungus gnats on my indoor plants, but I had to resort to sticky traps).

    Dr. PalMD have you read Charlotte's Web to PalKid? Now that is a great spider story. I recently read the biography of E.B. White, and he researched spiders for that book (and he had a few in his Maine barn). While Mr. White loved spiders, the illustrator was not so keen on them.

    Oh, I should add... when my father was stationed in Ft. Hood, TX we did have an issue with scorpions. They were over three inches long and in the house! Both my father and my sister got stung. So they do freak me out! I used barbecue tongs to pick up the one I found in the china cabinet, and put it down the garbage disposer.

  • Jim says:

    I love spiders, and they love me. They show this to me by biting me, and that rather often, but I'm clumsy and easily bitten. It's rarely a major issue as I'm in the Northeast and so most of the species I play with are practically nonvenomous, at least as far as giant Canadian homo sapiens are concerned. I make it a point to handle the more venomous species very carefully, if at all, particularly since I'm far from expert.

    I loathe ticks on the basis that they're parasites and on the prevalence of Lyme disease (is that "Lyme" or "Lyme's"?) in the area. I don't fear them, though.

    I'm ambivalent about scorpions as I never get to see them in the wild. I imagine I'd probably at least be nervous just based on the rarity of the encounter.

    I don't mind most sea critters, including the arachnids.

    Meeting a camel spider is on my bucket list.

    • PalMD says:

      "Lyme" after Lyme, CT. Not a big problem in SE Michigan, but a huge problem in the NE.

      • Jim says:

        Thanks for the clarification - a very smart friend insist's that it's "Lyme's disease" the same way it's "Lou Gehrig's disease." Honestly a little difficult to argue with the logic there.

  • Karen says:

    I live on the West Coast. I'm not particularly put off by spiders -- anything that eats mosquitoes is a friend of mine -- but I get totally freaked out by ticks, which are common on any unlandscaped terrain here. Anytime I venture off a paved trail, it's DEET time for me.

  • CanadianChick says:

    not spider bites? huh. I wonder what the hell they are then...I've had a few doozies - an inflamed spot with two spots like puncture marks that swells and is itchy as all hell. I still have a scar from one of them that arose after working in my very spidery garden years ago (and no, I didn't scratch it).

    I react badly to whatever it is - I've lost time at work to them. I also react insanely vigorously to mosquito bites, for that matter.

  • maxh says:

    I was absolutely fine with spiders when I was a kid. I caught one in a jar for a 4th grade science project and fed in caterpillers and everything. In kindergarden a friend of mine had a pet tarantula which I thought was soo cool (ugh) Then, sometime around my 10th birthday I started to freak out.I personally blame the film 'Arachnaphobia' as I remember scaring the bajeesus out of me.

    I'm fine with ticks, spending a year with animals in Africa makes ticks a non-problem for me. Daddy long legs are also fine, no spider-ish at all. Small spiders under the size of a dime are also no big deal. As soon as they get hairy/big/fat legged I freak. Or when they've surprised me. However, I never have tried to kill a spider, I just get someone to remove it from my room!

    Yes, certain crabs freak me out too. Especially the large leggy ones!

  • Natalie Sera says:

    Bubbe-meisehs!! I KNEW you were Jewish, somehow! Do you think the rest of your readers understood that term? For those who didn't, it roughly means "old wives' tales" but literally, it's "grandmother stories". Brought back memories of my youth, with my Yiddish speaking grandmother, and no, I'm not afraid of spiders! 🙂

  • Jojo says:

    In addition to spiders, ticks and insects freak me out as well. I would not want to meet a scorpion in a dark hallway, but they don't induce the same panic response from me as the much less harmless camel crickets do. I'm working on being a little less crazy about it because I don't want my son to end up afraid of bugs the way I am.

    My dad is a huge spider fan and spider removal has been a long going battle between the two of us. He'll do anything to save a spider, while I'm more of a sole of the shoe kind of problem solver. I've been telling him for years that spiders are not always as nice as he seems to think, and unfortunately a brown recluse decided to support my argument. It took several months for his leg to recover from the tissue damage. It was not a pretty site.

    He's still pretty spider friendly, but he does make sure to spray the shed where the brown recluse was living.