Don’t Fear the Creeper

There are (probably) no killer spiders near you.

Illustration by TS Spookytooth.

“New Deadly Spider Spreads Across USA,” read the headline on someone’s social media feed last year. I don’t remember who posted the alert or the source of the information. I just remember a picture of a large spider and that people in five states, including neighboring West Virginia, were said to have died from its terrible bite. 

The news made me reassess the wisdom of letting spiders remain in three corners of the ceiling in my basement office. I had adopted a groovy coexist policy toward spiders only a year before. I mellowed my kill-’em-all spider policy (a remnant of seven years of living with black widows in Arizona) after reading a Virginia Tech entomologist’s argument that the vast majority of spiders in Virginia are cool, harmless little dudes best left to hang out and eat pests outside, and even inside, your house.

That social post made me reexamine my three spiders, but it was clear they were not going to eat me. My visitors were spindly little waifs that made haphazard hand-sized webs. They appeared to be “cellar spiders,” according to my Virginia spider guide, so they were exactly where they were supposed to be. I also identified in their webs 13 dead fungus gnats—my most loathed insect next to the mosquito. I felt more like kissing the spiders than killing them.

The Tech scientists blamed “the media” for sensationalized spider stories. According to the “Household Insect Pest Identification” guide, “The brown recluse spider is very rare in Virginia (more common in the popular press than in real life).” A Virginia Cooperative Extension publication notes, “Given the frequency of incorrect identifications, misdiagnosed spider bites, and media hype about venomous spiders, it’s no wonder that so many people are terrified of spiders.”

Within days of the new killer-spider alert on Facebook, the fact-checking website identified the story as a hoax. (How bored and twisted is a person to create something like that?) My three spiders stayed, cleared the house of a few more gnats, and then disappeared. They, or their children, will be back, and that’s just fine.

But I’m a writer, which means naturally curious, and growing up in rural Nebraska, you learn to call your local university extension agent when creature questions arise. Jim Hilleary, unit coordinator of Virginia Tech’s cooperative extension office in Loudoun County, confirmed the killer spider story was bogus, that there are no scary new “killer spiders” in Virginia, and that my little spider friends were indeed beneficial. 

Hilleary, who lives in very rural Fauquier County, is also a live-and-let-live spider guy. And, actually, he goes so far as to let the significantly beefier wolf spiders remain in his home. “If they’re that persistent to get in the house, I feel like I should let them go,” Hilleary says. “I kind of just commend their spirit. They like the baseboard heaters, and, I’m just like, ‘That seems like a pretty good place for you.’”

Nooooo way. I’m not that friendly. The most I can do is grab a piece of paper, coax any larger spider onto it, and release the guy outside. Our house may be a nearly no-kill shelter, but it’s not a spider hostel. I really do want to be more like Hilleary, but I still recoil at the sight of a large spider, no matter how cool I’d like to be. That kneejerk fear is hardwired in me. I can calm and play nice quickly now, but I can’t yet reason with my initial instinctual reaction. 

Which is probably why I was initially less skeptical of the deadly spider blurb than I usually would be of a random social-media post in capital letters, from an unknown source, that included little detail and no expert sources. I am naturally and perhaps preternaturally biased against spiders, so I probably let my fake-news guard down because the blurb confirmed a bias. 

I’m not sure “the media” caused this, though. I remember being scared of spiders long before I started reading newspaper (and social media) stories about spider atrocities. And I honestly don’t remember any piece of journalism suggesting anything other than what Hilleary and every bug scientist has been saying for a long time: Very few spiders are dangerous.

The bottom line is, the only potentially harmful spiders in Virginia are the brown recluse and the black widow, and recluses are unusual. Both can really hurt you and even, in very rare circumstances usually involving at-risk populations, kill you. If one bites you, get to antivenin immediately. (If possible, take the spider so doctors can confirm the identification.) 

But, that said, remember that these are solitary creatures that aren’t coming for you; they aren’t aggressive. “Wear gloves and long-sleeve shirts when you’re digging into dark, hidden places, like out around a wood pile or pile of rocks,” Hilleary says. “You definitely should be careful in those situations. But, for the most part, relax.” 

This article originally appeared in our April 2020 issue.

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