(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel December 16, 2007)
Spiders. If you think they're creepy, you're not alone.
Arachnophobia -- the fear of spiders -- is one of the most common human phobias. It doesn't matter if the offender is a harmless garden spider or a more sinister black widow; the mere sight of these eight-legged creatures is enough to trigger a primordial panic button in many men and women.
That's too bad, because spiders are a far cry from the monsters people make them out to be. If bugs are the enemy, spiders -- which are not insects -- are the good guys. As a group, these invertebrates consume more bugs than birds do.
Take cockroaches -- go on, take as many as you want.
In our house, we enlist help from spiders -- specifically Huntsman spiders (Heteropoda venatoria) -- to keep our house as cockroach-free as possible. Floridians who want a bug-free house welcome these 3- to 5-inch long spiders with open arms -- well, maybe not exactly open arms, but at least with an open mind.
Unlike most arachnids, Huntsman spiders won't leave dust-catching webs in hard-to-reach corners. They are web-free spiders that capture their prey with a combination of stealth and speed. And capture they do. Wherever Huntsman spiders reside, cockroach populations decrease along with other pesky home invaders such as palmetto bugs, crickets and silverfish.
The only drawback to these dedicated hunters is their unexpected size -- they look like hairless tarantulas. Encountering one late at night when you're still half asleep en route to the bathroom can a surprising experience to even the most spider-friendly person.
Fortunately, these cockroach-consuming Goliaths have no interest in people. Their focus is on bugs. Around people, they are inherently shy, rarely appearing during daylight hours.
It is not surprising that house spiders are wary of humans. People bombard spiders with an irrational brutality completely out of proportion to the presumed threat. Armed with whatever weapon can be quickly found -- brooms, fly swatters, rolled-up newspapers or aerosol containers of poison -- people pursue these harmless bug eaters with an irrational passion.
What is it about spiders that turn even the gentlest souls into ruthless killers?
It's probably their reputation. When it comes right down to it, spiders are victims of bad public relations. Yes, a few unsavory sorts present a danger, but to be afraid of an entire species for the sins of some makes no sense at all.
Consider dogs. Pit bulls and Rottweilers are like the canine equivalent to widow and recluse spiders because bites from each have been known to inflict bodily harm. The brown recluse can be found in Florida together with three kinds of widow spiders -- the Southern black, brown and red widow. Although recluse and widow spiders have the potential to hurt humans, they usually don't unless provoked.
But dogs -- oh, my goodness! Every year dog bites injure 4.5 million Americans. That's one injury every 40 seconds!
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Veterinary Medical Association, of the 25 breeds involved in the 238 dog-related fatalities in the United States between 1979 and 1998, pit bulls and Rottweilers were responsible for more than half.
If we applied the same reasoning toward dogs as we do toward spiders, we'd grab a can of poison and spray every canine in sight.
Of course, that would never happen. We'd never attack an entire species because of the dangerous actions of a few. Or would we? We do it every day to spiders, and yet the threat spiders pose to people is minute by comparison to the risk of dog attacks.
Statistics on spider bites are not as well tracked as those of canines, but according to Terry W. Thormin, acting curator of invertebrate zoology at the Royal Alberta Museum in Canada, in America 5,000 medically significant cases of spider bites occurred from 1989 to 1993. That's about 1,250 bites per year, barely a fraction of the 4.5 million tooth marks left by man's best friend.
What does it all mean? It means the threat from spiders is practically nonexistent.
Yet, people remain terrified by the mere sight of these benign bug catchers. Most of us would rather fill the air with noxious poisons than permit one tiny spider to go about its business keeping our homes free of cockroaches, flies and mosquitoes.
I have never understood why spiders terrify so many people. Like any predatory animal, invertebrates have their place in nature. The more we learn about their habits, the more likely we are to replace irrational fears with informed appreciation.
The way I see it, it's not spiders that present a problem but people who use poisons to kill each and every spider, cockroach, wasp, ant, fly or silverfish in sight.
Would we really rather breathe in air contaminated by potentially harmful chemical compounds than coexist peacefully with household spiders?
Life is too fragile for indiscriminate killing.
No matter what or who the perceived enemy may be, it's time we said no to irrational fears and hello to more educated choices.