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A field guide to spiders in the house

By Vicki Croke, Globe Staff, 05/29/99


Spiders get a bad rap, according to Ed O'Brien, an assistant curator at Zoo New England. ``People get creeped out by them,'' he says. ``They often have a real aversion to them.''

Wonder why? Just because most of them have eight eyes and eight legs? Or because they liquify prey with digestive glands and then slurp down the bug juice? Or because they so often spin horror-movie-style webs?

If we weren't so repelled, we'd be awestruck. There is a phenomenal array of spider species all around us. ``While they can be easily overlooked,'' O'Brien says, ``there are so many types. Spiders are really diverse.''

In fact, you may feel there are times when you need a field guide just to keep up with the creepy crawlies with whom you begrudgingly cohabitate.

The notion of a quickie field guide to the spiders around us makes one of the sultans of spider biology chuckle. Herbert W. Levi, now retired from Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, says, ``There are about 500 kinds of spiders in the area, many without common names.'' There is still much to be learned in the world of spiders. Their numbers, range, and behavior in many cases are still mysterious. About 37,000 species of spiders have been named, but that's probably only a fourth of those out there.

Some things we know: For the most part it's females that build webs. ``Males just hike around the world looking for females,'' says Dr. Greg Mertz of the New England Wildlife Center. And certainly, not all spiders spin webs. Some go out hunting for little bugs to eat. Also, Levi points out, ``A female does not ordinarily feast on her mate, as many people believe, but males usually die after mating.''

In the quest to identify the spiders close at hand, we can at least point out a few of the more recognizable characters.

First on just about everyone's list are the little jumping spiders. Yes, that's right, those extra petite spiders that hop are called jumping spiders, and all arachnophiles love them. Mertz says these little guys are ``among the most intelligent spiders.'' They've also been called the most entertaining and the cutest. (If spiders had high school yearbooks, these guys would clean up on the superlatives: ``best dressed spider,'' ``spider most likely to succeed,'' etc.)

Since they don't spin webs, they hunt prey. Not exactly simba on the veldt, but they do stalk and ambush, using their jumping abilities for the final, deadly pounce. Two of their eight eyes are large and forward facing -- which inspired the writer of an article in Audubon's Sanctuary magazine to assert that these spiders have a ``humanlike appearance.'' Hmm. Well, come to think of it, maybe I can think of a few people. . . .

With their terrific vision and charisma, jumping spiders seem to invite interaction with people. ``You can box with them,'' Mertz says. They will draw back and leap forward to spar with your pinkie if you're in the mood. O'Brien says you can wave a finger in front of one and ``if you're lucky,'' the spider will hop on.

Jumping spiders, as well as others, O'Brien says, often will throw a line of silk out, like ``a bungee cord,'' as they leap.

We all know cellar spiders too, being particularly familiar with the daddy longlegs. These slender-legged spiders look otherworldly and spin messy webs in and around our basements. Cellar spiders are quite ``cosmopolitan,'' according to Levi's wonderful little volume, ``Spiders and Their Kin,'' (Golden Books, $5.95). I don't think he means that they summer on the Vineyard, collect Limoges, or drink Pouilly-Fuisse with every meal. But they do live all over the place, and often turn up in the city.

The American house spider is aptly named. We see them around all the time. They are members of the cobweb weaver group, a large spider family. These spiders are pretty sedentary, hanging upside down on the web, waiting for action. Levi tells us that cobweb spiders ``have few or no teeth, and do not chew prey.'' Instead, one bites its prey and ``sucks it dry.''

Orb weavers: These common spiders with poor vision build beautiful, complex-looking webs all over the world. The shamrock spider is a familiar member of the family.

Brown recluses and black widows are the two biggies in the United States for venom. Neither lives normally in New England, according to most sources. But they are ``easily transported,'' Levi says. They may make it here in suitcases or cargo shipments.

That would explain the ``web of intrigue'' at Roxbury's Dudley Street police station in 1994. That's when a brown recluse nested behind a file cabinet (complete with her babies and eggs) and proceeded to bite two sergeants, who survived the itching and swelling. While experts tell you these audacious arachnids aren't found here, they often will warn you to keep storage areas uncluttered and to shake out stored clothes before wearing them.

Several spiders deserve honorable mentions. Ed O'Brien likes fishing spiders, which can walk on water, and nursery web spiders that carry eggs with them (``a little bit of parental protection that people might be surprised by,'' O'Brien says). Not to mention how romantic the males are. When courting, he will often present the female with a bug. Wolf spiders, low-slung and predatory, are common. They have good vision and are sensitive to touch. Levi alleges that they make ``nice'' pets.

Spider activity: Mertz reveals that striking a tuning fork (middle C works well) near a web will bring out the host spider, because it mimics the vibration of prey bugs hung up on the silk. Mertz says you can also slip a piece of paper behind a web and spray paint (in a contrasting color) as you lift the paper toward you to capture the design. ``She'll have to spin a new web,'' Mertz says. ``But that will give her something to do.''

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