For spiders, Halloween lasts just a little while!

Diadem spider (Araneus diadematus)
Credit: Espace pour la vie (André Sarrazin)
Diadem spider (Araneus diadematus)
For spiders, Halloween lasts just a little while!

In this black and orange period, spiders, just like pumpkins, entertain us. Their webs adorn our houses, their big eyes scare us, their hairy feet alarm us. For young and old, generally speaking, this celebration of darkness and ghosts doesn’t last very long. But for quite a few of them, the fear of spiders persists, rooted in popular beliefs that are all too often simply wrong.

Fear is a completely normal emotion. It activates our defense systems and produces safe behavior in the face of the unknown. Unfortunately, for many people, that unknown comes alive when a spider gets its eight feet going and settles down too close to their comfort zone. For some, the presence of spiders will even provoke an anxious reaction that can reach panic-attack proportions. What’s incredible in all this is that spiders are also afraid of us. Faced with the unknown themselves, especially when the unknown is on two feet, they prefer to retreat. Instinctively, they know who’s stronger – and it’s us!

Venomous? Yes.

There are close to 45,000 species of spider in the world. All of them are venomous with the exception of those in the family Uloboridae, which consists of about 270 species. In Québec there are close to 840 species, three of them Uloboridae. Of the 44,730 species of poisonous spider living on the planet, about 200 have been identified as being capable of causing serious poisoning in human beings. None of those exists in Québec.

Spiders are carnivorous. They eat insects and other arthropods, which they paralyze with their venom. The proteins that they extract from their prey help produce silk, but also more venom. This contains a complex mixture of chemical substances, including toxins generally specific to the receptors of spiders’ favorite prey: invertebrates. The spider must make good use of its venom because without it, no prey…and without prey, no venom! So spiders conserve their venom to kill their prey.

Dangerous? Not really

We’re not prey for spiders. There’s therefore very little chance that their venom will affect us. Moreover, and especially in Québec, most spiders can’t inflict a serious bite because they’re too small and their chelicera (teeth) are too fragile and too short to pierce our skin. If spiders bite us, it’s because they’re afraid for their lives. Besides, 70 percent of those bites are defensive, which means there’s no venom injection. The spider is simply warning us that it felt it was in danger.

When I was a kid I was afraid of spiders. Today, spiders, just like insects, fascinate the entomologist that I am now. I’ve gotten to know them by living closer to nature and by collecting material about them. And you?

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