Arachnophobia is irrational


You are allowed to have irrational fears, and it’s fine if you have a personal aversion. What is not fine is when you use that irrational fear as an excuse to disrupt other people’s lives, as has happened lately with ten schools in England closed for three weeks because headteachers were afraid of a spider infestation.

Hundreds more children have been told to stay at home after the presence of false widow spiders has closed a tenth school.

Thousands of families have now been affected by closures across east and north London since last week after infestations of the venomous were discovered on school sites.

Parents have spoken out against the disruption caused by schools deciding to close their doors for up to three weeks on the discovery of the spiders, calling it “over the top” and “ridiculous”.

John F Kennedy Special School became the latest school in Newham to close due to spiders on Friday. Campuses in nearby Stratford and Beckton have also been closed for the foreseeable future.

These spiders are close relatives of the ones I’m working with — apparently, they’re finding Steatoda grossa in the schools (I’ve got Steatoda triangulosa and Parasteatoda tepidariorum). They can bite, and cause an unpleasant blistering and rash, but you have to really torment the little beasties before they can do any harm. OK, I can imagine schoolkids doing exactly that, but the problem isn’t the spiders, it’s the malicious little thugs in your classroom.

But here’s the thing: you can’t get rid of them. They’re everywhere. They tend to hide in out of the way corners, so you probably don’t see them very often, but really, they are ubiquitous. Lately I’ve been searching for them and have become fine-tuned to spotting them, and they’re everywhere: they’re in your homes, your attics, your garages; they are lurking under your bed and other furniture, they’re quietly making cobwebs in the corners of your window frames, they’ve filled up your crawlspaces and the spaces within your walls. If they’re in the schools, they are in the students’ homes. They love those nice shadowy spaces in all human constructions — we’re in a long-term commensal relationship with these spiders. They’re not picking on schools selectively.

I’m sorry, but if you’re going to shut down schools over this routine and mostly harmless occupation by a few small organisms, you’re just going to have to shut down all of England. And Europe. And Asia. And the Americas. The spiders haven’t figured out how to live in Antarctica yet, so I guess we’re all going to have to hide in that continent, quivering in fear of itsy-bitsy spiders.

Until they move in to whatever shelters we build, that is.


The histrionics are over the top. Check out the photos on this article — they’ve got exterminators in biohazard suits hosing down the schools with pesticides. I’d be more afraid of the goop they’re spraying than of spiders.

Comments

  1. Artor says

    There’s a JFK school in England? Huh. As for spiders, I used to have a thriving colony of actual black widows, not false ones, living under my house in the crawlspace. Like hundreds of them, webs everywhere. I used to crawl in there to get lumber stored in the space, and I have never once been bitten. I also realized a few years ago that I’d been misidentifying the brown recluse. Those big, fuzzy spiders I was ushering to safety from construction sites in my bare hands could have bit me and rotted my hand right off my wrist. Not one ever did.
    Spiders just aren’t the existential threat some people think they are.

  2. hemidactylus says

    I may have brown widows subletting. Not sure. Don’t want to hear other peoples arachnid troubles. Was still able to watch second episode of female Doctor Who without an aneurysm and am kinda ticked off at my elderly blind dog for attracting a swarm of ants with kibble she tosses on the floor because not tasty treats.

  3. jrkrideau says

    everyone living nearby was “petrified”
    Probably after a few hysterical articles in the Sun and the Mail.

    Somehow I don’t get a good impression of the common sense of some of the headteachers around London.

  4. ColonelZen says

    I have wolves! I’ve seen the buggers get bigger than 2 inches across. And they jump.

    Lots of them. I can’t kick a rock in my yard without a couple of them coming out to figure out what the commotion is.

    Oh and (small so far) snakes too. That’s probably why I don’t see more of the bigger spiders.

  5. kestrel says

    Oh for crying out loud. Yes – spiders are everywhere. I am hoping these people realize that Earth has more than humans on it. Sounds like what they are upset about is the potential that they might (gasp!) see another inhabitant of planet Earth. What are they teaching the children by this display of hysteria over nothing?

  6. chris says

    Oh, good grief. Why didn’t they bring in someone who would explain how spiders are great at getting rid of the bugs you really do not want in your house?

  7. vucodlak says

    Of course it’s irrational. That’s what a fucking phobia is, for fuck’s sake. You might as well be saying: “Your PTSD is irrational. Most people aren’t going to hurt you.” Oh, you don’t say? Well, I’m all better now. Fear gone! Oh, wait, humans don’t work that way. We’re rarely rational beings.

    My arachnophobia is better that it used to be- I’m no longer utterly panicked when I encounter them. I still won’t willingly touch one without a thick leather glove. I encounter them in my garden all the time; sometimes the horrible things swarm across the ground in a nightmarish tide. I just get out of the way and leave them alone. If I see one in my living quarters, though, I kill it. It’s kinder death than they’d give me, were they able.

    you have to really torment the little beasties before they can do any harm

    Oh please. I’ll grant that most spiders are harmless to humans (though clearly not these), but every time I’ve been aware* of having been bitten by one of the nasty things the sequence has been 1.) spider lands on me/crawls on me 2.) spider sinks its fangs into me before I can even begin to react. No “torment” required. It’s a reflex, same as my desperately swatting the little horror off me and leaping away is.

    Honestly, the whole “closing the school” thing reminds of a time when I was in high school when someone wrote a threat on the high school boy’s bathroom wall, saying that they were going to come shoot up the school (this was in the late ‘90’s or maybe early 2000). The school wasn’t closed, but the next day only maybe 30 or 40 people showed up for school. The teachers put those of us who’d shown up in the same room and showed us movies all day.

    It wasn’t a “rational” fear that kept students home (name a school that didn’t get threats like that around Columbine) but all absences that day were excused anyway. Sometimes you just have to bow to the occasional irrational fear. At least this particular scare isn’t likely to turn schools into armed prison camps. Or level-4 biohazard facilities; whatever the spider-related equivalent would be.

    *I don’t care to consider how many have bitten me while I’m sleeping. Not if I ever want to sleep again.

  8. wzrd1 says

    The histrionics are over the top. Check out the photos on this article — they’ve got exterminators in biohazard suits hosing down the schools with pesticides. I’d be more afraid of the goop they’re spraying than of spiders.

    Understandable. Would you want to inhale or contact any significant acetylcholinesterase inhibitor?
    I most certainly would avoid it! I imagine that it sucks doing the Funky Chicken on the floor and being unable to move, breathe or think, only work on improving that dying thing.
    After all, a more purified and targeted version of acetylcholinesterase inhibitor is nerve gas, the most newsworthy being novichok agents (interestingly, not named, despite the fact that the agents are named, suggesting methods of acquiring samples and testing methodologies involved).

    I used to have an active and acute phobia of spiders. All, due to a move from Philadelphia to the suburbs, when Mom was moving a potted tree from the porch roof to inside, to bring and plant on our new property in the suburbs and a white house spider (recently molted) literally crawled up her nose, while she struggled to not drop the tree pot. That was around age 8.

    But, that phobia hit the hard, hard wall of reality in the military. Crawl through grass, heather and brush, you’re gonna meet a hell of a lot of spiders.
    React with a phobic overreaction, well, things end badly if one is in a combat situation, slightly less badly, but career terminal in training.
    I had the unfortunate experience of both.
    So, I learned to tolerate the spiders and largely ignore them.
    And even during the active phobia stage, I still enjoyed watching them work to capture prey that I threw into the web.

    I also experience what I can only describe as a Brown Recluse spider bit, but only a mild reaction. Either I’m more toxic than the spider was or it gave either a warning bite or was smashed while I rolled over and its remains kicked out of the bed when I got up in the morning. Initially, I thought it was a Hobo spider, but they’re not endemic to the Shreveport region. Brown Recluses are. No eschar or major tissue death, but a depressed area around two centimeters and somewhat oval on my calf.
    The only spider capable of causing tissue necrosis of any significance in the region is exclusively the Brown Recluse.
    Leaving me with a millimeter or so sized depression, two centimeters by one point five centimeters region on my calf.
    As I’ve always had lousy legs, I really don’t care.

    Today, my wife kills the spiders, I tolerate them, as they’ll earn their keep by killing vermin insects.

    My wife and I have our own experiment running, due to dire necessity.
    When we moved to the PA area, we suddenly became acquainted with a scourge upon humanity, bedbugs.
    So, we’re studying them. We’ve observed adults assist juveniles molting, for one example. Alas, my photographic equipment is still packed within our vehicle.
    They actually exhibit some social behavior, nowhere as organized as Hymenoptera, but more than a cockroach (which we witnessed German Roaches attack and kill a preying mantis, attacking the eyes first. Oddly, specifically, one eye first, destroying targeting for the mantis.
    One thing about SF, “Observe the enemy, learn their strengths and weaknesses” is and remains critical, even with an insect infestation.
    I’ve managed to remove a cockroach infestation easily enough, via a multi-layered approach. Bedbugs, they’re a lot more interesting, annoying and preventing us from moving from a hotel to a house.
    Got some ideas though, I’m thinking biological warfare.
    Naphalene bombardment confused them, DEET wears off too soon, pyrethrins now variable in the extreme.

    So, I have a choice, a specific fungus that attacks both vermin species or use DDT.
    Yeah, it is literally just that bad now.
    Observations continue.

    Failing that, we’ll just have to leave everything, dust off and nuke the site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure. ;)

  9. brucej says

    Yes, the reason they’re wearing the (disposable tyvek) suits is exposure to to the pesticides (at the point of application) entirely unrelated to the panic about the spiders.

    The requirements of occupational safety is really not a matter of ridicule.

  10. gijoel says

    As an Australian I laugh at your arachnophobia. Even with our formidable reputation for venomous creatures, no one has died from a spider bite here since 1979.

  11. monad says

    @7: Speaking as someone who has a phobia, but not spiders, I agree that it would be ridiculous to point out that it’s irrational and then expect a person to get over it. But I don’t think that’s what is really being said here. You have to try to accommodate people with phobias, just as you should try to accommodate people with allergies. I think everyone agrees with that; PZ puts his spider videos behind a jump for a reason.

    But you don’t have to make everyone react as if there was a real danger. It’s a waste of time, because the danger isn’t real. And I think doing that helps make the phobia more common in the first place. Instead of learning that most spiders are harmless, now every student who sees one gets to remember it as something worth evacuating a school over. Not a good lesson to be teaching.

  12. pita says

    I normally let spiders live, and now that I live in a bigger apartment, I definitely let them have their way (unless they’re big enough to scare me). But once when I lived in a very small studio, I let a grandaddy longlegs live, and that was the biggest mistake of my life. It must have laid eggs somewhere because I suddenly had dozens of spiders all over my house. They completely took over the place and I had no choice but to thin the herd in order just to avoid eating spiders in my sleep. Won’t let that happen again.

  13. Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says

    If I see one in my living quarters, though, I kill it. It’s kinder death than they’d give me, were they able.

    I can kind of understand their point of view.

    Just out of curiosity, where exactly DO we draw the line on “I have a irrational fear of NOUN so it’s okay if I kill any NOUN I encounter?”

  14. jefrir says

    The UK is particularly prone to this sort of panic, simply because we have so few venomous or otherwise dangerous critters

  15. A. Noyd says

    Invasive redback spiders have shown up at some of the schools in my town here in Japan. I don’t know if any of those schools were closed at all, but now every school in town has posters showing the kids what the spiders look like and warning about how they’re dangerous.

  16. Dunc says

    The UK is particularly prone to this sort of panic, simply because we have so few venomous or otherwise dangerous critters

    Except for the red-top tabloids that actively foment these panics…

  17. says

    What? Oh, all right. I’ll tell the black widow story. But I warn you, the ending is horrific.

    It was about 1968. The Empire was in ruins. Dad was having back pain issues one night and chose to move out to the living room and sleep on the floor in a mummy bag (the first down-filled anything I had ever seen). During the night he felt a pinch near one scapula, sleepily pulled off a burr or something, and went back to sleep. When he woke up again a fraction of an hour later, the spot on his back was burning. He woke up more and looked where he remembered putting the burr and saw a dead black widow spider. He woke Mom.

    She got on the phone to the answering service for our doctor, and to the Emergency Room. Dr. C. was not responding quickly (this was between midnight and six a.m.), and the ER said they had a shot that would make him sick as hell but keep him from dying. Meanwhile, my oldest sister (who had twice tried to keep black widows as pets, naming each one “Snarky”) had also gotten up, and made him put some ice on the expanding red area, which was now palm-sized.

    More flurrying. Our doctor was eventually located. The other three kids in the house (of which I was the last) were all probably up by this time. The car was readied. That’s when someone (no doubt my oldest sister) noted that the red area was now about the size of a quarter and dwindling. More phone calls. On advice, we stayed home and kept ice on it, and the spot shrank to invisibility and everyone lived. Hooray!

    Not long after, Dad was telling some friends, Bob and Anne, the above story, noting at the end that there was no sign of where he’d been bitten now, and he still couldn’t sleep in comfort at night because of his sacral area, at which Bob turned and told Anne, “His back is worse than his bite.”

  18. eliza422 says

    That article is kind of hilarious – especially what to do if you get bitten by one of these hellbeasts:

    “Dr Deborah Turbitt, deputy director for Public Health London, said: “If you have been bitten, gently wash the affected area with soap and water.”

    OOOHHH!!!! Wash with soap and water!!!!

  19. says

    I am sorry for everybody who actually is arachnophobic, like, getting actual panic attacks and stuff. Because spiders are everywhere. But 99.9% of people going “Ieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeh, spiders!” are just idiots who know that their nonsense gets tolerated.

  20. komarov says

    Public buildings, especially schools, sound like the perfect place to fumigate with toxic substances. With luck they’ll leach out of, well, everything slowly enough to keep the spiders away but not so fast as to poison any kids. At least not noticeably so, which is really all that counts when it comes to liability.

    But I look forward to future closures when, in lieu of spiders, other insects have “taken over” those schools

    Re: gijoel (#10):

    As an Australian I laugh at your arachnophobia. Even with our formidable reputation for venomous creatures, no one has died from a spider bite here since 1979.

    In keeping with the British health and safety obsession on display in opening post, I’ll just assume that this is because all the spider victims were finished off by snakes. And eaten by sharks.

  21. davidc1 says

    In keeping with the British health and safety obsession on display in opening post,

    Don’t worry about that ,if and when GB happens (GB ,Great Britex ) we won’t have to live under the tyranny of them Johnny
    foreign types telling us wot to do .

  22. unclefrogy says

    I live with spiders all around me the only thing that startles me is finding them unexpectedly. or in a place where I am likely put my unprotected hand, like a black widow on a garage self. The question I have to ask is what is she eating that she can get so big on the shelve? That is the real problem.
    The big problem I have is silver fish so much paper has gotten holes but I will not resort to nerve gas since I still have a few of them left and do not want to loose any more.
    I have discovered that a pray of laundry detergent, laundry borax and bleach works pretty well on roaches and flies and cat pee but not so easy on fabric, probably the bleach.
    uncle frogy

  23. auraboy says

    I am deeply arachnophobic (I normally trace this back to being an infant and having a spider crawling over my body that I couldn’t reach) but this is ridiculous. I live in Cornwall, which with slightly better temperatures and no frosts means we get a lot of foreign imported spiders surviving in the wild. The false widows set up a colony around my patio and behind the paintings on my sun facing wall. They’re very discreet and don’t crawl out into the open much. However, despite my arachnophobia, I detest wasps more, and I noticed no wasps buzzing around my kitchen this year. Turns out my false widows were acting as bouncers and keeping the wasp population restricted. So me and the widows have an understanding – they get to stay as long as they munch on stinging insects.
    Seems reasonable to me.

  24. says

    Vucodlak @6

    Of course it’s irrational. That’s what a fucking phobia is, for fuck’s sake. You might as well be saying: “Your PTSD is irrational. Most people aren’t going to hurt you.” Oh, you don’t say? Well, I’m all better now. Fear gone! Oh, wait, humans don’t work that way.

    Oh my cats, THIS. ALL OF THIS!

    I wish it was that easy!

  25. elysof says

    gijoel @ #10:

    As an Australian I laugh at your arachnophobia. Even with our formidable reputation for venomous creatures, no one has died from a spider bite here since 1979.

    Not sure, Jayden Burleigh’s death in 2016 was at least heavily influenced by a redback bite, and this 10-year-old kid had a rough time after a funnel-web bite. I’m okay with spiders generally, but the ones that jump at fucking superluminal speeds are a bit much.

  26. hemidactylus says

    I have a very intense fear of heights. Anything higher than a six foot ladder freaks me out. Imagine me borrowing a neighbor’s ladder to survey shingle damage after a hurricane. Not fun. Not sure the fear is irrational as falling off a roof might ruin your day.

    I also have a fear of speaking in front of large groups. That doesn’t seem rational, but I have very little control over it. Maybe if I joined a toastmasters group it would help. But these phobias should make me understand phobias of critters. Actually after being bit by a german shepherd as a kid I had a fear of strange dogs.

    I am fine around spiders and most snakes. I had some pet snakes. I grew up around spiders my entire life. When doing biology field work several decades ago I came home with legs covered in spider bites. Only recently, seeing orangish splotches on some spiders in my yard have I started being more cautious with spiders in my house.

    Right now I am at war with the ants. Not using poison because my dog. Just disinfecting wipes and vinegar.

  27. says

    28 hemidactylus

    I keep a squirt bottle of highly diluted dish soap (a healthy squirt in a 10-ounce squeeze bottle of water) for various purposes by the kitchen sink. It’s great for killing bugs. It breaches the wax that protects their chitinous exoskeletons, and horror (for the bugs) ensues. And when you wipe it off and perhaps flush with rinse water, you’ve cleaned an area. (also handy for washing a quick dish or hand, &c)

    Good luck against the ants. I do not envy you your job.

  28. Gaebolga says

    Spiders are the unsung infantry in our never-ending war against the real killers: insects.

    Insects have killed exponentially more people than spiders, across any timeframe you care to examine (and the longer the timeframe, the greater the chasm between number of deaths).

  29. MadHatter says

    As an American ex-pat I have found the fear of all things wild a little bit bizarre, but I’m starting to understand where it comes from. The UK has nothing truly dangerous in the arachnid, snake, or large carnivore departments and so in talking to locals they are amazed to discover that I’ve seen both black widow spiders and rattlesnakes and didn’t die (same for bears and cougar). I think the problem is that because they have nothing really dangerous their concept of dangerous wildlife is a little out of whack. The false widow might, at most, give you a slightly painful bite, same with their only venomous snake the adder.

    The most dangerous critter in the UK is cows, but I can see why after watching people run up to them and take pictures or try to pet them for the millionth time this summer.

Leave a Reply