When I am out doing bug programs I am often asked (with a slow-down-to-look-at-an-accident wince); “where do you keep all these bugs? Do they stay at your house?” I explain about the shelves with the lights, or the bug room and usually digress into a shopworn lecture on respect and the difference between invited and uninvited guests.

And the position I take on respect is this: that respect is a matter of making good decisions based on your understanding of the situation. The better you understand, the more respectful your decisions will be (unless you’re trying to be bad). The less you understand, the more likely you should be to do nothing – learn more. This is why I’m a teacher. But respect doesn’t mean never killing anything – pretty much anytime you eat, something dies. So, that’s not as important – of course we kill things, we must. Almost every living thing (that I can think of) kills, or taxes the resources of, another. I suppose plants may not in many cases, but they do rely on recycled nutrients from dead things and scavengers.

There are simple, clear-cut cases of when it is probably ok to kill a bug. A mosquito sucking your blood does it for proteins and compounds needed to make shells for her eggs (yes, only females bite). Typical, gentle persuasion isn’t usually an effective defense. Slapping her works – saves you the discomfort of an itchy bump and minimizes the very minimal likelihood of catching some nasty disease from her. Is that worth the precious life of a fellow living organism sharing this Earth? Is slapping too graphic? How about zapping with our backyard version of the Electric Chair?

I’d have to vote “heck yeah!”

I think this is a straightforward case of self-defense. Who could blame you?

Here’s what made me think of this today. The old case of the spider in the shower.

It was one of those little black spiders – not a jumping spider, I like those. It was a creepy-looking black shiny think, with kind of a blackish-red abdomen. I suppose if I have the energy when I finish this entry, I could try to look it up. If I were in public and someone asked me to ID it, I would go into the shopworn explanation of the incredible number of different kinds of spiders there are in the world and then give the standard “it’s one of those little blackish red creepy-looking spiders.”  

Certain spiders I don’t know, make me nervous. This goes for a lot of things - if I don't know them well, they make me nervous...I know there isn’t anything really dangerous in Ohio, but, heck, a bite is a bite! Like I said, if it were one of those little jumping spiders – I like those. They are cute, they don’t bite. They are fun to play with and they don’t bite. I trust them since they don’t bite.

Had I seen one of those jumping spiders in the shower, I’d have had no problem at all letting it be. I would have monitored its position so we didn’t have any surprises, but I would not be nervous. If it landed on me (not likely since I’m its worst nightmare), then I’d escort it out of the shower and perhaps grab it later for a couple of shows before letting it go about its business.

But this was no jumping spider. It was one of those little, reddish-black, creepy-looking spiders that, I believe, with no real authority, bite.

The best places to learn are the edges of habitats and issues.

This is one of the edges of respect. Is the spider dangerous? I don’t know, but I’m in the shower and nowhere near Google. I know it is very unlikely to bite me since it doesn’t want to have anything to do with me either, but where there is steam and water, accidents can happen. Could I just scoop it up and put it outside? No. I’m in the shower!

The drain is pretty close and a nice, warm rush of water would end it. It would end the spider’s life. And I could finish my shower in top-of-the-food-chain comfort.

Well, I will admit that at different times I have landed on different sides of this dilemma. But this time it reminded me of something that happened at a bug program in a park this summer…

I had been talking about Black Widow spiders. I got a nice, big fat female from a friend last Spring and she proceeded to lay over 10 eggs sacs and close to 1000 babies. She is still alive and kicking, but hasn’t made a new eggs sac for a while, so she may be on her way out. Some of her babies are now full grown and beautiful, and some have just hatched this week. I like to use Black Widows in programs when I can because they are iconic, very common in their range, including Ohio, misunderstood, and not particularly dangerous. And they are cheap and easy to care for.

A woman began asking me about the Brown Recluse spider. I am familiar with the Brown Recluse, yet I have never seen one in Nature – that I know of, I may not have recognized it if I did. I could probably pick one out of a lineup. I know a lot of spiders that are definitely not Brown Recluses. I have seen live Brown Recluse Spiders at zoos and with my friend, George Keeney at The Ohio State University. They usually have some in their live collection. I also know that a Brown Recluse has a very nasty bite. Nastier than a Black Widow’s. Its venom is necrotic which means it kills cells. It is not something you want injected by fangs into your body.

So the woman at the program wanted to know if I had any Brown Recluse spiders in my exhibit and more importantly, why not

She explained that there had been an ‘outbreak’ or Brown Recluse bites reported in the Cincinnati area. I had not heard anything about it, but she seemed certain of it. So I tried to explain how rare it was and how often a so-called Brown Recluse bite is misdiagnosed. She would hear nothing of it since it was in the papers – and she was right. If there is a Brown Recluse epidemic, someone should consider how to educate the public about it – at least to the extent it would benefit the public.

And I think this is where we differed. Now, I wasn't selling anything, just trying to help people appreciate how cool their world is. So I don't allow that the customer is always right. Maybe I should, but I believe knowledge trumps politics when a better understanding of how the Natural World works is at stake. 

While the politics of the situation did require some diplomacy, I believe the reasons I did not really want to display Brown Recluse spiders represented a better, more globally important lesson than teaching about their biology and how to "recognize" them would. The fact is, I could probably get a Brown Recluse spider if I wanted one. I don’t.

They’re pretty dangerous. They are faster and more unpredictable than Black Widows. I think if I had to choose, I would prefer to get bitten by a Black Widow, but it would also be much less likely. I think this may support the woman in the park. If these guys are on the loose, someone should be doing something about it. But I don’t think that’s the end of it.

The thing is: people who get bitten by a Brown Recluse spider typically don’t see it. If they did, the spider would see them, too, and take off. They live up to their names. Believe it or not, a Brown Recluse spider is very… reclusive.

This means... um... knowing what they look like won't help you avoid being bitten by one!

A Black Widow looks like a Black Widow! Not only that, but seeing it is the best way to not get bitten! If you see it, you can recognize it easily and avoid it, or observe respectfully - or at least you'll have the upper hand in the battle that ensues!

You just don’t Brown Recluses in Nature. Worse than that, though, is that they look kind of normal. Nothing special. They look like many common brown spiders on the small side of medium, sort of leggy, with a pattern on their backs that I suppose could be described as a violin shape. Is it the body of the violin or the neck? I have never been too sure. It does, however, look like the pattern on the backs of many other smallish-medium, brown spiders in Ohio.

(photo omitted)

So that’s the problem. I would teach people to fear so many smallish medium, brown spiders with interesting markings on their backs. Most are completely harmless. The harmless ones you probably wouldn't see anyway. Now you're scared of every brown spider. You miss out on what they have to offer - like eating mosquitoes (Nature's capital punishment)!

If there have been five Brown Recluse spider bites in the greater Cincinnati area this Spring, they may have some problem that needs investigated. But that is still a very, very small phenomenon on a strictly numbers basis. Don’t get me wrong – each occurrence is tragic. And I tried hard to not minimize this woman’s concerns – she wasn’t entirely wrong.

But I don’t want people to fear Nature – it’s so cool!

Oh, by the way… wear gloves when you move things around in the garage or woodpiles, you know, places that may have… um… splinters and rusty nails – maybe spiders.