With more than 170,000 glass vials containing spiders pickled in alcohol, yes, it is cramped in this room in the basement of the Burke Museum at the University of Washington.
This is no place for those fearful of spiders — a condition that affects a third of Americans, with arachnophobia afflicting four times more women than men. Sure, most of the vials are only a couple of inches each in length, but they crowd drawer after drawer, cabinet after cabinet.
Rod Crawford, who’s been the spider man (“curatorial associate”) at the museum for the past 46 years, doesn’t like overhead fluorescent lighting.
The dimly lit 12- by 24-foot room looks like it’s out of a “Raiders of the Lost Ark” set. Light is provided by some table lamps on the World War II-era wooden desks that go along with the old wood and surplus-look metal cabinets.
This is the time of year that Crawford starts getting the phone calls and emails.
“What can I do to get rid of them?” is typical.
“Them” usually being two spiders that reach maturity in the early fall: the giant house spider that can have a leg span of 4 inches. And the cross orbweaver that’s considerably smaller, about an inch in size, but is “as commonplace in Northwest fall as clouds.”
Right now, what you’re seeing is adult males “wandering around at random” looking for mates, says Crawford. Remind you of anybody?
Once again, Crawford can only answer spider-illiterates as he has for over four decades. Don’t go off killing these harmless creatures; they prefer eating bugs to you.
“Without them,” he tells these people, “your house would be so overrun with insects that you couldn’t even live there.”
Give spiders some credit. They are one of the most natural enemies of insects worldwide, killing 400 million to 800 million tons of prey a year, which means a few billion bugs, since individually spiders hardly even register on the average scale.
Yet they sure do frighten us.
Research shows we attribute a number of frightening features to them.
In order of fright, they are: Legginess, sudden movements, speediness, hairiness, crawliness, size, skin contact, quietness, color, web spinning, dirtiness, jaws, found in dark places and “harmfulness.”
Myths, myths, myths. That’s what spiders have to cope with.
Washington’s Department of Health website links to a University of Idaho paper that begins, “Spiders are among the most feared and loathed organisms encountered around the home. Yet almost all Idaho spiders are best considered beneficial because they prey on insect pests. Even the two potentially most harmful spiders — the black widow and the hobo spider — rarely injure people in Idaho.”
“What do tabloids care about inaccuracies about spiders,” says Crawford. “Spiders can’t sue them.”
He also knows what gets the attention of people, and it’s sitting in an alcohol-filled jar at one end of the room.
It contains a tarantula known as the Goliath birdeater (Theraphosa blondi). It is the largest spider species in the world. The hairy leg span of this one is about 6 inches; a juvenile, really.
A full-grown one is twice as big — about the size of a newborn puppy, explains an Audubon paper, adding that it is “an inventive killer.” This spider pierces a rodent’s skull with its fangs, injects tissue-dissolving venom and then slurps out the brain (the venom is not deadly to humans, but it’s “something to be avoided”).
A handwritten paper label in the jar says the spider was found in a banana shipment from Cuba that had arrived at the South Park Fruit Company in Seattle on July 16, 1934.
Crawford says the Goliath wouldn’t have survived in our climate. He guesses it was such a curiosity that it was brought to the museum.
The Goliath also has suffered from sensationalistic myths. Sure, it sucks brains out of rats, but it doesn’t go after birds like its full name intimates.
What happened is that an early 18th-century illustrator took the liberty of showing it on top of a hapless hummingbird, and the name stuck.
Web of coincidence
Crawford, 66, became the museum’s spider guy, as he explains it, “By a series of coincidences.”
His 1976 degree from the UW is in chemistry. However, he had become intrigued by spiders when going to Mount Rainier High School in Des Moines.
The science teacher skipped the chapter that covered arachnids. Crawford read it anyway and got hooked. For Christmas, he asked his parents for a book on spiders.
“I got ‘Spiders and Their Kin,’ which happens to be the best beginner’s book on spiders in the U.S. I read it cover-to-cover in two days. I started looking at spiders through new eyes,” he remembers. At $6.95, the book is a bargain.
Anyway, Crawford was at the UW’s Suzzallo Library looking at books on spiders when he ran into Melville Hatch, the then-insect curator at the Burke. They began talking. He told Crawford that a woman who in the 1930s had done a doctoral degree on spiders had left 1,000 of them behind, preserved in alcohol. Maybe Crawford would be interested?
And so began Crawford’s 46-year journey into spiderdom that now includes a collection of 937 different spider species from Washington, monthly trips to collect some more, and six weeks off in the summer for even more collecting.
It is Crawford’s mission to dispel myths about spiders, and he has created an entire website, called, naturally, “Spider myths.”
Myths debunked: Deadly toxic spiders don’t lurk under toilet seats. You don’t swallow spiders in your sleep. Spiders don’t live in bouffant hairdos. Spiders don’t drink from the eyes or mouth of sleeping humans. A deadly spider horde did not invade a town in India. Outdoor spiders don’t come indoors in the fall.
For Crawford, the battle to dispel spider myths is never-ending.
Research in recent years helps explain why.
There is the matter of women being four times more likely to have a spider phobia than men.
David Rakison, an associate psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, who has done research on this, has a hypothesis.
We might be all modern and everything, but we still have “mechanisms in our brains that our ancestors had for hundreds of thousands of years.”
Women, says Rakison, “have become risk-averse when it comes to potentially threatening situations.” One reason, he says, is that back in hunting-gathering days, “a child without a mother was much less likely to survive than a child without a father.”
And, goes this hypothesis, the explanation as to why guys are less fearful of spiders is also evolutionary: “Men who are more fearful are less likely to find a mate.”
Next, here is another piece of research.
People of European descent are particularly phobic about spiders, and it goes back to “the many devastating and inexplicable epidemics that struck Europe from the Middle Ages onwards,” according to a paper from The City University, London.
Something had to be blamed, wrote Professor Graham C.L. Davey, even though “in reality spiders are usually neither poisonous nor the agents of the illnesses they were thought to be.”
In fact, the poor spiders were found guilty just because they lived around the thatched roofs occupied by black rats — the rats that carried the fleas that carried the plague.
And this guilt by association has stayed in our culture, according to the professor. In places like China, Thailand and Cambodia, meanwhile, fried spiders are tasty street food.
All right, ready to give spiders another chance?
That guy in the corner of your bedroom ceiling? Doing nothing but eating bugs in your house? Live and let live?
Oh, gosh, I hear a vacuum cleaner.