Reporter's Notebook: Spider Season Doesn't Have To Be Scary

Oct 29, 2019

It's the time of year when spiders are out in full force. They've spun webs and maybe even crept into some corners of your house.

But fear not, you most likely don't have an infestation on your hands. Most spider species have been growing since the spring, so by the fall season, spiders are the biggest they'll be all year.

A lot of people feel like spiders have been coming out of the woodwork to bother them, when really they've been surrounded by them the entire time. -Eleanor Spicer Rice

"A lot of people feel like spiders have been coming out of the woodwork to bother them, when really they've been surrounded by them the entire time," says Eleanor Spicer Rice, an entomologist and science writer from Raleigh.

Confession: I am very afraid of spiders. Before I enter most rooms, I check the top corners of the walls for spider webs. If I see a spider in a room, I must keep my eye on it and make sure it doesn't move. Spicer Rice has become my spiritual guide as I try to work through this fear.

She tells me humans are never less than a few feet away from a spider at any given moment, so we might as well get used to them, even if they are big and scary-looking. 

"These house spiders are so big because they've eaten pests in your house to make them bigger," she says. "If a spider is there, it's eating something. It's taking care of something that's already in your house."

Spicer Rice and I are at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham. We sit below the Giant Orb Weaver Spider exhibit. The spiders aren't behind glass, they simply sit in their webs in and around the exhibit. I'm nervous they might jump down from their webs and onto my head.

The Chilean Rose Hair tarantula gets its name from the tiny pink hairs all over their bodies.
Credit Matt Pusateri / Museum of Life and Science

"You're giant and you could squash it," Spicer Rice reminds me. "What advantage does a spider have at lunging at any human being?" 

More than 20 percent of Americans have arachnophobia, though the fear is irrational. Spiders very rarely bite humans because the stakes of getting squashed are too high. Spider Rice says fleas are more likely to bite humans, especially if people allow their pets to sleep in their beds. Those bites are commonly misdiagnosed, even by doctors, as spider bites.

"People rarely get bitten by spiders-- they do get bitten, but it's extraordinarily rare," according to Spicer Rice. "Most people have never been bitten by a spider and most people think they've been bitten by spiders."

I'm not convinced, so I talk to Uli Hartmond, the director of the museum's Butterfly House. He also handles the arachnids every day and organizes programs for children and museum visitors to interact with the spiders. I ask him if he's ever been bit by a spider on the job.

"No," he says. "None of our guests have ever. And the first one that would happen would mean we can't do these programs anymore." 

Hartmond beleives these phobias are learned behaviors. While conducting these programs, he has noticed children are eager to interact with the animals. 

"Always the two, three and five-year-olds get to hold [the animals] and they're curious, naturally curious. And they're usually brave enough," Hartmond said. "Then maybe the mother goes and holds it. All these strong guys, they stand back. 'I'm good, I'm good, they say.'"

I decide to put my newfound knowledge of spiders to the test. I ask Hartmond to hand me a Chilean Rose Hair tarantula.

I decide to conquer my fear of spiders by holding Rosalinda, a Chilean Rose Hair tarantula.
Credit Matt Pusateri / Museum of Life and Science

My hands shake. But as I calm down, I notice little details. The tarantula gets its name from the little pink hairs all over its body. The museum has named the tarantula Rosalinda. She moves slowly on my hand, hesitantly. I realize she is more afraid of me than I am of her.

"Isn't it amazing how something frightening can become something beautiful?" Spicer Rice says. "And how much more beautiful the world becomes when we recongize the beauty in living things? I think it's just wonderful."

I'm not ready to get a pet tarantula. But now, when I see a spider in a room, I remember my time with Rosalinda and how I made friends with my greatest fear.