Lifestyle

Arachnophobia in FW: Creepy-crawly capers

The hobo spider. To check spiders’ parts, place it in a plastic bag and gently flatten the spider out. A handheld magnifying glass is helpful. E-mail Todd Murray at tamurray@coopext.cahe.wsu.edu to learn more. - Photo courtesy of Jan Hallahan
The hobo spider. To check spiders’ parts, place it in a plastic bag and gently flatten the spider out. A handheld magnifying glass is helpful. E-mail Todd Murray at tamurray@coopext.cahe.wsu.edu to learn more.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Jan Hallahan

One diminutive six-letter utterance strikes terror in the hearts of men, women and children alike.

I guarantee if you yelled this word out, the boys would be screaming as loud as the girls. It’s true — I won’t mention any names, but I have a firsthand accounting of this phenomenon occurring in my own home. Young or old, rich or poor, makes no difference what kind of car you drive, or where you live. This word makes us equals in regard to our fear.

The terrifying word I’m writing about: Spider! No one says, “Oh, isn’t he cute?” when a three-inch, dark, creepy-crawly scurries across the floor.

I have overcome my arachnophobia mainly because I have children to protect. Someone has to deal with the uninvited spiders in our house and that person is me — by default. Conflicting reports on TV brought it to my rapt attention that the extremely large spiders visiting us inside our homes in late summer/early fall are not always the harmless wolf spiders, as I previously thought.

Researching this subject was a little disturbing. Identifying these spiders correctly is very difficult without a magnifying glass.

Examining the male sex organs, technically the palps — located on the ends of the feelers — under a microscope is the only definitive way to correctly identify a hobo, not coloration or size.

Unfortunately, there are quite a few spiders in the Pacific Northwest that look alike: The hobo (Tegenaria agrestis), the giant house spider (T. gigantea), and the domestic house spider (T. domestica). All are venomous. However, the rare, severe hobo bite could lead to necrosis. I was so assured that these spiders were not hazardous to humans, I would carefully scoop them up on a broom, and transport them quickly outside so they could do what spiders do best — eat insects. I have since changed my tune a little, and treat all spiders with more careful discernment.

A beloved retired St. Vincent first-grade teacher, Mrs. Riggio, is well-remembered for her spider assignments in the fall. This was an excellent assignment: The youngsters discovered that spiders are beneficial to our environment, and are not to be feared — well, overly much. The children chose a spider to study, in addition to capturing one in a jar for observation.

I got the honors of searching for and collecting the specimens three times. It was a first-rate desensitizing exercise. When there’s a spider in the house now, my family calls me to save them from the tiny arachnid because I have no qualms.

This morning at 6:45 a.m., my oldest daughter stoically informed me that there was a hobo spider in her shower. I was surprised because her spider-sighting screams could potentially wake up the whole neighborhood, and this was the first I was hearing of it. She suddenly looked panicked — and reminded me that it was up there, at that precise moment, waiting for me to collect it in a jar as per usual.

I casually drank my one teaspoon of Folgers instant coffee (I like what I like) while she glared at me.

After she left for school, I nonchalantly grabbed my spider catcher, and sauntered into her bathroom. Her confident identification of the hobo was in reference to last night. I had calmly trapped a possible hobo while it paused at the feet of all three children sitting, unaware, at the kitchen table doing homework.

I warned them, as I held the long-handled contraption up for closer inspection of its inhabitant, that this amorous spider was seeking a female. They only come inside seeking a mate, so be sure to shake out all clothes strewn over their bedroom floors before wearing! (This was a backward way to encourage them to clean their rooms. It didn’t work.)

Still, these spiders could be more useful than I thought.

According to a report by Rick Vetter from the UC Department of Entomology, and Art Antonelli, a WSU Extension Specialist in Puyallup, the question “Do I have a hobo?” is better answered than “What spider do I have?” There are definite characteristics of spiders that are not hobo spiders. To check spiders’ parts, place it in a plastic bag and gently flatten the spider out. (Yes, you can do it. Be brave!) A handheld magnifying glass is helpful.

1. Look underneath the spider at the flat shield-like surface surrounded by the legs (sternum). If your spider has three or four pairs of light spots on the lateral portions of the sternum, it is not a hobo. But remember, coloration varies, so this isn’t necessarily accurate.

2. If there are two distinct longitudinal dark stripes on the top of the first main body part (cephalothorax), it is not a hobo. Hobo spiders have diffused patterns.

3. If you can see dark rings around the legs of your spider, then it is not a hobo. Hobo spiders have uniformly colored legs.

4. Are the legs and cephalothorax shiny and dark orange in color? It is not a hobo.

5. The palp or male sex organ, which is located on the end of the “feelers,” is the only reliable way to identify your spider. According to Todd Murray (tamurray@coopext.cahe.wsu.edu), you need a microscope to accurately identify these parts. But if the palp of the male is long and pointy, it is not a hobo.

6. The web is not a good indicator of hobos on your property because many spiders produce the funnel web, which is a trampoline-like flat sheet leading back into a hole between rocks, bricks, shrubs or under wood.

Knowledge is your best defense against the anxiety of cohabitating with spiders. They do live all around us — whether we like it or not. We should respect the balance of nature and accept that in the fall, these big spiders are just looking for love in all the wrong places.

One more thought from Todd Murray’s article: The giant house spider is considered the good guy and sometimes is a predator of the hobo. If you are able to handle a broom, use it to move the spider, not squash it. We need them, believe it or not.

Federal Way resident Jan Hallahan: Jan12160@yahoo.com.

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