Karl Terry: PNT Managing Editor
They may seem like the creepy things that Halloween stories are made of — but according to entomologists, spiders usually do much more good than harm.
According to long-held Halloween-related legend, spiders, bats and owls, being nocturnal were said to speak with the devil at night (see page 1B for more Halloween lore).
Experts say most spiders do make their living at night, but they’re not that evil.
Recently, several folks have reported strange spider webs in the air around Portales and Clovis. One of those reporting, Ozzie Sepeda, who works at Portales Select, says no one he knew of had ever seen the type of long webs.
“We noticed them after work one night attached to the light poles in Wal-Mart’s parking lot,” said Sepeda. “They’re thick and really long. This is the first year anyone here at Portales Select ever remembers seeing them.”
Similarly, staff from the physical plant at Eastern New Mexico University reported to the PNT the sight of long webs hanging off the dorms.
Is it just the season getting the best of folks or is this something new?
“I can’t say for sure, but I’ve got a good candidate — the cat-faced spider,” said Carol Sutherland, Extension Entomologist at New Mexico State University and State Entomologist with the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, when asked to identify the culprit.
She said the spider gets its common name from markings on its back that resemble the face of a cat. They are relatively large spiders with the abdomen section of the spider being about the size of a grape and the head the size of a small fingernail.
“They’re not aggressive or especially dangerous,” said Sutherland. “Leave them alone and they will do their thing, which is being a predator.”
Sutherland says they are from the orb-weaver family of spiders and weave the big elaborate webs everyone thinks of from the children’s book “Charlotte’s Web.” They will often-times weave a web that spans from the eaves of a house nearly to the ground. Sutherland believes the breeze pulling these large webs apart may account for the thick, long webs seen around the area.
As to why they’re up high and near lights?
“You think about all these lights, you have a lot of moths and bugs flying through there (spider food),” says Sutherland.
One other explanation that Sutherland offered for the webs was a trait that many spiders use called ballooning. It’s often used to help young spiders disperse away from the nest and can be why when walking along people suddenly feel a spider web on their face.
Sutherland says spiders can’t fly, but they can release silk from their body and lower themselves on it. Once the single strand gets so long the wind catches it, detaches it, and the spider and web ride the breeze.
According to Darren Pollack, and entomologist and assistant professor of biology at ENMU, all spiders have venom to one degree or another. Most poke holes in their prey with fangs and inject the venom into the victim (usually and insect). Besides disabling the prey the venom also has digestive juices that begin to break down the meal from the inside-out. The spider keeps sucking out and regurgitating into the wound until he has somewhat of a bug milkshake.
Sutherland says there are really only two spiders that pose a potential, though remote, danger to humans — the widows (including black widows) and the violin spiders or recluse group.
According to her the widows are fairly large and black or brown in color with a reddish hourglass shape under their abdomen. Males are smaller and hairless. The widows make large untidy webs that make a crackly sound when you pull them down with your hand. Often there will be an old egg sack, which is gray and the size of a grape in the web.
The recluses get their name because of their bashful nature and desire to live in hidden places, said Sutherland. They are paper bag brown, about the size of a quarter and a hard to distinguish violin shape is on their back. Their most distinguishing characteristic is the three pairs of eyes they have.
Sutherland says the brown recluse, which is noted as being the most deadly spider found naturally in the United States, could exist in New Mexico but there have been no genuine records or specimens taken here, even in eastern New Mexico which borders the western boundary of their habitat.
“I don’t know how common it (brown recluse) is around Portales,” said Pollack, saying he’s never actually seen a live one himself. “I would suspect in Portales it would be much more likely to come in contact with a black widow.”
Pollack and Sutherland confirm that while spiders might not necessarily be looking to get into your house in the fall to avoid winter, they are looking for warmer, more sheltered places this time of year. Pollack points out that they still have to have some type of food source, so inside houses may not be best.
“You’re in the house more often in the winter and you’re more apt to be rubbing elbows with the things (living) in your house,” said Pollack, explaining why it could be a more common encounter this time of year. “My personal philosophy is to treat any spider as if it’s going to be a biter and scoop it carefully into a container (to release outside).
Sutherland says insecticides don’t work well on the shiny bodies of most spiders and their legs keep them out of it anyway. She recommends just making life tough on the creepers by taking a broom to their webs on a regular basis.
“They get a lot of bad press,” said Sutherland, noting the movie Arachnophobia and parents’ use of spider stories to scare kids. “They actually do a lot of good and are good for us.”