In the current age of information accessibility, knowledge transmission happens almost instantaneously. While many would argue this is largely beneficial, it also means misinformation is traveling at lightning speed. Once a myth gains traction within the public sphere, it can be difficult to walk back; and the mythos surrounding spiders is a perfect example.
At MBHI, we strive to break down misconceptions about insects and other arthropods, and are often confronted with misinformation regarding spiders and their kin. Spiders are subject to general myths regarding toxicity, aggressiveness and behavior. Many of these myths have persisted for generations, and spider experts are often met with staunch opposition when trying to set the record straight. But the general public is not entirely at fault for their persistence.
In a study published earlier this year, researchers collected global data from newspaper articles reporting on spider-human interactions. They found that 47% of the articles contained misinformation and 43% of the articles contained sensationalist language surrounding spiders. However, the researchers found that when a spider expert was consulted, sensationalism decreased. Note that I said spider expert; not medical experts, nor pest control professionals.
Unfortunately, one of the drivers behind spider myths and sensationalism is rampant misidentification by medical experts and pest control professionals. Spider identification is notoriously difficult; many arachnologists will tell you that identification by color or patterning is not sufficient. But because most people – medical professionals included – are unaware of the incredible diversity of spiders, specimens are often misidentified as a highly venomous species when they are completely benign. These misidentifications often lead to undeservedly bad reputations. For an example, look no further than the brown recluse.
The brown recluse is notorious. Their venom contains necrotizing agents that can cause devastating symptoms in bite victims. And if you take the word of the general public, you could assume brown recluse spiders are not only aggressive, but widespread across the US. Neither of these assumptions are true.
The range of the brown recluse is confined to the southeast and south-midwestern US, yet medical professionals in the northwest and even Canada have diagnosed necrotic lesions in their patients as the result of a brown recluse bite. The consequences of such misdiagnoses are more severe than just contributing to an already bad reputation. A 2008 study found cases where so-called “spider bites” were later found to be cancer, Lyme disease, and MRSA. Such misdiagnoses can delay proper care, and have lifelong ramifications.
Not to mention the economic losses; look no further than the multiple cases where someone accidentally burned their house down attempting to kill a spider.
Spider myths are some of the most common myths we debunk at MBHI. And at the end of the day, we’re always happy to do so. So the next time you’re concerned about a spider in your home, don’t grab the nearest lighter and a can of hairspray. Call your friendly local bug nerds! And stay tuned next week, when we’ll address more common spider myths, how they originated, and why we should put them to rest.