"Eight legs, two fangs and an attitude," reads the breathless ad copy for "Arachnophobia," a summer blockbuster that's been packing them into the quadplexes the last few weeks. The film's premise is that spiders are deadly little buggers that relish anything for a meal -- especially humans!
A spider's "attitude" -- if it has such a thing -- is one I kinda like. It consumes ants, flies, centipedes and other vermin as if they were slabs of mesquite-grilled tuna. And most could care less about biting anyone.
I must confess a certain affection for spiders that dates back to the early '50s and a 3-D potboiler called "It Came From Outer Space." The featured alien was a bore; it looked something like a bloodshot eyeball. But there's a touching scene where actor Richard Carlson, alone in the desert, glimpses a crawling spider and ponders the revulsion humans feel for creatures of unusual form.
Pretty soon I was devouring every book I could find about spiders, writing book reports about them, and even capturing a few in a glass jar for "show and tell." The girls went "yuck!," the teacher screamed, "Oh, no!," and I wound up in the principal's office with my jar of spiders.
Like Rodney Dangerfield, spiders didn't get any respect.
They still don't.
In my basement right now, there are at least a half dozen of the little beasties. "Jason" guards a window; "Freddie" the back door; and "Bela," a warm spot under the steps. The others, nameless minions, freelance at various locations.
They're doing a great job, too. Every few days, Jason and his buddies bump off scores of moths, ants, earwigs and ugly pillbugs that would otherwise make it upstairs. You just wipe away the little piles of dried insect carcasses with a wet paper towel.
I think it's great, my friends think I'm nuts, and Michael H. Robinson, director of the National Zoo, doesn't think it's a bad idea at all. And he should know. Robinson has spent more than 20 years studying spiders in the tropics and elsewhere, and is a former director of the American Arachnological Society -- in short, a spider expert's spider expert.
"Most spiders are perfectly harmless and are marvelous friends to have around the house," Robinson says, describing my basement specimens as "sheet web spiders," which are harmless to humans.
"There are enormous numbers of spiders in an average meadow, too," he says. "Without them, insects would get totally out of control. They have an enormous insecticidal effect."
Movies like "Arachnophobia," which means "fear of spiders," raise the short hairs on Robinson's neck. The film involves a huge Venezuelan spider that hitchhikes in a coffin to a small town in California, where it breeds an army of deadly offspring and kills people by sucking them dry.
The spiders used in filming "Arachnophobia" actually are tarantulas, whose venom is no more dangerous than a bee sting, according to Robinson.
"The movie is biologically inaccurate," Robinson says. "It's sad to see that it has reinforced these primitive fears about spiders. Of the 30,000 spiders already described, only three are dangerous to humans, the brown recluse and the black widow -- found in the United States -- and the Australian funnel web spider. The funnel web spiders are found in sand dunes in Australia and are fast and very aggressive. Their bites can kill you."
Robinson says that while Americans are generally fearful of spiders, the creatures are revered in many countries.
"Spiders are considered very lucky in China," says Robinson, "and in Africa, the Ashanti people of Ghana tell tales of Anansi, a spider who is a folk hero and a trickster analogous to Br'er Rabbit. They are also used as food in some countries."
"In New Guinea, the golden web spider, Nephila maculata, is eaten -- but only the females, which weigh about three grams. The males are very tiny," Robinson says. "They taste like peanut butter. They are usually eaten legs and all, but I broke them off before trying them. The sight of having long, black spiders' legs sticking out of one's mouth is not very appealing."