My wife and I had just gotten into the car when I noticed a small jumping spider next to the dashboard.
Wait, "Hand me a container!?" How did this happen? How did my conversion from an automatic arachni-crusher to an arachnophile take place? It wasn't quick, but having a scientist wife in a permanently arrested childhood helps. Especially if that childhood consists of a lot of running around in the woods turning over rocks.
It started innocently enough with us, Sue taking pictures of ladybugs, butterflies, and the occasional dragonfly or damselfly while I photographed landscapes and larger, more commonly photographed animals. She was well within my parameters of what a "bug loving girl" was supposed to be like. Bugs are cute as long as they are brightly colored, iridescent, or especially graceful in flight. As my wife is an environmental toxicologist, I was aware that she had kept some less attractive insects such as mayflies, caddisflies, and stoneflies in her lab, but I thought she used them as indicator species to gauge the health of an ecosystem. What I didn’t know until later is that she considered them particularly beautiful. Slowly I began to realize that this "twern't no normal, pretty-bug-lovin chick.”
The revelation of just how off my wife really was became apparent after I gave her a camera capable of taking closeup macro pictures of insects. The first time Sue showed me a photo she'd taken of an insect face, with its otherworldly visage, her reaction was not what I expected. "Isn't it cute?" she said in a high-pitched squeal that 10-year-old girls general reserve for pictures of unicorns and the latest boy band. I looked at the screen and then back at my wife. "Ohhh-kayyyy..."
Cute. She thought it was cute, not interesting, not striking, but cute. I didn't understand, though it seemed to explain why she found me attractive. But the next time I asked her whether I was presentable, I would need to consider her frame of reference.
The new camera and lenses let her take pictures of much smaller critters, which is where the spider education began. There is a group of spiders under the scientific family Salticidae, commonly known as jumping spiders. They hunt by pouncing, and can jump many times their own body length. To anyone with even a glimmering of arachnophobia, this trait is terrifying. The intimidation factor is mitigated by the fact that most of these guys are tiny, ranging in size from just under an inch all the way down to four hundredths of an inch.
As my wife's photographic equipment got better, the challenge became shooting smaller and smaller critters. The first time she showed me a picture of a jumper, I stared at the screen for a bit. "You know, it is kind of cute," I admitted. A lot of the jumping spiders look as if a Japanese animator created a cartoon version of a spider. It still has eight eyes, but the most forward-facing pair are enormous and shiny. The big head—technically a cephalothorax, a head and chest together—creates proportions very similar to those of an exaggerated puppy or kitten. And the jumpers' chelicerae, or mouthparts, are often covered by a mustache. Perhaps if they renamed the family big-eyed Scottie terrier puppy spiders, it could go a long way toward generating good will toward spiders. In short, jumping spiders are the gateway drug to arachnophilia.
As Sue's affinity for the little guys grew, the quality of her photographs did as well. She learned behavioral patterns that allowed her to guess when the spider was going to jump and when it would go into a defensive posture. Often, jumping spiders will raise their front legs and move them in a way that appears as if they are attempting to communicate via semaphore or do the YMCA. They do it both as a defensive posture and as a mating dance. I assume it's the former when they pose for the camera, or perhaps like narcissus, they see their reflections in the glass and fall in love.
Our marriage is built on the concept of parity (really), so I mow the front lawn while my wife mows the back. One day after I'd finished my half, I was sitting at my computer when I heard the mower start, run for about five minutes, then stop. It started again, ran for about ten more minutes, and then stopped again. It continued this way for another couple rounds until my interest was piqued. I walked onto the back deck. There, in neat rows, were brightly tinted, numbered translucent containers of spiders, along with a chart showing location in the yard and presumed genus and species. "It's so I know where to return them after I ID and photograph them," she explained.
It took her about two hours to mow the back yard, but true to her word, all spiders were photographed and returned to their exact pickup locations. If spiders are capable of communication, I'm sure there were many stories of alien abduction spread throughout the arachnid community. "I was just sitting there, waiting to pounce on a gnat, when this giant creature from the sky came down and picked me up. Suddenly I was in a plastic bubble, and then there was a big glass plate in front of me. I heard some clicking, I was fed, and the next thing I knew, I was back here!"
While I slowly warmed to the idea of spiders being OK, there were a few times that I questioned my wife's sanity. One day I came home to find a captive black widow spider on the counter in the kitchen. Now, rationally, I knew that unless it was an arachnid Houdini, the chances of it getting out were about nil. Still, there is something unnerving about seeing that red hourglass on the underside of a fat spider belly. It's something you are taught as child. Don't play with the stove, look both ways when you cross the street, and if you see a big black spider with a red hourglass on its abdomen, leave it the hell alone.
Sue pointed out how highly improbable it would be for a trapped spider to sneak up on me in my sleep and bite me, or hold a pillow over my face, or cut the brake lines in my car. I reluctantly accepted my new roommate.
A couple of weeks later that situation changed when Sue called me into the kitchen excitedly. "Look, she made an egg sac!" I can't say I saw a maternal glow come over the face of the spider because I was too busy muttering "Nope. Nope. Nope, nope, nope, nope, NOPE!"
"So, how long after they mate do black widows produce an egg sac?" I asked. After a bit of research, we learned that a black widow can mate and then hold onto the sperm for years until she's ready to produce the egg sac. Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is an adaptation that would make life a lot easier.
We both agreed that while it was cool to have a black widow in the house—in a skewed, punk rock, biker gang sort of way—that same house full of little black widows that could fit through the air holes in their mother's container would be considerably less cool—in a trip to the emergency room for a shot of antivenin sort of way. We released her with her egg sac deep in the woods under a woodpile, where hopefully she lived out the rest of her terrifying existence in relative peace.
Another slightly disturbing incident involved a day hike one fall morning in Grayson Highlands State Park in southwestern Virginia. The dew was heavy on the open fields of the highlands, and each spider web stood out, decorated in pearls of dew. This of course slowed our hiking progress down to the point that it could be measured in hours per mile. Every web was searched for its inhabitant, then observed for behavior. Things took a bit of a morbid turn when I came upon Sue catching crickets. "What are you doing? There are a ton of spiders around here, and you're catching crickets?" She looked at me with an inquisitive look, and then turned back toward a funnel web spider's lair. "Wait, what are you—" The cricket went into the web, and in a flash, the spider jumped out of its hole, grabbed the cricket, and pulled it into its dark hiding place.
"Shoot," Sue complained. "I didn't get it." She had her camera out, trying to photograph the moment of capture. She started looking around for more crickets. Now, I'm not squeamish, and I have no problem watching cheetahs chase down baby gazelles on the Discovery Channel. I even end up rooting for the predators most of the time. But watching my lifelong companion picking up a wild critter and tossing it to its death at the fangs of another was still strangely unnerving.
"You know, from a natural selection standpoint, that could have been the most spider-savvy cricket in the world. It could have been the Alexander the Great of crickets, destined to rule the cricket world." "Well, it should have been better at hiding then." No, she didn't actually say it, but her expression told me exactly what she thought of my Darwinian musings. She humored me by not sacrificing any more wild crickets that day. But I'm sure that in the cricket world, there are stories about the arachnids' giant unstoppable monster mercenary, "Killer of Cricket Kings."
But despite some disconcerting moments, Sue's love of arachnids is contagious. She sends her remarkable photos to our families. Initially the pics were met with a bit of confusion, but soon they were distributed beyond our immediate families to friends, and friends of friends. Several people have commented that they do their best to relocate spiders now, when formerly they would have crushed them.
Admittedly, this response might be rooted in placating my wife—really, who wants to piss off someone with ready access to black widow spiders? But most of these statements seem genuine. Sue's happiness in making a small contribution towards spider education is palpable. And me? On a recent backpacking trip, I spent the night under a tarp but open to the creepy crawlies. In the middle of the night, a wolf spider crawled across my face. I slowly got up and relocated it a distance away, my indoctrination—er, education—apparently complete.