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RICHARD FAGERLUND: Spiders are misunderstood and usually harmless

Arachnophobia comes from the Greek words arachne, meaning “spider,” and phobos, meaning “a fear.”

The fear of spiders may have had its roots during the Middle Ages. Spiders were considered a source of contamination and any food that came into contact with them was considered poisoned. If they fell into the water, it was thought to be undrinkable. Spiders were originally thought to spread the Black Death by biting people. Fear of the plague clouded people’s perceptions of the spiders and they were blamed for all sorts of illnesses and epidemics.

Although most spiders possess venom glands, most are too small to break the skin with their fangs and have no desire to do so.

I am not saying all spiders are harmless. Black widows are certainly capable of producing a serious bite and any such bite by this spider should be considered a major medical emergency. The brown recluse is also dangerously venomous.

Sac spiders and wolf spiders can give serious, though not fatal bites, particularly if you are allergic to any of the components of the venom. Daddy longlegs (aka harvestmen) are not at all dangerous despite their reputation to the contrary. Jumping spiders are interesting to watch but are not dangerous, although a large one can bite if mishandled. Most small hunting spiders, such as ground spiders, are incapable of hurting anyone.

Let’s look at a few of the spiders:

  • Tarantulas are very large hunting spiders. You often see the males crossing the road after a rain. They are looking for females to mate with. Although fearsome looking, they are not at all dangerous. A large one can deliver a painful bite if molested, but they are not lethal. That is a male tarantula on my face in the photo.
  • The pillbug spider is a sinister-looking arachnid. It is reddish with a gray abdomen and is often found under boards in damp areas. It feeds exclusively on pillbugs and has long fangs to enable it to pierce their bodies. It can deliver a painful bite if mishandled but it is not dangerous.
  • Comb-footed spiders (family Theridiidae) are a complex group of mostly harmless spiders, but this family does contain the black widow. Bites are extremely painful and can be serious, but are also extremely rare. There are probably more black widows in many urban areas than people, yet bites are almost unheard of.
  • Funnel-weavers (family Agelenidae) make funnel-like webs in yards, in garages, in crawl spaces and other areas. The spider hangs out at the end of the funnel waiting for prey. Most of these spiders are harmless, although they can bite. One species, the hobo spider, can produce a serious bite, but it isn’t found in New Mexico.
  • Ground spiders (family Gnaphosidae) are very common and are frequently found indoors. They are also hunting spiders and are completely harmless. One species, the parson spider, can give a painful, but not a dangerous, bite.

There are many other less common spiders and the vast majority of them are not at all dangerous.  Spiders should be considered beneficial organisms because they feed on insects and other arthropods that can be considered pests.

To control spiders around your home if you don’t want them, here are a few suggestions:

  • Control the lighting at night that attracts their food, which is flying insects.
  • Keep trash and rubbish out of your yard.
  • Seal any cracks or crevices around the house that would let hunting spiders inside. If your doors do not close tightly, install door sweeps on them.
  • Spray some peppermint essential oil in areas where you don’t want spiders. It repels them.

If you have any pest questions, you can email me at