Spiders among us

Stalking arachnids in Bidwell Park with Chico State instructor Cami Liggett

Cami Liggett examines a spider she’s caught in a glass vial.

Cami Liggett examines a spider she’s caught in a glass vial.

Photo By Claire Hutkins Seda

On a recent fall night, while the waning full moon rose over Lower Bidwell Park, spider enthusiast Cami Liggett stood on the dark banks of Big Chico Creek and considered jumping in. Below her was cold, pitch-black water, a few feet deep and thickly layered with leaf litter and foam. And on the leaf litter crawled wolf spiders.

With a small Maglite held up to her temple, she moved her head back and forth, sweeping the light across the bank. The wolf spiders’ eyes lit up like dozens of tiny multicolored diamonds in the night, a phenomenon called eyeshine.

“You see it? Isn’t that awesome?” exclaimed Liggett, an instructor of geological and environmental sciences at Chico State. Liggett explained the phenomenon: “You know how cats’ eyes shine in the dark? A lot of animals that are nighttime hunters have membranes in the back of their eyes that reflect light. It helps the optical nerve to gather light.”

If she jumped into the water, she could collect the spiders into her glass vials for closer observation later. Instead, we decided to return in the daytime. The wolf spiders visible by their eyeshine represented just a fraction of the spiders around us. “Wait until you see the diversity … that we see during the day, when you’re just trucking along, not thinking about spiders,” she said.

With Halloween approaching, spiders take center stage, along with ghosts, goblins, witches and mummies. But with one key difference: you are unlikely to encounter most of those creatures on a daily basis, except spiders. In fact, it is highly probable that you are within a few feet of a spider right now, given how ubiquitous they are in most environments, indoors and out.

“They say—I don’t know really how true it is—but they say you’re never more than two feet away from a spider. And I really have no trouble believing it myself,” Liggett admitted.

Such proximity to spiders may cause some readers to get the heebie-jeebies. Arachnophobia, or fear of spiders, is one of the most common specific phobias, with one study in the U.K. listing upwards of 55 percent of women and 18 percent of men as afflicted.

This male wolf spider is one that Cami Liggett discovered via eyeshine.

Photo By Claire Hutkins Seda

Why are we so scared of something that is so common in our daily lives?

“I don’t know if it’s just our culture. It may be a human-wide thing … I wouldn’t be surprised if we were selected for it, if it were neurological programming, because [some] spiders are dangerous,” explained Liggett. But the level of fear people harbor, she said, is unnecessary.

“If [someone] habitually moves a lot of firewood, yeah, I’d wear gloves. It’s like, use your brain,” Liggett says. But, even with the more dangerous spiders—like the locally abundant Black Widow—fear isn’t helpful, Liggett explained. So, if you have a venomous spider sitting on your arm, what do you do?

“Just sitting there, it’s not going to say, ‘A human! I’m going to bite it!’ People feel that way because they’re scared of them. But it’s just sitting on your arm. It doesn’t recognize your arm as something to bite … If it’s on your arm, don’t slap it,” Liggett suggested. “Shake it off, blow it off, as long as you can do it without the spider feeling threatened.”

Chico State biology professor Don Miller agrees with Liggett: The level of fear most people have of spiders is unnecessary.

“They have to eat. They eat other animals. They liquefy the insides of these other animals, and all that. But most spiders are not going to bite [people] unless they’re cornered and absolutely have to defend themselves,” Miller said. The best treatment for fear, Miller believes, is “getting to know them as a way to get to appreciate them, and maybe shed some of that general assumption of malignment.”

The problem is that we’re not paying attention, he says. Miller recommends keeping “eyes wide open and alert, and your senses … attuned to small things.” Suddenly, you’ll see spiders, and the more you see them, the more you will be familiar with them, which in turn will make you more comfortable with them, said the two spider enthusiasts.

“I see silk everywhere!” Liggett exclaimed. Here in Chico, we have a great variety of spiders. Liggett intended to walk back to that wolf-spider hangout along the creek that we visited at night, to do an informal census of daytime spiders along the same bank.

The trouble was, walking during the daytime was near impossible, as Liggett discovered a new spider every few feet—in the bushes, under leaf litter, and along the trail.

Soon, she was lying under a park bench, collecting spiders into glass vials for easier identification. When she found a spider, Liggett rattled off its taxonomic family. The common names of some of the spiders she collected gave insight to their appearance, behaviors, and webs: a crab spider, wolf spider, nursery-web spider, orb-weaver, jumping spider, and a Daddy Longlegs, also called a cellar spider. By the time Liggett finally reached the bank of the creek, she had identified a dozen spiders, all within a few feet of the path.

The beginning arachnid enthusiast has a lot to observe. “For somebody who really wants to get into it, what I would suggest is to watch it. See where it goes, what it does, and what leaves it likes, and where it likes to be oriented in the sun,” Liggett suggested.

Miller reframes spiders’ ubiquity as a form of accessibility, saying, “I think it’s a joy that any child, even inside an apartment building, can actually encounter something like a spider, and think about it, deal with it, engage with it. It’s a little bit of nature.”