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The Amazing World of Spiders

Black widows, orb weavers, the brown recluse. We go to the amazing world of spiders.

A tarantula spider is observes during a live spiders exhibition in the Bulgarian capital Sofia, Thursday, Jan. 22, 2009. (AP)

A tarantula spider is observes during a live spiders exhibition in the Bulgarian capital Sofia, Thursday, Jan. 22, 2009. (AP)

We all know the eensey-weensey spider went down the water spout. But for a lot of us, that’s about all we know about spiders. They’re around. They spin webs. They have a lot of legs and make some people shriek.

A big new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History goes way on in to the spider story, with the fishing spider and the golden orb-web spider and the goliath bird eater spider – a spider as big as your hand. It’s got the story of spider venom and spider silk – stronger than steel! – and why we need spiders.

This hour, On Point: the amazing world of spiders.

- Tom Ashbrook


Norman Platnick, curator of the American Museum of Natural History’s new exhibit, Spiders Alive!

Hazel Davies, Manager of Living Exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History.

Markus Buehler, Professor, Material Scientist and Engineer at MIT. He studies how the structure of spider silk can inform manmade technology and construction.

From Tom’s Reading List:

Wired “Spiders: love them or hate them, they are an important part of our ecosystem by helping to keep the insect population in check. It is estimated that the spiders in 1 acre of woodlands consume 80 pounds of insects a year. Spiders come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes and an estimated 43,000 species of spiders exist.”

New York Times “In a workroom on the fifth floor of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, six tarantulas are about to undergo sensitivity training. The creatures, of a desert species called Chilean rose hairs for their tinted furry legs, are expected to have a starring role in a new exhibition, “Spiders Alive!”, that opens in late July.”

CBS “A woman reportedly checked into a Chinese hospital because of an itchy ear that had bothered her for almost a week, only to find out a spider had taken up residence in her ear canal.”

Video: Spiders Alive!

This video from the American Museum of Natural History explains what you’ll see at “Spiders Alive!”


Click through the slideshow below to check out some of the spider species you can see at the Natural History Museum and a graphic of spider web structure from our guest Markus Buehler.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1816544 Dan Trindade

    Look out! Here comes the Spiderman! –> Norman Platnick


  • Prairie_W

    A black widow story

    I have a little locally made 3″ terra cotta pot in my yard that holds water for birds through the droughty TX summer.  Terra cotta sweats in the heat, so it’s placed in such a way as to provide constant dampness to a blackfoot daisy plant.  It gets turned upside down in winter for the (usually few) times we get freezes. 

    At the end of last winter I turned it over and found a black widow mama and potential babies had moved in.  Their housekeeping (including defunct male, now food for babies) was so interesting that I’ve let them be.  I wouldn’t do this if there were small children around, but we humans can and (I think) should work with our bugs and plants and “weeds” as part of the world that sustains us and them.  You can bet they’d rather not have humans with those great, killer human feet, car tires, and insecticides around, but they let us be for the most part.  Even rattlesnakes, as I discovered, respect you if you back away from them and leave them alone.

  • MaxBTV

    I know the program hasn’t even started yet, but can one of your guests address the urban legend that the average American swallows about 8 spiders in their sleep in a year.

  • Yar

    I have read that you are never more than three feet from a spider. 

    I seldom kill them.  They control insects.  One major issue with chemical agriculture is that it kills insect predators along with the target insects, then the population of harmful insects rebound and grows out of nature’s control. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.m.cogswell John M Cogswell Jr

    Could I get one of our guests to comment on Camel Spiders? Scary freakish looking things!

    • BHA_in_Vermont

       Yeah some of those pictures look quite scary!
      “The greatest threat they pose to humans, however, is their defensive
      bite when handled. There is essentially no risk of death directly caused
      by the bite, but, due to the strong muscles of their chelicerae, they can produce a large, ragged wound that is prone to infection.”

      So, probably best to just not handle them :)

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Our sense of things is ancient, and in that view, a spider is dishonorable.  It traps its victims and poisons them, rather than fighting in the open.  Mites and ticks live as parasites.  But as long as they leave me alone and stay out of my home, I’ll leave them alone. In a scientific view, spiders fill a niche and do so successfully.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/36PAKXRUK3WL7VG5W45VLKHLNI Lou

      Not all mites are parasitic; many are free living predators, plant feeders, etc.  Ticks are a certain type of mite and are parasites.

  • 5bojones5

    please discuss arachnaphobia – I have it!

  • 5bojones5

    please discuss arachnaphobia – I have it1

  • ToyYoda

    I have a convertible car.  It’s a black cloth top.  I take the top down a few times a year.  But, I noticed that spider like to live somewhere in my car.  They aren’t in my cabin, so I suspect they must be hanging out in my engine bay.  I’m wondering why they are so attracted to my convertible car.

  • http://twitter.com/therevmom Carly StucklenSather

    I live in the Midwest.  Brown Recluse Spiders are not rare here.  I’ve lived in my Indiana home for 10 years and get bit at least once a year, most recently when I put on my summer shorts after having stored them for the winter in a dresser in my bedroom.  

    • BHA_in_Vermont

       Sounds like it is time to start shaking things out before you put them on.  :)

      I put on a shirt that I got out of a drawer when I was a kid, maybe 8 years old. Didn’t see the wasp that then stung my back and sent me running through the house. Fortunately the only such episode or I’d be OCD about checking everything before I put it on.

  • dt03044

    I often find spider webs in my basement or garage.  I usually just leave them there, and after a couple weeks, it’s amazing how many dead bugs and carpenter ants I find nearby.  The spiders eat a lot.  Fine with me!

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.bonomolo.5 John Bonomolo

    Childhood Fascination with Spiders…

    When I was a kid, I would run around my house catching grasshoppers. I was a morbid kid, fascinated with these elegant creatures. I threw these caught grasshoppers in the Argiope’s web that would take residence on the side of my home. I would watch, marveled, at its speed, its strength.. its voracity as it cocooned the grasshopper and paralyzed it.

    I loved to do this. I know, I was a weird kid. But I love spiders. I have a natural fear of them, yet I am drawn to them. As a 6 year old boy, I was reading collegiate level books on arachnids.

    <3 Spiders. Marvelous.

    • gloriaj44

      I used to throw grasshoppers into funnel spider webs to make the funnels spiders come to the “door.”  Then, I would spray the spiders….I hated spiders.  My “sort of rule” is if they’re in the house, they must go (unless they’re very large/interesting such as a wolf spider, etc.), but if they’re outside, I am more interested in observing them or just letting them be.  (I count my boat as “inside” even though it’s actually outside.)  One of my saddest dreams was years ago when (in my dream) my future daughter-in-law killed a beautiful red spider w/white “lace” trim that I fed moths every night when I came in from the barn. I have gained some respect for them in intervening years; however, it is still a love/hate relationship.  In fact, the highlight of my trip to Venezuela was holding a tarantula for the first time ever! (even though I saw Angel Falls and swam w/dolphins for the 1st time on that same trip…) 

  • Paul Bolton

    whether spiders are dangerous, or even aggressive, depends on where you live in the world. In Sydney, Australia, we have the funnel web which can cause severe illness and even death. I can remember confronting these in houses and the garden growing up there. sometimes the funnel web will rear up and come after you. A frightening experience for child and I’ve been afraid of spiders ever since.

    • BHA_in_Vermont

      Time to get help Paul!

      Most spiders aren’t a danger to people. Just learn which ones are where you live now. You can appreciate the rest for what they are. Interesting and HELPFUL creatures of the earth. Some are quite beautiful :)

  • BHA_in_Vermont

    My daughter HATES spiders. Doesn’t matter if they are big or so small they are barely visible. All illicit a scream.

    But she doesn’t want them dead, just outside :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1178955155 Kerstin Kjellberg

    Your show this hour is reminding me of a favorite poem by Kobayashi Issa: 
    Don’t worry, spiders,
    I keep house

    Issa must have been the same kind of housekeeper I am – Spiders have very little to worry about here in my home!

  • Beth_Clarence_NY

    My worst experience with spiders was in December 2006. The Christmas tree we cut down and brought into the house was infested!

  • http://www.facebook.com/lars.grantwest Lars Grant-West

    I was fortunate enough to marry someone who was as interested and intrigued by everything in the natural world as I am. We don’t kill anything that doesn’t suck blood. Most arthropods get escorted outdoors, but many of the spiders get the royal treatment….carefully sent outdoors in the summer, or lightly misted with water in the colder months.

    Whenever it’s her turn to vacuum the house I laugh as I hear these small exclamations of “Sorry!” as she inadvertently runs through their webs (which we usually leave, unless they’ve gotten really messy). 

    We notice all kinds. My favorites are the jumping spiders because they seem to be the most responsive and aware of us, but then there are the tiny bodied long legged troglobites living in the basement who are equally fascinating in their slow and graceful meanderings around the basement.

    I’m hoping I can make it down to see the show!

    I know the Daddy longlegs aren’t technically spiders, but still a fun picture from the blackberry bushes last year…

  • Camille Diaz

    “Mommy, can we open the front door?”
    “We trapped a spider under a cup in the kitchen and we need to put it outside!”

    We do our best to rescue all the spiders that get into our house.

  • http://www.facebook.com/eric.merklein.1 Eric Merklein

    In our bathroom, we have a towel rack next to the sink that has a bit of a recess in the design.  Every year, we have what we call our ‘pet spider’.  I find it amazing that as I’m shaving, the spider will crawl out of the recess and sit there.  If I put my finger close to it, it scampers back to its towel rack home.  Do you think this large white house spider is actually looking at me and trying to contemplate about what is going on?  Do spiders reason, and think on any sophisticated level?  Great show as always

  • casey culver

    My uncle died from a brown recluse bite a few years ago here in Nashville, TN. It was on his robe in the bathroom, then got on his chest when he put on his robe, and when he noticed it, he smashed it into his chest. They were pretty sure that the venom got into the blood stream and basically cycled through his body. He died in about three or four days later on Christmas day. Irony is that I’m still way more scared of snakes. RIP Larry. 

    - Casey

  • http://www.facebook.com/eric.merklein.1 Eric Merklein

    n our bathroom, we have a towel rack next to the sink that has a bit of a recess in the design.  Every year, we have what we call our ‘pet spider’.  I find it amazing that as I’m shaving, the spider will crawl out of the recess and sit there.  If I put my finger close to it, it scampers back to its towel rack home.  Do you think this large white house spider is actually looking at me and trying to contemplate about what is going on?  Do spiders reason, and think on any sophisticated level?  Great show as always

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1178955155 Kerstin Kjellberg

    Your show this hour is reminding me of a poem by the late poet Kobayashi Issa:

    Don’t worry, spiders,
    I keep house

    Issa must have been the same kind of housekeeper I am; spiders have very little to worry about in my home!  I appreciate the work they do, even if I’m unsettled by some of the larger kinds….

  • TribalGuitars

    When I lived in FL we let the would spiders live in the hose. We’d allow one (but only one) at each end of the house and one in the bathroom, and the one in the bathroom was always name “Harry”. Any other would get evicted.  It really cut down on the bugs that would inevitably get in the house, the flying ones like mosquitoes and moths in particular. 

    Back up here in NY I evict the spiders when I can, but when I do run into a brown recluse, and the occasional black widow, it gets dispatched. My 5yo daughter has no fear of bugs, her sandbox is more her hunting ground for centipedes to play with than for sand castles, so the recluse has to go. But daddy long legs are always great fun for her.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tscottc Scott Cummings

    I have always admired and enjoyed interacting with the colorful and intelligent “jumping” spiders (ie Portia spider) but not so much the “web spiders” which don’t have much of a personality. Is the reason for this implied intelligence due to the evolution and advancement being a hunter opposed to waiting for a meal?

  • Matt Tracy

    Every year in late summer we get really big black and yellow spiders all over our farm fields, gardens and greenhouses. What are these? What do they eat? They are frightening and beautiful.

    • laurincy

      I’ve always heard those called Garden Spiders. If you do a google image search I’m sure you’ll find your spider. PS – Try talking to them, it worked for me!

  • wildflour

    I do like spiders.

    For a few years now I have the recurrent presence of what I think is a jumping zebra spider that lives near a window in my baking workstation. There have been some funny, seemingly playful moments where I see them, they seem to see me, and they quickly hide, then peek back out at me and this goes on for a few minutes.  Also, last year out at my hen’s coop I had a run in at dusk when I unknowingly walked into an overhead nest that was apparently full of baby spiders. I ran to the house, tearing my clothes off because I felt tiny pinches all over neck and shoulders – and threw myself into the shower.  When I looked on the floor there were hundreds of teeny tiny light green spiders running around.  I think this was a new hatching?  This year I had an unexpected hatching on the ceiling with hundreds of parachuting baby spiders – apparently the same type.  I had to vacuum the ceiling for a few hours to get them all.  

    Patricia in Vermont

  • Rex Henry

    Brian Fellow on Tarantulas:

    “That’s one fuzzy bug…If I had a bug like that I’d make a coat out of him”


  • laurincy

    I have large Wood Spiders that live around my home. They are beautiful brown creatures with orange spots. But they are BIG and used to scare me when I happened upon them. I started talking to them, telling them how beautiful they are. They haven’t scared me since! (I’m Laurie in CT)

  • nolanrainbolt

    I had read there are four poisonous spiders in the U.S. Two were mentioned on the show (Brown Recluse and Black Widow), but what about the Hobo Spiders and Yellow Sac? Aren’t they also poisonous?

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/36PAKXRUK3WL7VG5W45VLKHLNI Lou

      There is some disagreement whether or not yellow sac spiders and hobo spiders actually cause much damage in regard to their venoms

    • BHA_in_Vermont

       This site http://www.termite.com/spider-identification.html
      claims 6:
      Brown recluse
      Black widow
      Mouse spider
      Black house spider
      Wolf (non aggressive)

    • http://www.facebook.com/david.nelsen.90 David Nelsen

      Spiders are venomous, not poisonous. Although the terms venom and poison are often used synonymously, they should not be. of the 42,000+ species of spiders globally almost all are venomous. there is at least one family that lack venom gland, Uloboridae, there may be more. 
      Medically relevant species in the U.S. have been listed by others

  • Yar

    Mites are arachnids they are fascinating as well.
    Here is a picture of a jumping spider infested with mites.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/36PAKXRUK3WL7VG5W45VLKHLNI Lou

      probably erythraeid mites

  • http://www.facebook.com/robert.l.bernhardt.5 Robert L. Bernhardt

    I have lots of “crab spiders” in my yard here is south FL and I wanted to share something neat they do. Their webs are often built in the path of my walkway, front door, between trees leading to the garbage can, etc. When they do this I break the part of the web I need to in order to go about my business. I am careful not to destroy the whole web only it’s anchor points. The spiders don’t move to a new location they make arched anchor points that work like pathways for a person of my height. I am amazed they do this, it seems so considerate and intelligent! I only have to break part of the web once, occasionally twice, and they learn to make an arch for me to walk through. 

  • WillKnight

    Hi, I run a Spider Web Farm in Vermont where I collect and mount spider webs on wood turning the web into a work of art.  We do all we can to encourage spiders and keep their eggs safe in a place secure from birds and wasps.  In the spring we transplant the newly hatched eggs into a special area and when the spiders have grown we carefully harvest webs.  In past years we always had an abundance of spiders throughout our season but this year, here in warmer than usual Vermont, both spiders and flies are scarce.  I would think the warmer weather would encourage a population growth but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

    Any ideas from your experts?

  • http://twitter.com/LeslieBrunetta Leslie Brunetta

    Shameless self-promotion here, but also promoting how endlessly fascinating spiders are: If you’re into spiders, or trying to cure your arachnophobia, please check out “Spider Silk: Evolution and 400 Million Years of Spinning, Waiting, Snagging, and Mating” by me and Catherine L. Craig, whose research is widely known in the arachnology world. One of today’s guests, Norm Platnick, helped us with some fact-checking and contributed a micrograph of spinnerets. You can read reviews, and follow some links to excerpts, here:

  • Dick Walton

    Although I’m a naturalist not an arachnologist I have found a new world – the world of jumping spiders in my own backyard. Considering that my backyard is Concord, MA, a place that has had the loving attention of naturalists since Thoreau, it is a delight and a surprise that the natural world even in such a well studied place still has hidden marvels right outside the back door. Although entering the lilliputian world of jumping spiders presents some challenges, almost anyone with a camera and macro lens can venture there. Here are some videos of jumping spiders – many of which live in and around Concord.


  • http://www.facebook.com/david.nelsen.90 David Nelsen

    Always love to hear a program about spiders. One of the callers brought up the issue of spider cognition, which was never really addressed. For those interested in this topic look at journal articles by Dr. Robert Jackson (on jumping spiders) and the venom optimization hypothesis proposed by the Nentwig lab.
    There are free access articles a google search away

  • jana_l

    I am a woman who managed to step on a yellow jacket’s nest and got 11 stings on my leg, in Central Pa so I know what pain is.
    Five years ago on Labor Day I was eating sushi on my terrace under a huge old oak tree / the same property still/ fully clad in long pants and pantyhose, when on my left knee I felt two contact points, two more about 5 mm above the previous ones and a strong Jab over the rectangle. At this point I ran inside, tore my clothing off and put ice onto the bite. No specimen. My leg hurt all the way to the ankle. Since my GP on a previous occasion when I had a spider bite on my foot, said I do not need to worry, I did not seek medical help and just took Benedryl. After a few weeks I developed strange skin lesions and was checked for Lyme disease :Negative. But the skin problems persisted so in the spring of 2011 I had taken Augmentine /sp/ for 6 weeks, and the cycle continues, the itching sensation on the left knee where the bite was, flu like symptoms and skin break and it does not want to close, just lingers on.So now since we are ourselves a biological ecosystems and I do not like to take an antibiotic endlessly I am taking propolis, perhaps it will help. I was told that it is the suspicious last dinner the creature had before it bit which causes these skin problems. So Please, yes, I suspect it was a Fiddler spider, and any Recluse spider is super scary to me after all these problems. It is only real when it happens to you.Thanks for reading this.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Scott-Boggs/100000178171333 Scott Boggs

    I want to note my apprehension over not spider venom, but the global and household effects of the pesticides used by humans from garages to studio apartments to whole meadows.  The accumulative dosages of these chemicals can harm us so much more than spiders ever could!  Or other flying and crawling “pests” as well.

  • http://www.facebook.com/cynthia.a.pucci Cynthia Atwood Pucci

    I LOVED this segment and HOPE that it helped more people to be less afraid and explore more.  Cannot wait to see the exhibit (now I know why there were so many kids at the museum last week, on a Tuesday no less!)  I wholeheartedly agree with the fella who called in to say that he’s taken it as a kind of personal religiousity to protect and preserve more of the insect world by helping them to safety (or leaving them be). Also with the notion that a less tidy home is just fine, for it preserves a few habitats for our lovely guests! BRAVO

  • Mouse_2012

    I tend to let them live if they don’t get to close to me.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/2UMZUUIKIXXJ6V4BQYLMD5UWTA roddy

    brilliant show! Just shows how humans are only scratching at understanding of what evolution is capable of. Love spiders!

  • Patrick Enevold

    The creepiest part of the show is the fact that my grandparents names where Norm and Hazel…

    On spiders, I let them stay in the house. There are dozens of cellar spiders in my basement and more than a few wolf spiders find their way into the main living area. They absolutely keep the insect population down, and my three cats help keep the spider population down.

  • alranger

    I’m posting this after listening online and loved the program.  As a ranger out in Utah I did a program called arachnaphobia talking about how cool all the arachnids are.  I am always happy to have them around the house and letting them live in the plants. Don’t mind them in the house either – their space and my space.  At the moment I do have a black widow living in a watering can outside – she has been doing a good job as eating flies and knowing she is there, I’m not too worried about her.

  • sickofthechit

    One of my favorite pictures is of a honey bee caught in a spider’s web, but at the end of the bee’s stinger is the unfortunate impaled spider who never tasted the tasty meal.
    There’s a poem in their somewhere, as well as a political observation about our two party system… charles

    This segment reminds me of one of my most favorite basic science books about insects called “Six-Legged Science”, Brian Hocking (1968). The poem about a flea is a fond memory.
    “That flea bit me,
    then it bit thee,
    and in that flea
    our blood mingled be

    That is all my foggy memory can recall, but basically it goes on to say that it might be considered to be a royal marriage of sorts, and can we off handedly crush it, or by doing so do we destroy “us”?

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The “Do-Nothing” Congress just days before August recess. We’ll look at the causes and costs to the country of D.C. paralysis.

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This April 28, 2010 file photo, shows the Colstrip Steam Electric Station, a coal-fired power plant in Colstrip, Mont. Colstrip figures to be a target in recently released draft rules from the Environmental Protection Agency that call for reducing Montana emissions 21 percent from recent levels by 2030. (AP)

A new sci-fi history looks back on climate change from the year 2393.

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American companies bailing out on America. They call it inversion. Is it desertion?

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