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Even scientists who study bugs have an irrational fear of spiders

As one entomologist put it: “I would rather pick up a handful of maggots than have to get close enough to a spider to kill it.”

Even many entomologists — scientists who study bugs of all kinds — are scared of spiders.
REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

If you have arachnophobia — an irrational and excessive fear of spiders and other arachnids (such as scorpions) — you’re not alone.

Far from it. An estimated 9 million American adults (3.5 percent of all adults in the country) — experience some kind of dread and panic whenever they encounter one of these eight-legged, multiple-eyed, carnivorous creatures.

In fact, even many entomologists — scientists who study bugs of all kinds — are scared of spiders, according to a fun and fascinating paper published in the fall issue of the American Entomologist.

In the paper, Richard Vetter, a retired arachnologist from the University of California, Riverside, surveyed 41 entomologists who willingly admitted to having some level of irrational aversion to spiders. Most had only a mild fear (Vetter refers to them as “arachno-adverse”), but the aversion was strong enough to cause them to react differently to spiders than to other bugs, even such disgust-triggering insects as cockroaches and maggots.

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As one entomologist who participated in the survey put it: “I would rather pick up a handful of maggots than have to get close enough to a spider to kill it.”

(Spiders and other arachnids are not insects, by the way. Insects, have six legs, antennae and many other features that differentiate them from arachnids.)

‘Ugly and disgusting’

The reasons entomologists cite for being freaked out by spiders are the same as those cited by the rest of us: Spiders have many legs. They make fast, jerky movements and show up unexpectedly. They create webs that feel “creepy” against human skin. They are “ugly and disgusting.”

“It is curious that entomologists, who work with hexapods, would find the additional pair of legs in spiders to be a significant negative feature,” observes Vitter.

Also intriguing, he adds, was the finding that the entomologists’ dislike of spiders is based on the perception that a spider may be dangerous rather than on a rational consideration of whether or not the creature is actually dangerous.

And few spiders — only about 60 of the 3,000 or so spider species in the United States — can cause “medically significant bites,” according to the University of Minnesota Extension’s website.

Furthermore, most spider bites are less painful than a bee sting. Yet even entomologists who study the behavior of bees and wasps expressed a greater negative reaction in the survey to spiders, which are much less likely to cause them pain. 

But, then, arachnophobia is the irrational fear of spiders.

Teased as children

Vetter found that the entomologists’ aversion to spiders often started at a young age, and it didn’t abate even after decades of working with insects.

Many of the respondents traced their fear of spiders to being teased as a child. According to Vitter, one entomologist said that “when she was seven years old, her father teasingly threatened her with a large spider in a container. At age 19, she witnessed an egg sac hatching on her mattress; the large number of liberated spiderlings ‘made [her] skin crawl.’ ”

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A year later, the woman had an encounter with a large spider that caused a 15-minute panic attack. Yet, when she was introduced to cockroaches during a college science class, she became “hooked” on entomology and decided to make it her career.

Over the years, she has considered getting counseling for her arachnophobia, but has avoided it, says Vitter, because she fears she will have to interact with live spiders as part of the therapy.

‘Utter, shocking horror’

Although most of the entomologists who participated in the survey were found to be only “arachno-adverse,” several had scores that suggested they were clinically arachnophobic. When asked, for example, to respond to the statement “Spiders are one of my worst fears,” they checked off the box that said “totally agree.”

One respondent — a scientist who has published research papers on spiders — wrote that he was “terrified” of any spider he encounters unexpectedly at very close range. He then gave this account of a run-in with a Cheiracanthium, otherwise known as a yellow sac spider:

[It was] running around on the inside windshield of a van I was driving at night. This was a common occurrence with this vehicle, due to its worn door seals and the prevalence of yellow sac spiders in that neighborhood, but almost always the intruder would stay on the glass long enough for me to pull over and crush it with a wadded up paper towel (from a roll I kept by the driver’s seat specifically for that purpose).

This time it disappeared, and, in a few seconds of utter, shocking horror for me, began running over my face and into one of my nostrils. Somehow maintaining control of the vehicle, I snorted out with all my force, and dislodged it. After finding a place to park and collect my wits, I searched the van in vain for almost an hour, before giving up and getting back on the road.

That was not a good day.

I think that would have been a bad day for most of us.

You can read Vetter’s paper in full at the American Entologist’s website.