Deconstructing Charlotte + Boston Globe Review

They have fangs and skulk in dark corners. They devour their lovers. They frappe, then slurp out the insides of living prey. So what’s not to like about spiders?
From Women Outside
By Jean Weiss

I. Ms. Muffet Wrestles for Her Tuffet

womenoutsidedeconstructing-charlotte-storyI’m the first to admit that the moment lacked dignity. Standing panic-stricken in cow-print pajamas, my ankles and toes exposed in a battered pair of Birkenstocks, I held a rolled-up magazine high above my head and plotted a swift, clean swat. There were two spiders this time. One large arachnid was tucked into the corner of the runners of the sliding patio door, a location that for an exact hit would require a lunge-push maneuver. A second spider was parked on the floor several feet to the left. That one should be easy.

My ongoing struggle over how to treat spiders is a metaphor for the most complex aspects of personality: Will frontal lobe rule or will lower brain-stem function take over? Equal parts Jekyll and Hyde, I feel an innate desire to respect and preserve every living creature, even the creepy ones. Yet when I see a spider I become hysterical and want to kill, kill, kill it.

For the most part, I’ve sealed a civilized lid on this battle. On a good day, I’ll scoop up a spider with a piece of paper and carry it outside. Sometimes, if it seems that they are not erratic wanderers, I leave them unbothered in their web. If children are around I’m especially courageous, exaggerating the moral importance of preserving our many-legged friends. It took only one minor decision, though, to disrupt the fragile balance between tolerance and my need to annihilate: I moved into a basement apartment. There, in my bedroom, I was visited by an average of two fat, hairy spiders per day. I couldn’t help it. The id seized control of my actions and all hell broke loose.

Evidence of one year of fear-driven spider smashing was apparent on the walls and ceiling of my bedroom. If you looked carefully you could make out tiny speckles of spider innards on the paint—a sort of macabre arachnid mausoleum. And now I was planning to add two more splats to the collection.

The first swat went smoothly—a passive death that made it easy to ignore the fact that I was actually killing something. So I was startled when I turned to the second critter and saw that as my arm came down toward it, it ran from me and I missed. When I swatted the floor a second time, it again dodged my arm. Horrified, I wondered, Could this spider see me? Before a third attempt, the inch-long spider turned toward me, reared up in a defensive posture, and curved its two front legs into a fighter’s pose. It was the first time I’d ever been confronted by an arachnid. As we faced off I became horrifically aware that I was a predator, and the spider knew it.

There’s never been a general census taken to record exactly how many people in our culture are agitated by spiders. Is it fair to call this a duh statistic? Perhaps it would be easiest to take the number of people who’ve demonstrated a heightened interest in spiders—there are about 300 professional arachnologists in the United States—subtract them from the general population, and call it good. According to Paul Hillyard, author of The Book of the Spider, severe arachnophobes comprise 3 percent of our population. The rest of us weigh in at varying levels of tolerance. When statistically analyzed, or feelings about spiders form a classic bell-shaped curve.

Not every culture gives spiders a bum rap, though. The ancient Greeks were impressed by the weaving skills that Arachne learned from Athena. When her young pupil surpassed the goddess, Athena responded by turning Arachne into a spider—eternally envied for her supreme ability to weave, but no longer human. Many American Indian traditions consider the spider to be the creator of the world; Navajo and Pueblo legends talk of a Spider Woman who brings skills and wisdom to her people. The spider is worshipped in Borneo and is the hero and trickster Anansi in West African folktales. (Spiders are also relished as a delicacy in many countries. In Cambodia and Laos, large barbequed spiders are skewered and sold as roadside satay. The Chinese believe that eating spiders is healthful and can extend your life.)

For whatever reason, arachnids have since the beginning of history been the focus of folk legend, poetry, horror movies, urban myth, appetites, scientific study, and pure unadulterated terror. What about them causes all the fuss? After my shameful episode as a Goliath who fought—and, I confess, finally squashed—a brave David, I set out to find an answer.

II. The Lions and Tigers of the Insect World

WIDOWS: Most male spiders have to work to convince their mates that they’re lovers, not appetizers. This is especially true for the femme fatale widow, a loner who hasn’t yet established good boundaries with her man. The males orchestrate a specific plucking of the web to indicate to the female that he’s full of sperm and is good to go. Though his rhythm may be on, it soon becomes clear who’s playing lead guitar. If the male is lucky, she’ll accept him as a lover. If he’s unlucky, she’ll eat him. Life is particularly hapless for the male red back widow. After mating, the female Australian red back widows open their jaws, and in a final impressive act of sexual gymnastics the male somersaults over and over until the female sinks her fangs into him and eats him. Although it appears the ultimate in postcoital heroics, this maneuver inserts his remaining sperm more deeply into her, further securing his progeny.

Spiders are easy to find disgusting. Incriminating phrases like “painful to man,” “the young eat their mother,” and “no first-aid treatment is available” permeate texts and guidebooks. Flipping through Spiders and Their Kin and Biology of Spiders we read that spiders’ jaws are tipped by fangs and spiders have poison glands. They feed on living prey, liquefying the insides with juices from their digestive glands before sucking the victim into their mouths. Spider silk, with a tensile strength nearly as great as steel, is a potentially valuable material that could be used to improve the construction of parachutes and bulletproof vests—yet spiders cannot be used to commercially manufacture their silks because the spinners end up eating their fellow factory workers. The abdomen of the hairy tarantula can grow as large as 3.5 inches long; its leg span, as wide as ten inches. They are pirates, mimes, grim surgeons, and circus freaks: In a life-threatening situation then can amputate their own legs. Then they grow them back the next time they molt.

Spiders demonstrate endearing habits as well. Despite her propensity towards cannibalism, the female widow is actually quite shy. She rarely leaves her web and will bite only when directly threatened. The female wolf spider, a classic carpool mom, offers her newborns a piggyback ride immediately after birth, allowing hundreds of offspring to climb up her legs, where they stack in layers and hang on to her abdominal hairs. When a male nursery web spider wants to mate, he catches a fly, wraps it in silk, and presents the gift to the female. They mate as she’s eating the fly. Male jumping spiders, one of a few species with keen eyesight, woo their mates with a spider’s version of the lambada, involving a zigzag dance, an abdomen wiggle, and a raising of his front legs. The fishing spider uses surface tension with its legs to slide around on top of the water on what looks like tiny rafts. They mainly feed on insects but can also dive into the water to grab tadpoles and small fish sometimes twice their size. The ogre-faced spider, also known as the net-casting spider, has its own style of “fishing” for insects. Spinning a rectangular-shaped web between its front legs, it hangs upside down by its hind legs with net ready to cast. When an insect comes beneath it, it spreads its web, throws it over the prey and yanks it shut.

About 34,000 spider species have been identified so far—only one-fifth of what’s thought to exist. A one-acre field can be home to more than two million spiders. With the exception of Antarctica and the ocean, spiders live everywhere, they’ve even been found on Everest. On average, there’s probably a spider within 20 feet from wherever you are. While this fact may stand your hair on end, their abundance is essential. Collectively, spiders consume more than 200 trillion insects a year. “Spiders are an economic issue,” says Norman Platnick, an arachnologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and membership secretary of the American Arachnological Society. “If there were no spiders on the planet, there probably would be no humans, either, because the insects would devour the crops and we would starve to death.

Whether our fear of spiders is justifiable is up for debate. Ask many people and you’ll get a response similar to that of Marie Rosa, vice-president of the New York-based public relations and marketing agency Adams Unlimited. Rosa has hated spiders since she was about ten. “They are creepy, hairy, sneaky and very fast. Their legs … just the way their legs move, the hair on the back of my neck goes up. And they’re so fast. You think you can get them and you pick up the sponge or whatever and they move away.”

Rosa’s reaction is partly organic, partly learned, according to Dr. C. Barr Taylor, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford Medical Center who specializes in anxiety disorders and often treats patients with arachnophobia. “There is an anatomy to fear,” he says. “Fear is something that is stored in specific areas of the brain. If you put a spider in front of a spider-phobic person, there are parts of the brain that reliably light up.

“It’s a fairly complex circuitry that involves three basic processes fundamental to our survival. First, in a fearful situation, it’s critical that we have a biological response—the ‘fight or flight’ reaction. Second, once you’ve been in a threatening situation, it’s important that you learn how to pay attention to information that might alert you to that problem in the future. Finally, when in a fearful situation, your brain scans a whole bunch of information, including what you’ve experienced in the past. In humans, when people experience a realistic fear, your body remembers both the symbolic event, the past event, and the muscle-memory event.”

These three variables are part of the knee-jerk reaction of fear that grips many people when they see a spider dart across the room. Taylor postulates that phobias are based on primitive instincts that once served humans well, such as staying away from wide-open spaces, where you could be seen by predators, or staying away from enclosed spaces, where you could be easily caught by predators. It’s instinctive for us to be cautious about unexpected behavior. And the behavior of spiders, unless you’ve studied them, seems inconsistent. “When you are in fear mode, you are paying attention to subtle changes and patterns,” says Taylor. “Spiders appear erratic to us, even though they are rather predictable.” Taylor hastens to add that phobias, especially fear of spiders, are hereditary but can also be learned. “Spider phobias tend to run within the family, but those families tend to model that behavior, too. You can learn to fear spiders.”

Taylor also thinks that men and women are equally afraid of spiders, though nine out of ten of his spiderphobic patients are women. “I think the men just don’t want to have to deal with it. They’re too uptight to admit it’s a big problem.”

Taylor uses a method called “exposure therapy” to cure patients of their spider fear. “The principle is that if you confront the fear under conditions of perceived safety, the fear goes away.” By incrementally introducing images that contain varying degrees of likeness to spiders, the patient gradually becomes more comfortable until eventually she’s holding a real spider in her hand. The process takes a few hours and costs from $150 to $200. “The treatment is inexpensive and effective,” says Taylor. “I’d hate that someone would not enjoy the wild because of a fear of spiders.”

The arachnologists I spoke with pooh-pooh Taylor’s assertion that arachnophobia is partially hereditary. And they certainly don’t think that fearing spiders is rational. Out of thousands of species, only 20 to 30 are poisonous to humans. Of those, only a handful are aggressive, that is, if you provoke them they will go after you. In the United States and Canada, the only poisonous spiders are the brown recluse and the widow. The recluse can be found throughout the Southwest, usually lives in dark corners inside the home—behind furniture, in cupboards—and bites only when defending itself. The bite is painful and may cause a red circle of inflammation that can take months to heal. The widow, commonly known as the black widow but also called brown widow, red widow and northern widow, lives in warm regions throughout the United States. Its bite causes severe pain but rarely death.

In both countries, deaths from wasp and bee stings cause more fatalities per year than spider bites. “I can understand people being afraid of snakes. A high proportion of snakes have venom that can kill you. It’s rational to be afraid of snakes. It’s not rational to be afraid of spiders,” says Platnick. “Most spiders couldn’t even succeed in breaking your skin. Most of the bites occur when a spider gets caught up in your clothes or your bedsheets and they bite as a last resort. Spiders want to get away from you. You’re big, you’re noisy, you’re not prey.”

Arachnologists are a tight-knit, dry-witted bunch used to defending their subject of study. When they convene, they spend most of their time discussing the mating habits and genitalia of their subjects—with spiders, this is often the only way to distinguish among species. They’re also die-hard fans of Gary Larson, creator of The Far Side, who has featured spiders in several of his cartoons. One classic shows a male spider scanning the personal ads to find only requests from female black widows. Another shows a family of spiders going into hysterics as a little businessman dangles from the ceiling on a silk strand.

Perhaps ironically, women have contributed prominently to the study of spiders since the beginning. “Certainly women have been far more represented in arachnology than in science as an average. There have been eminent female arachnologists as long as there have been arachnologists,” says Platnick, who can’t give an exact number because many society members use their initials.

“Hon,” Platnick calls to his wife, who herself studies millipedes, “why are there more women arachnologists than in most sciences?”

“Because it’s a quirky thing,” she answers.

III. Bonding with Spider Woman

JUMPING SPIDERS: The popcorn kernels of arachnids, jumping spiders take off with a pogo-like lunge and turn up in all sorts of odd places. Usually, they’re after a meal. Unlike most spiders, which rely on vibration to detect prey or predators, a jumping spider can see as far as eight inches. If you wave a finger in front of one, it often sets a dragline of silk as a safety net and jumps over your hand. They also make great pets. They’re cute, colorfully adorned, and more rounded than most spiders. Uncannily similar to cats, they follow a strand of yarn with their eyes, stalk and pounce on their prey, and like to hang out in the sun. Unlike cats, they’re active during the day. And though they’re small, they have mighty appetites: One jumping spider was recorded as eating more than 40 fruit flies in one sitting.

Arachnologist Paula Cushing, 35, is the classic arachnophobe’s antipode. When introduced as a curator of entomology at the Denver Museum of Natural History, she politely corrects that she is also curator of arachnology. To get her doctorate degree, Cushing spent years in the field digging holes five and six feet deep in southern Florida soil and crawling down inside the nests of poisonous ants to study a tiny spider that lives within the ant colonies.

Most people who fear spiders can point to a defining moment, usually around age ten, when they established that spiders were gross and should be avoided. Cushing’s crystalline moment occurred when she was nine and took her in the opposite direction. She remembers standing outside her parent’s suburban home in Alexandria, Virginia, when the epiphany came. “I decided that I wanted to study why we are alive. In my logical, little-girl mind, I thought, Well, if you want to get the answers to that question, then you should study nature. I always knew I would be a biologist, but I grew up in the suburbs where there weren’t any large animals. But there were insects and spiders, so I naturally took an interest in them.” Earthworms were the only crawling creature that horrified her. “Every time I would dig one up in the garden, I would run away screaming.”

On first sight, Cushing appears to be as severe as one might anticipate for a woman who relishes spiders. Short and slender, she has straight brown hair that dips slightly below her shoulder blades, thick eyebrows frame deep brown eyes and translucent skin. She’s dressed in a turtleneck, a blue blazer, and slacks, and wears a silver-and-turquoise pin that to me looks like a black widow. “I’ve got four or five different spider pins,” she says cheerily. I note on the museum’s schedule an “Infested Festival” of B-rated insect and spider movies, cockroach races, and a nocturnal outing in search of wolf spiders.

Cushing and I stand before each other awkwardly at first. I’m curious about and a little awed by someone who would voluntarily touch a spider. Um, what are the characteristics of an arachnologist? I mumble.

“Weirdness, patience, and an eye for detail,” she answers without pause. “Arachnology is an unpopular area of science, but it’s an interesting area to research because there’s an endless supply of questions that need to be answered. When you work with an unpopular group of organisms, you just kind of bond. When you approach people on the street and you tell them what you do and their response is, ‘Oh, I hate spiders’ or they just say ‘Eeeew,’ either you have to develop a sense of humor to deal with that or you go crazy.”

Cushing is quick to laugh and speaks about spiders in animated tones. Before too long I’m swept into her excitement and am darting and scurrying after her as we explore her lab. First she takes me into the specimen room, where thousands of dead spiders are bottled in glass containers filled with Ethanol alcohol. Several specimens that have come in today sit on a countertop, ready to be inventoried. Spiders must be killed before they are studied, because their genitalia are key to identification and can be examined only after the spider is dead. One label indicates that the specimen was found at the coroner’s lab. Any spider crawling around is a candidate for these containers, unless it’s in Cushing’s house. “My house is sacred. I won’t collect spiders there, nor is anyone else allowed to collect spiders there. I’ve had a black widow living behind my toilet for weeks.”

We move from the dead spiders over to the live spiders as I maintain a poker face. Some of them will be killed and studied; others are kept on hand for educational programs and show and tell. Exuberantly, as if picking up and examining a pair of earrings she’d like to buy or a beautiful shell on the beach, Cushing takes the lid off one of the jars and nudges a spider out of its funnel and onto her hand. “This spider bit me earlier today. Let’s see what it does now.” What does that feel like, I ask. “It just pinches a little.” Next, Cushing peels a mesh lid from a jar. She gently dips her finders into the container and prods the legs of the black widow hanging from its web beneath the gauze. The widow retreats. Before Cushing recovers each container, she sprays the spiders with water. “Spiders dehydrate easily,” she says. “If they’re not given enough water, their leg muscles can’t function properly. A spider can go a long time without food, but not without water.” There’s a Chilean rose-haired tarantula, but I am clear that I don’t need Cushing to take it out of the terrarium. It’s quite large—maybe four inches—and remains motionless halfway up a rock. It looks like a brown, hairy, miniature Corvette, low to the ground and stalled on some ramp in a parking garage.

Our final visit is with a jumping spider. “These are my favorite and really work better as pets than tarantulas,” says Cushing as she places the tiny black spider onto her hand. “Tarantulas aren’t the best pets, because they’re active at night and hide during the day. Jumping spiders are very docile, and they can see you.” They can see you? I repeat Cushing’s comment. I’m starting to get a sick feeling in my stomach, remembering the image of my little dead David, challenging me before I squashed him in my bedroom. He acted like he could see me. He was probably a jumping spider. The spider Cushing is holding falls from her hand onto the floor, and she leans down to pick him up. “This one’s so old, she actually has cataracts.” I look up, startled. Cushing laughs. It’s just a joke. Cushing directs me to get down in front of the jumping spider. I crouch and peer into her eyes. I move my head side to side and her eyes follow. Her dark body is bunched together in a crouch, her legs framing her face. Her eyes are round and her chelicerae are brilliantly green. She looks like a little granny wearing night-vision goggles. When we put her back into her plastic container, Cushing sprays her with water. The jumping spider stands firmly, soaking in it like a child in summer getting cleaned off with a garden hose before coming inside to dinner.

IV. Are You My Mother?

PIRATE SPIDERS: Equal parts looter and thespian, pirate spiders are a combination that wins them lots of bounty but not many friends. Oddly enough, they are gifted students of the classic Shakespeare theater foible: mistaken identity. Some pirate spiders mimic the mating rituals of other species, plucking a web and pretending that they are a courting male. When the misguided female, who thinks she’s in charge, arrives to invite in her suitor (or eat him—there’s always a risk when it comes to love) she instead is devoured by the trickster pirate. Pirate spiders also invade webs. Moving slowly to avoid vibrations, they make their way to the web owner, bite and paralyze it, and suck out its insides through the legs. About a dozen species of pirate spiders live north of Mexico.

Killing spiders for study. Killing spiders out of fear. How is it that two opposite motivations can meet in the middle? If a nine-year-old girl kills a spider because she may have a future as an arachnologist, is that cosmically different than if I kill a spider because I can’t control my impulse? After meeting Cushing, with these questions weighing heavily, I undertook a search for moral clarity.

It seemed appropriate to turn to a religious source for guidance. The trouble was, which one? Christians kill spiders, Jews kill spiders, I’m pretty sure Muslims kill spiders—the only real standout was an image I had from a film about the childhood of the Dalai Lama. During the scene in which a building was under construction, the Buddhist monks took great effort to save the lives of earthworms as builders dug into the soil. Buddhists believe we should preserve all living creatures, no matter how small. So I called John Makransky, an associate professor of Buddhism and comparative theology at Boston College, to check in about my karma.

There are three basic doctrines in Buddhism: relatedness, karma, and sameness. Relatedness ties in with the Buddhists belief in an infinite number of past lives. In each of these lives, every person has had another person who was very dear to them, who has nurtured them and cared for them. A mother, if you will. Because our numbers of past lives is infinite, everyone we encounter in this life could have been a mother in a past life. “In Buddhist practice, one measure of success is a tremendous feeling of dearness and closeness of every living being, no matter how they are behaving or reacting,” says Makransky. “That relatedness includes spiders, even those beings that look the most repulsive to us.”

Then we moved on to karma, a Sanskrit word that means intentions and actions. Our karma is based on our cumulative past actions. Essentially, Makransky tells me that when I fear a spider, it’s more about me than the spider. “For Buddhists, the way that we experience everything is profoundly conditioned by our habits and thought or actions in the past. Therefore, a spider looks repulsive to many of us not because of the spider, but because we’re projecting on the spider the imprint of our own past thoughts and actions.” The next time I feel terror about spiders, I’m supposed to embrace them instead. “Karma is something that we’re making all the time, so by acting out of dearness and closeness and clarity rather than reacting to your fear and killing the spider, you can then change your karma,” Makransky assures me.

After you’ve gotten your karma in order, you’ll be free to realize that even spiders share a universal desire for freedom from suffering and to have deepest well-being. This is the concept of sameness. That may be an ugly, hairy spider sucking blood out of a stunned but still living insect, but it’s just like you. And once, it may have been your mother.

V. A Small Jump for Mankind

WATER SPIDERS: The European water spiders are the free-divers of the arachnid world, except that they can remain underwater for longer than four minutes. They don’t need to hold their breath; they carry air inside a bubble that they swirl around their bodies. Water spiders live underwater, too. Their bell-shaped web is constructed between underwater plants, and then filled with air that the spider carries back to the web and its body from the surface. The spider captures water insects and sow bugs, and brings them back to the web to eat. It also raises its young there. To replenish the air in the bubble, the spider swims to the water’s surface, taps the surface with its first two legs, pushes up its abdomen, and swirls around in the air, thus creating a membrane of air. The spider then swims upside down back to the web, leaving the fragile balance of water and air undisturbed.

The next time Cushing and I meet, I’m more informed and on a mission. I’ve read three textbooks about spiders, discussed with a handful of arachnologists their intrigue with arthropods, examined the workings of arachnophobia, and looked into their cultural history. What once was fear has been overtaken by a librarianish fascination with spider facts. Bits of spider trivia pepper my e-mail, my telephone calls, my conversation at dinner parties. I’m ready to hold a spider, and I ask Cushing if she’ll help me out. Is 45 minutes enough time? I probe, scheduling my day. There’s a pause, then a polite laugh. “All we’re going to do is hold one spider,” she says, and gently adds, “I think that’ll be enough time.” With great relief, I come up with the justification that holding the tarantula is too predictable. Besides, I’m due for a tête-à-tête with a jumping spider to atone for past indiscretions. In particular, I’ve developed an affection for the little old lady jumper. Cushing is forced to break the news: Granny died a few days ago. But just that morning Cushing looked down to discover a younger jumping spider hopping around on her clothes. She scooped it up in a bottle and brought it in, just so I could hold it. Great.

I’m apprehensive about the younger jumping spider because it might actually jump. We stand before the jars of tarantulas and black widows and newly-acquired funnel-web spiders and I nod the go-ahead. Cushing opens up the jumping spider’s jar and scoots it onto her hand. It’s tinier than the granny and instead of one solid color, is lighter and decorated with a series of intricate white and black designs. “Wiggle your finger and see what happens,” she says. Dutifully, I wiggle. The spider follows the movement with its eyes, then hops over to the back of my hand. The spider is light and smooth and feels no more than a tickle. Still, I’m eagle eyed and tense, ready to respond to an emergency situation—should it, say, jump up my arm or over to my torso. It crawls around for a while, then I feel a gentle tug. I’m sure it is biting me and look to Cushing for help. Politely and so controlled, I refrain from whipping out my hand and slinging the youngster onto the floor. “It probably laid a dragline,” says Cushing. “It’s laying dragline all the time.” Still, the sensation is unnerving and I’m ready to pass him back to Cushing. She waves her fingers and it jumps back over.

Cushing places the spider back into its container and turns to another, her favorite, a Dysdera crocata that bit her earlier in the day. She beckons to me. “Oh no, that one’s body is way too large,” I say firmly. The length of the spider is just under two inches. As it crawls around on Cushing’s shirt, I note why she likes it. It is beautiful. Its body looks like two large seeds strung together, one a polished tan, the other a velvety dark brown. “And the chelicerae are so impressive,” she says of its fangs. “They hold their chelicerae right out in front of their body. Now don’t bite me,” Cushing speaks absentmindedly to the spider. “It’s a hunting spider, it’s not a web builder. It hangs out underneath rocks and logs hunting for isopods. For roly-polys. Its jaws are very well adapted for that.”

The well-adapted spider begins to crawl inside the arm of Cushing’s shirt. She fishes it out. Then it starts to crawl behind her back. For one terrified moment, I realize that I may be called upon to help her out. Much to my relief she herds it back onto her hand.

I appreciate that this one may have been my mother. But I’ll just say hello from here.

Review of “Deconstructing Charlotte” from The Boston Globe
By Cynthia Decknell

My favorite story here is a wonderfully wry look at spiders. Arachnophobes might have trouble gazing at the close-up photos of these multi-eyed, hairy little beasts (“A face only a mother could love,” reads one caption), but every type of spider depicted is a fascinating creature in its own right.

Jean Weiss’s text is marvelously witty. She initially approaches her subject with fear and disgust, but after researching the arachnids, spending time in an expert’s lab, and actually letting one small spider jump on her hand, she ends her piece with a respect bordering on affection. Her descriptions are as entertaining as any I’ve read about higher life forms. Spider silk, she writes, “with a tensile strength nearly as great as steel, is a potentially valuable material that could be used to improve the construction of parachutes and bulletproof vests – yet spiders cannot be used to commercially manufacture their silk because the spinners end up eating their fellow factory workers.”

It’s been years since I gave up squashing spiders – they eat other yucky bugs, after all – but after reading this article I’ll let them have as many corners of my house as they want.

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