Like most kids, I was interested in nature. Unlike most kids, I had parents who expressed interest and appreciation of a wasp on the windowsill, rather than disgust.
Hence, my fascination with spiders, insects, scorpions, birds, and other animals only increased with age. How do they move? How do they raise young? How do they hunt? How dangerous are they? How tasty are they?
Hearing some dubious answers from my parents, I was led to experimentation at age 5. Eating grasshoppers and caterpillars, performing autopsies on snakes, tracking the behavior of my cocky neighbor kid who played with the sick bat, introducing termites into ant colonies to induce inter-specific warfare, collecting tadpoles from the ravines carved by cyclone Domonic.
Kids, do not try all these experiments at home.
Eventually, I got a doctorate in entomology. This does not mean I can do cardiac defibrillation on your pet beetle after it ingests antifreeze. It does mean that I can immediately identify your sick pet as a beetle.
Thanks to my exposure to animals, I am now quite sensitive to certain urban legends. I just can?t stand by as some things are professed as gospel truth by Bill at the water cooler.
These include such strange statements as:
? Daddy Long Legs are deadly venomous, but luckily their fangs are too weak to penetrate your skin.
? It is illegal to kill a praying mantis.
? Spiders can sting you.
? We eat seven spiders each year.
So, Bill at the water cooler, let me set you straight.
The term Daddy Long Leg is applied to different kinds of animals, depending on region of the country: from spiders to flies to harvestmen. Of these three, only spiders have fangs. Some spiders are dangerously venomous, but no one has seriously studied how toxic the venom of obscure spiders is when taken out of the spider with a needle and then injected into humans.
Nowhere in the USA is it illegal to kill a praying mantis, unless you are trespassing on private property or nature reserve, or you have entered a praying mantis farm. Such farms do exist. Ask Jana Dalke of Serenity Gardens.
A prominent mantid in the USA is the Chinese Mantis, which, as its name suggests, was introduced from Asia about a century ago. Hence, it is not a native species, and has about as much legal protection as the House Mouse you poisoned in your kitchen cabinet last week.
Spiders have fangs on the front, not stingers on the rear. Don?t believe everything you see in the Hobbit movie. Tolkien was smoking something in his pipe when he wrote the section on the giant spider Shelob and its daughters of the Mirkwood forest.
Spider fangs are hollow, and connected to venom glands in the head region. Of the 50,000 species of spiders in the world, only several dozen pose a serious bite risk to humans.
No one has measured the rate of spider consumption by hapless arachnophobes. Besides, a statistic like this is not even practical to attempt to measure.
I admit there are some opportunities for accidental spider eating in my life. Eating spiders in my sleep is a possibility. I do realize they are very nutritious. Hence, my subconscious mind might drive me in the yard at night to consume poor spiders off their silken webs.
However, I have never been known to sleepwalk. And with my bed several inches off the floor, very few spiders wander into my gaping snoring mouth. Camping trips, on the other hand, do provide some opportunity for suicidal spiders to dive into my esophagus.
But perhaps the statistic of seven spiders is based on dry spider fragments in your cereal that the USDA has approved, along with a few rat hairs? If so, this does not count as eating spiders. The corn you eat was once air, which was once a plant, which was once an animal, which was once a plant, which was once your great-great-grandfather, etc….
So, Bill of the water cooler, you may be God?s gift to women, but you are recycled.
Join me next time as I flounder with teleological or ecological questions such as:
What is the purpose of a mayfly?
Shark fin cartilage pills solve arthritis? Well, let?s grind up all the sharks!
Andrew Sensenig is assistant professor of biology at Tabor College. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.