Spider myths and misconceptions

Australia is blessed with more spiders than most people know how to deal with. Add that to our propensity to tell tall tales to impress visitors, our media’s love of lurid headlines and our gradually increasing ignorance of all of our wildlife, and we have a fertile breeding ground for arachnophobia.

It needn’t be like that – really! Spiders, in general, are harmless, timid and predictable, posing far less of a threat than city traffic or even the average rose bush. Let’s look at some of the myths.

Bird-eating spiders

Some of our largest orb-weaving spiders, the Golden Orb-weavers (Nephilidae), do occasionally catch birds in their webs – small birds, since big ones would just crash through, wrecking the web in the process.

I wrote about our Golden Orb-weavers only two months ago, so I won’t repeat myself except to link to the photos on Arachne.org of a Nephila edulis eating a bird.

Tarantulas

The other spiders known as ‘bird-eating’ are tarantulas and don’t normally do it because they live in holes in the ground and couldn’t catch a bird in the first place. The Qld Museum’s fact sheet says …

Australia’s tarantulas make a fine hissing sound, hence their other name, Whistling Spiders. They have been called “Bird-eating spider” but that is incorrectly modified from “Bird Spider” which was given because the giant South American spiders resemble a fluffy bird chick.

… although this BBC article describing the world’s largest spiders provides an alternative explanation for the origin of the ‘bird-eating’ myth.

As for their size, Arachne.org says:

Phlogius crassipes Queensland Whistling Tarantula

The species name crassipes is Latin for “fat leg” referring to the relatively fat front legs. This spider can attain legspans of up to 22 cm, normally a big adult is about 16cm. Its body length, from eyes to the rear of its abdomen, measures between 6 and 9 cm, making it the largest Australian tarantula. This species is quite shy and normally does not wander far from its burrow.

But what about his photo? Photos don’t lie, do they?

bird-eating-sp

If that’s a man’s hand, the spider would have a body length of 20cm or so. Even the largest South American species seems to reach only(!) 12cm, with a 28cm leg span. Photos do often lie but this one isn’t even a photo: beware the photoshopped image!

Tarantulas are venomous and need to be treated with due caution, but they are very rarely encountered (holes in the ground, remember) and are, anyway, very timid. When people talk about seeing ‘tarantulas’ in or on buildings they are nearly always talking about huntsman spiders.

‘Tarantulas’ (Huntsman spiders)

Huntsmen (some prefer ‘huntsmans’ but I can’t stand it and wiktionary reckons ‘huntsmen’ is okay) are large and hairy but not as large and hairy as tarantulas: body length is up to about 2.5 cm and leg span up to 15 cm. In nature they live under bark and in crevices, which is why they have flattened bodies and sideways-moving legs, and why they are so comfortable behind furniture in our homes. They are sit-and-wait ambush hunters, which is why they are so fast, and primarily nocturnal, which is why we often see them on the wall when we turn the light on at night.

The meter-reader's excuse
The meter-reader’s excuse

Meter boxes are also good retreats for them, and the meter reader who left the note which is now circulating on facebook (left) probably encountered a huntsman, and probably imagined the ‘red fangs’.

He was perfectly safe, however: huntsmen are not at all aggressive, and not very venomous. Under “Danger to humans and first aid” the Australian Museum’s fact sheet says, “A cold pack may relieve local pain. Seek medical attention if symptoms persist,” i.e. a bite may hurt for a while but there’s no need to panic.

grey spider
Grey huntsman in electrical switchboard

The Redback on the Toilet Seat

There was a redback on the toilet seat,
When I was there last night.
I didn’t see him in the dark,
But boy I felt his bite.
I jumped up high into the air,
And when I hit the ground.
That crafty redback spider,
Wasn’t nowhere to be found.

A redback on the toilet seat is actually not too unlikely in a bush dunny, but the rest of the story is a bit fanciful, let’s say. The Australian Museum fact sheet does, however, take the bites seriously:

Danger to humans and first aid

Redback bites occur frequently, particularly over the summer months. More than 250 cases receive antivenom each year, with several milder envenomations probably going unreported. Only the female bite is dangerous. They can cause serious illness and have caused deaths. However, since Redback Spiders rarely leave their webs, humans are not likely to be bitten unless a body part such as a hand is put directly into the web, and because of their small jaws many bites are ineffective. …

Common early symptoms are pain (which can become severe), sweating (always including local sweating at bite site), muscular weakness, nausea and vomiting. Antivenom is available. No deaths have occurred since its introduction.

Apply an ice pack to the bitten area to relieve pain. Do not apply a pressure bandage (venom movement is slow and pressure worsens pain). Collect the spider for positive identification. Seek medical attention.

But let’s allow Slim Newton to have the last word.

Eat, Lay, Love – insects’ search for fulfilment

Life is simpler for insects than for us. Like us, they have to eat and reproduce. Unlike us, they don’t seem to want to achieve anything more than that, unless you count avoiding predators as an ambition.

These photos were taken in my garden at different times and don’t have much else in common except that their subjects are doing something more than merely resting.

Longicorn beetles (Cerambycidae) are usually identified by their exceptionally long, curved antennae. Their larvae are wood-borers and adults usually eat bark, although this one (probably a Double-coned Longicorn, Zygocera plumifera) seems to have no aversion to lichen.

longicorn beetle
Longicorn beetle eating lichen on a frangipani branch

When I started taking an interest in insects I quickly found that flies (Diptera) were far more numerous and more varied than I had guessed; better-looking and less harmful to us, too, if not positively beneficial. Many of them mimic colourful wasps, while many adults are nectar-feeders and some larvae are predators of plant pests.

The Soldier fly, Hermetia illucens, looks and behaves like a rather sleepy black wasp. Adults don’t feed at all, so they can neither bite us nor transmit diseases. The larvae are scavengers and decomposers, which makes the compost bin a particularly suitable place for the female to lay her eggs.

black fly
Soldier fly laying eggs under the lip of a compost bin lid

These lovers are also wasp-mimicking flies, Plecia amplipennis. They don’t really have a common name in Australia but are known overseas as ‘Love Bugs‘ for their habit of staying mated, like these two, for extremely long periods and even flying mated. When not engaged in this way, adults feed on nectar and pollen to keep up their strength.

black flies
Plecia mating on a bottlebrush twig

Where should we get our news?

Like most Aussies over forty, I grew up with the expectation that our media outlets took their responsibilities seriously: that they would be reasonably objective, apolitical and accurate, and that stories would be given appropriate weight, such that wars, natural disasters and government corruption appeared on the newspapers’ front page and film stars’ divorces appeared on an inside page if at all. The last ten years, and especially the last five, have seen changes for the worse, some of them driven by changes in technology, especially the rise of the internet.

Biased reporting is clearly unethical, and we’ve seen more than enough of it. At a certain point choosing not to report certain stories is similarly unethical. There is also the not-too-trivial fact that news sources which tell lies and hide truths will eventually be known for it and will lose all credibility and, subsequently, readers and revenue. That may or may not be balanced by the fact that those which pander to the largest audience segment will make more money than those which take their responsibilities seriously. With all that in mind, where should we get our news if we want to be well-informed citizens?

Newspapers

A secondary effect of the rise of the internet is that newspapers have become far less profitable as advertising has moved online, so they have simply had less money to support what was always (ostensibly) their primary function, i.e. reporting the news. Newsroom staff levels have plummeted but the remaining journalists still have to provide enough content to keep the ads apart so standards have dropped noticeably. Some of the gaps are filled by ‘sharing’ items between newspapers, with or without attribution, so genuinely local content has dropped even more than appearances suggest.

That’s bad enough, but here in Australia we are also faced with a virtual monopoly of newspaper ownership: Rupert Murdoch and his News Corp own the leading (or only) daily newspaper in most of our capital cities and many major provincial centres, along with dozens of smaller local publications. Here in Townsville he has a total vertical monopoly, controlling our only national newspaper, The Australian; our only Queensland newspaper, the Courier-Mail; and our only Townsville newspaper, the Townsville Bulletin.

Murdoch-Oz

And the Murdoch press is infamous for its blatant bias.

On Day One of the [2013] campaign (the Monday just gone), the Daily Telegraph staked a claim for the most thuggish headline: “KICK THIS MOB OUT”. Two days earlier the Daily Telegraph’s headline was “PRICE OF LABOR: Another huge budget shambles”.

The headlines underlined the fact that when he chooses to, Murdoch uses his newspapers ruthlessly to make or break governments or parties. Given that he controls 70% of the capital city newspaper circulation in Australia, his moods and beliefs are a material factor during elections in Australia.

That’s from David McKnight in The Conversation. My own rule of thumb is much simpler: anyone who publishes Andrew Bolt is knowingly publishing lies and nothing else they publish can be fully trusted. I will stop there, since by now it will be clear that my answer to my title question is not, unfortunately, “the local newspaper”. It may be useful as the only source of some purely regional news (city council doings, etc) but that is about all.

News magazines

News magazines have suffered many of the same difficulties as newspapers but the best of them were always less dependent on advertising and more focused on news so the picture is somewhat brighter.

  • Time Magazine (weekly) maintains a good global coverage, albeit with a mildly right-wing bias and (even in its Asia-Pacific edition) strongly American focus.
  • The Monthly will obviously not keep anyone up to date with daily news but runs many good in-depth articles.
  • The Big Issue (fortnightly) deserves a mention, too. It’s heart is in the right place and it carries some excellent articles.

To no-one’s surprise, all of these are now available online as well as in hard copy. They can provide the balance and depth of coverage which has almost vanished from newspapers but they are not substitutes for them.

Radio and TV

Commercial broadcasters have followed the newspapers in dumbing down their ‘news’ programmes in pursuit of mass-market appeal, and for the same commercial reasons. There may be the occasional honorable exception but I have to admit I only listen to commercial radio or watch commercial TV in exceptional circumstances, because the alternatives are so much better. Take a bow, please, ABC and SBS!

1560740_212204348969129_1376923198_nAgain, all of these are now available online as well as in their original form. And again, there’s a shortage of local NQ content. ABC News does what it can, but the South-East of the the state naturally gets most of the attention.

News online

If newspapers are the big disappointment of the last ten years, online news services are the bonanza which makes up for it, many times over.  All I can do here is mention a few personal favourites:

  • ABC News ‘Just In’ and ‘The Drum’ pages. The site also offers news filtered by topic, e.g. the environment, although the filtering is a bit too inclusive to be terrifically useful.
  • The Guardian online, for its good general coverage and exceptionally good  environmental coverage.
  • Al Jazeera, for a top-class news site which isn’t automatically biased towards Europe or the Anglophone world.
  • The Conversation for its in-depth news and comment from top-flight contributors.
  • Climate Progress for great coverage of environmental news. It is US-centric but Australia gets some attention too. It is a segment of Think Progress, which is generally left-leaning (and therefore an antidote to most of the commercial news outlets).

Beyond these, we’re looking at niche news in one way or another – special subjects or very localised coverage – and I think each of us has to find our own preferred mix.

Here in Townsville, for instance, the Arts e-Bulletin is a comprehensive source of arts news, the Magpie’s Nest provides business and political news (and enthusiastically critiques the Townsville Bulletin) and Wildlife Queensland’s Townsville branch blog is a good source of environmental news; but these are only three of many. Facebook pages like that of North Queensland Conservation Council may also be of interest.

None of them, of course, can be relied upon to be comprehensive, balanced or accurate – that isn’t their role – but they will often report news which is of interest to supporters but is under-reported by mainstream media.

Whatever our preferences, we have no excuse for remaining ill-informed or the slightest bit out of date.