There are many stories and myths concerning spiders. Below are answers to some common queries about: Bites and Venom; Catching Prey; Flying Spiders; and The Legend of Arachne.

Further information is available in the book Spiders and Scorpions Commonly Found in Victoria, and Spiders Parlour.

 

Bites & Venom

The only spider found in Victoria that has been proven to be highly venomous is the Red-back Spider, for which an antivenene is available at hospitals. All other spiders are considered relatively harmless but should be treated with respect.

 

Nearly every spider uses venom to kill its prey and in general this venom will only cause a mild local irritation or inflammation in humans. However, certain individuals may show allergic or hypersensitive reactions to the venom or may develop symptoms of a bacterial infection introduced by decomposing foodstuffs on the fangs. It should be remembered that fear of a spider bite can often cause more problems than the bite itself.

The reaction to bites from spiders has been ranked at the following levels:

Highly venomous: Potentially fatal.
General symptoms: Non-lethal but may cause headache, nausea, vomiting and muscular pain.
Local reaction: Non-lethal, causing only redness, swelling, a burning sensation or itching at bite.

More information is provided with the details of each spider listed on the site, and from Melbourne's Royal Children's Hospital spider bites webpage.

 

Bite Myths

There's a story that 'the bite of the Daddy Long-legs Spider is the most deadly of all'. This myth probably arose from the observation that Daddy Long-legs Spiders sometimes kill and eat Red-back Spiders. Since the Red-back is itself a poisonous spider, the assumption was made that the Daddy Long-legs Spider must be MORE poisonous.

Another story relates the origin of the common name 'Tarantula', sometimes used for Huntsman Spiders or large hairy South American mygalomorphs. The true Tarantula is a European Wolf Spider named after the town of Taranto in southern Italy-the venom of this spider was considered to be extremely dangerous and people bitten had to avoid falling into a coma by dancing to a lively tune known as the tarantella. It is now known that the venom of the Wolf Spider is not dangerous and the bites causing a reaction were probably inflicted by the Black Widow Spider.

 

Hunters or Web Weavers

Although all spiders produce silk, not all spiders use a web to catch their prey. In fact, less than one third of known spiders use silk to catch their prey. There are more species of Araneomorphae spiders that actively hunt for their prey than there are species that spin a web to ensnare their prey.

Spiders can be divided into the following broad categories according to how they capture their prey.

 

Vagrant Hunters: actively stalk their prey and do not use a web.
Ambush Hunters: wait for their prey to come to them but do not use a web.
Thieves: do not use their own web, but live in a web of a larger spider and feed on prey caught by the larger spider or even the host spider itself.
Anglers: use a web but actively catch their prey; some produce an attractive scent eg. one attracts male moths by mimicking the sex pheromones produced by female moths.
Web Builders: use a web and wait for their prey to come to the web.

There are two major types used: 'Sticky 'webs-produced by ecribellate spiders (sometimes called the 'Master Weavers') and 'Hackle band' webs-they are not sticky, the prey simply become entangled in the threads.

 

Flying Spiders

A few days after a spiderling has hatched, it releases a long thread of silk into a breeze. Eventually enough silk is produced to lift the spiderling up into the air. The spiderling can ride the wind thermals and currents like a sky-driver or balloonist, sometimes being carried high up into the stratosphere and travelling for thousands of kilometres. To land the spiderling simply climbs along its parachute and rolls it up. 'Ballooning' is an important factor in the distribution of many species all over the world, and is not confined to any particular season

 

The Legend of Arachne

The name science uses for spiders, 'arachnid', is derived from a Greek myth outlined in the following story.

Long ago in a village on the plain below Mount Olympus lived a beautiful maiden named Arachne. She devoted her days to weaving and embroidering, and such was her skill that even the nymphs from the woods crept out and gazed with awe at the wonderful pictures she wove.

 

Unfortunately, Arachne was admired but never loved, as she boasted endlessly about her own skill and deftness. She was so sure of her skills that she boasted that not even Athene, the goddess of wisdom and patroness of arts could rival her work.

Athene was so incensed by these taunts that she visited Arachne, disguised as an old woman, and warned her against incurring the wrath of the gods. Arachne dismissed the warning and claimed if ever she met Athene she would challenge her to a contest. Athene threw off her cloak and accepted the challenge.

Athene chose for her tapestry her own contest with Neptune while Arachne chose the abduction of Europa. As their labours finished, each turned to see the other's work- while Arachne's tapestry was wonderful, one glance at Athene's work sufficed to show that Arachne was beaten.

In despair, Arachne tried to hang herself in her own tapestry; however, Athene was unwilling for her rival to escape so easily and changed her suspended body into a misshapen and repulsive form and condemned her to continue weaving throughout the ages.

 

© Museum Victoria Australia