The Bliss of the Spider Women Two biologists who are passionate about spiders talk about their favorite arachnids — including a variety of poisonous spiders and the evil-looking whip spider (featured in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), which turns out to be an affectionate parent.
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The Bliss of the Spider Women

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The Bliss of the Spider Women

The Bliss of the Spider Women

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Turning now to your arachnophobia. I know some of you have some of that. If you have any arachnophobia, I want you to try to hang in there for the rest of the hour because we're going to be talking about spiders. I think you're going to learn stuff about spiders that you didn't know before.

Personally, I like spiders. I mean, I never kill one if I don't have to. I take them outside. I'm the kind of - I'm actually the guy on the block whom your kids or your neighbors call over to get the spider out of the bathtub or wherever it is. I'm that guy who does it because I really like - I think I like spiders. There are some of them that I'm not so crazy about like the wolf spider, fury little spider. I'm not crazy about it. But other spiders I know I'm interested in.

And I can understand why some people don't like spiders. Some of them are big and ugly, downright yucky-looking. Spiders are predators. They're cannibals. They won't hesitate to eat their own kind, even their mates. And mothers will eat their babies and the babies, once they're big enough, they're going to eat mom. Some spiders have deadly poisons, you know. If they bite you, you can get stung pretty badly.

But that hasn't stopped. All these things hasn't stopped some people from being fascinated with the spiders and their relatives. And one of those people is Dr. Greta Binford. She's an arachnologist who studies spiders that can kill you and she has hunted down venomous spiders all over the world, including this really unique place in Los Angeles. I remember a basement in Los Angeles, in a store, that harbors some of the world's deadliest spiders.

And Dr. Binford studies spider venom, and that means that as part of her job she has to milk the venom from the fangs of the spiders. Now I've seen snakes being milked for venom. We're going to find out how you milk a spider for venom. She has milked more than 10,000 deadly spiders. And she says she can carry on a conversation while she does it. Now that's - how's that for a web of intrigue?

Dr. Greta Binford is assistant professor of biology at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, and she joins us from Portland.

Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Binford.

Dr. GRETA BINFORD (Biology, Lewis & Clark College): Thank you, Ira. Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: How do you milk a spider? So tell me very carefully.

Dr. BINFORD: Well, first is I put the spider to sleep. It makes it much easier. As you know, spiders ranged a lot in size. The ones I study are fairly small and that presents a challenge, a number of challenges. So I put them to sleep. I put them under a microscope and then I rinse their fangs gently with water.

And their fangs are very close to their mouth so some people aren't clear that their venom actually comes out of separate openings than their mouth, and spiders digest their prey externally. So they have a lot of digestive enzymes as well.

And so I clamp them under a microscope and I give them an electrical shock, about 12 volts, and that makes their muscles contract. And their venom glands are surrounded by muscles and so the venom squeezes out. But what also happens is they vomit. And so one of the big challenges is trying to keep the venom from being contaminated by vomit. So I have, literally, have a vomit vacuum on the mouth of the spider.

FLATOW: Well, if...

Dr. BINFORD: And - but when it's done right...


Dr. BINFORD: ...the venom just flows right into a glass capillary tube and it's pure.

FLATOW: Well, on our Web site, it's, you can actually see one these spiders in action and shooting the venom out. So if you want to go, you can see Dr. Binford's spiders. We're talking spiders this hour on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

How did you get started with this? What made you interested in venomous spiders?

Dr. BINFORD: Well, I'll start by telling you how I got interested in spiders. I was very lucky as an undergraduate to have an opportunity to work with Ann Rypstra at Miami University on a project in Peru. And Ann and I had grown up with an interest in the outdoors and biology but I hadn't thought that much about spiders and - but this project was focused on spiders.

And I spent a summer in Peru watching social spiders, which were fantastic, and that opened my eyes to just how diverse spiders are, how the general message of spiders are nasty is not accurate at all, and also about just how little we knew about spiders, and so they present a really great opportunity for discovery...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. BINFORD: the species level, at characteristics of the organism. And so I was introduced to the process of science with that opportunity. And I recognized that, wow, I can make it a contribution. And there's a lot that we need to learn about spiders.

Now, my interest in venom sprouted out of an interest that started back in Peru, in biodiversity in general. So spiders are diverse. There are about 40,000 species of them that we know and many more that are yet to be discovered, and each of them have to capture prey to live. And so they have venom as one of their, you know, part of their arsenal for doing that.

And a venom of a single spider can have 50 to 100 different components in it. And we know very little about the composition of those mixes, but we know enough to know that the venoms differ a lot among species. So if you think about it, there are 40,000 species, each with 50 to 100 different toxic components. That's just a world of diversity and we know - we've just scratched the surface of beginning to explore diversity. So it's a great way to study how biodiversity originates, so I really used it as a tool to study the evolution of biodiversity.

FLATOW: Tell me about this basement in Los Angeles.

Dr. BINFORD: The famous Los Angeles basement. Well, it had been discovered in the '50s that a species related to the brown recluse had been brought up to Los Angeles and colonized a few places. And so the species - it's called Loxosceles laeta. Loxosceles is the genus that includes the brown recluse.

And the brown recluse is one of the few that has venom components that can actually cause damage when they bite people. And the species from South America that's in the basement of the Goodwill in L.A. is a large relative of the brown recluse. Now it's been there for nearly 50 years and it isn't linked to any problems outside of that area. But it's a great way for me to go get a spider that's native to South America for my comparative research.

FLATOW: When you milk the spiders of their venom, I know with snakes they make anti-venom out of it, right? Do you that with spiders, too?

Dr. BINFORD: Yeah, we do. So one of the - the best way we have for treating venomous bites is by raising antibodies against those same toxins and then you can inject antibodies into bite victims and the antibodies will neutralize the toxins in the venoms. And so yeah, collecting those venoms is a starting point for creating the anti-venoms that are used for treatment.

FLATOW: And how does the venom attack us? What does it do to us if we're bitten?

Dr. BINFORD: Well, brown recluse - so that differs, depending on a species, but the brown recluse group has a toxin, which is what captured my interest in them; it's a toxin that's called Sphingomyelinase D, an enzyme, and it works by snipping a molecule in cell membranes, a molecule called sphingomyelin that's found everywhere. And that causes cells to rapture.

Now, that creates a little local problem, but the problem that causes the damage in people is an immune reaction to something about that clipping of the cells. And so it's a complex cascade of immune events that we're still trying to fully understand.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to...

Dr. BINFORD: And so that means that - I'm sorry.

FLATOW: I'm sorry. I'm going to have to rudely break in, as I normally do every week, because we have to go to a break, okay? So Dr. Binford, stay with us. We'll be right back. Talking with Greta Binford, assistant professor of biology, Lewis & Clark College in Portland. We're going to take a break and bring in another spider expert in it. One spider not enough? How about two? Stay with us, we'll be right back.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking for the rest of the hour about spiders. My guest is Dr. Greta Binford, associate professor of biology at Lewis & Clark College in Portland.

You were telling me, before I rudely interrupted, about how spider venom works. Does it attack the nervous system eventually or what?

Dr. BINFORD: It does. Well - so venoms are these mixtures. The enzyme I was talking about in the brown recluse venom is just one component. So most spider venoms, I mean they're there to immobilize insect prey, primarily. And so they have a complex of toxins that have very specific activity on the nervous system. And so, yeah, they're neurotoxins.

And what's exciting for many people about that is that the specificity with which they target the nervous system is really impressive, and we've learned a lot from that specificity, about the diversity of what are called ion channels in the nervous system. And there's a lot of excitement about potential for drugs...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. BINFORD: ...and insectides and specific applications of that diversity.

FLATOW: Phil in Syracuse, New York, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY. Hi, Phil. Go ahead.

PHIL (Caller): Yes. Yes. Hello. I'm here.


PHIL: A couple of questions; one dealing with the topic you were just dealing with. Are all known spider species venomous to some degree? And the second one, though, I'm really interested, in my house, down in my basement I've got these spiders. I've looked them up. They're called house spiders. They only seemed to exist in the house. They seem to sit around for months doing nothing. I chase them out of the basement...

FLATOW: Couch potato spiders.

PHIL: And what do they - do they just eat each other? I find - what looks like pregnant ones and, you know, and they don't really build much of a web, just kind of this...


PHIL: ...silky thing, and what are they doing?

FLATOW: They were TV clicking...

PHIL: what - they just cannibalize each other? I mean...

Dr. BINFORD: Okay. I'll get to that after I answer your first question.

PHIL: Okay.

Dr. BINFORD: Most spiders are venomous, but there are a couple of groups that don't have venom. One is an orbi(ph). They're called uloboridae. They're a feather-legged spider and they're common actually, but they simply wrap their prey to death.

PHIL: Okay.

Dr. BINFORD: Grim. Otherwise...

PHIL: And they have - do they have fangs or...

Dr. BINFORD: They have fangs, yeah...

PHIL: But not venoms.

Dr. BINFORD: ...and a lot of spiders use...

PHIL: Yes.

Dr. BINFORD: So the way spiders capture prey varies enormously across species. So some species...

PHIL: Okay.

Dr. BINFORD: ...use venom. Others don't use venom very much but they crush prey with their jaws. Others use silk to wrap prey and immobilize. Some use a combination. Most do the combination of those tactics.

PHIL: Cool. Okay.

Dr. BINFORD: So the relative role in them varies a lot and that's something that's very interesting to many of us.

PHIL: Yeah.

Dr. BINFORD: Now, the spider in your basement...

PHIL: Yeah.

Dr. BINFORD: The common name house spider isn't super-informative.

PHIL: Well, it's got really long legs, very small body, and it just hangs out in corners...

FLATOW: Maybe it's not a spider.

PHIL: They just do nothing for months on end sometimes.

FLATOW: How do you know it's a spider?

Dr. BINFORD: So if it's long...

PHIL: Oh, it's definitely a spider.

Dr. BINFORD: If it's in a web, it's going to be spider probably. My guess is you're talking about something we call pholcid or a cellar spider is the common name.

PHIL: Okay. Okay.

Dr. BINFORD: And they are super common, and they have these kind of small roundish to cylindrical bodies and long hair-like legs.

PHIL: Yeah.

Dr. BINFORD: They are actually doing a lot down there. They're great for eating other arthropods, including other spiders and they...

PHIL: Well, we have a centipedes. I suppose there's a war going on in my basement. That's what I always think. The war between the centipedes...

Dr. BINFORD: Lucky you.

PHIL: I mean, is that happening?

Dr. BINFORD: They're completely harmless spiders, though.

PHIL: Yeah.

Dr. BINFORD: They are commonly referred to, in some areas, as Daddy Long Legs (unintelligible)...

FLATOW: That's what I thought.

PHIL: Well, you know, it's not Daddy Long Legs.

Dr. BINFORD: Okay.

PHIL: Do they eat flies?

Dr. BINFORD: Well, the common name Daddy Long Leg is confusing because some people refer to what arachnologists call opiliones or harvestmen...

PHIL: Right. Right. Right.

Dr. BINFORD: Daddy Long Legs...

PHIL: Right.

Dr. BINFORD: ...and those aren't spiders at all. They're arachnids.

PHIL: Yeah.

Dr. BINFORD: So - but the other form of Daddy Long Leg is a pholcid that hangs in webs...

PHIL: Okay.

Dr. BINFORD: the corner of cellars. So my guess is that's what it is, but I really have to see a photo.

PHIL: Yeah.

Dr. BINFORD: You're welcome to send me a photo and I can confirm.

FLATOW: Thanks, Phil. 1-800-989-8255. Now for a spider of another kind we're going to bring in another spider expert. This is a spider with an unusual trait. If you saw the last Harry Potter movie, you know, you caught a glimpse of a whip spider. Believe me it wasn't pretty. Whip spiders have incredibly long front legs or whips that they weave around.

But my next guest has discovered that the spiders can amazingly behave very nicely. Dr. Linda Rayor is senior research associate in the department of entomology at Cornell, and she is so fond of spiders that she has started the Eight-legged Ambassadors; that's Cornell's spider outreach program. Yes, even spiders have an outreach program. She says that she and her students have persuaded thousands of school children and community groups that spiders are hip, not horrible.

She joins us from Cornell. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Dr. LINDA RAYOR (Cornell University): Well, thank you. Thank you very much.

FLATOW: Tell us about this whip spider. In fact, we have a video on our Web site at of the whip spiders. It's just absolutely fascinating. It almost looks like a lobster to me.

Dr. RAYOR: Well, I should clarify something. So the so-called whip spider, it's not a very good common name. They're actually not spiders. They're other arachnids and I'm going to refer to them as Amblypygids. It's an order at the same level as the spiders, scorpions, harvestmen and so on.

So these Amblypygids are an entirely different group. But like all spiders, they have two body parts, eight legs and pedipalps. And in the case of the Amblypygids, the palps are used to - they have a stiletto-sharp tip that basically spines the prey.

FLATOW: Wow. And one thing that you discovered and you published is that the spider acts very lovingly to its young, maternally.

Dr. RAYOR: Yeah. It turns out that these Amblypygids, at least prior to sexual maturity, are found in incredibly interactive, friendly groups. Instead of the youngsters just sitting together somewhat near mom, instead they're constantly touching each other with their whips, and there's this constant state of interaction. It's really exciting to watch.

FLATOW: And the video we have on our Web site of the whip spider - I'll have to continue to call it that, if you'll forgive me - actually shows that the mom is carrying the spiders in a little group on her back.

Dr. RAYOR: Well, this is typical of a number of the groups of arachnids, the Amblypygids, the Vinegaroons and scorpions - their youngsters are born and then crawl onto mom's back and stay there for an (unintelligible) so about a week where they are totally helpless, and if they fall off they don't have any chance of survival. After that, they climb off the mother's back and what I've got there is a video that shows the youngsters actually molting and coming off the mother's back. I was really lucky to see it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: How lucky do you have to be? You just have to be there at the right moment.

Dr. RAYOR: Out of many, many arachnids, yeah, I've only seen it a couple of times.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255, let's see if we can get a couple of phone calls or two here. Let's go to Terry. Hi Terry, you're at Norman, Oklahoma.

TERRY (Caller): Hello. Yes, I'm calling because we have - I just started doing backyard and house biology in our house several years ago, and if you just stopped to look, you can see a lot of things. And so we have videotaped a black and yellow Argiope couple mating, and it's a really exciting process to watch.

And letting those spiders live in your basement or the jumping spiders live in the windows, we've decided is a good thing because they eat other critters that you probably don't want in the house. And the most exciting thing I found last year was in our basement; there was a very large wolf spider known as a Geolycosum ossiriensis(ph) on my basement floor.

FLATOW: Oh, I've seen many of those.

TERRY: And so we put her outside. I consulted with my brother, who is Jim Carrel at the University of Missouri, and he's the editor of the Journal of Arachnology. The guest might know who he is.

Dr. BINFORD: Yes. We know Jim.

Dr. RAYOR: We do indeed.

TERRY: Yes. And he's a graduate, his Ph.D. is from Cornell. And actually I just went down to Archbold research station to visit Jim a few weeks ago, and he works on another burrowing wolf spider.


TERRY: That was a very interesting experience.

FLATOW: Hey, are wolf spiders that common? Are they the big basement spider? I mean, I'll ask my guest, Dr. Raynor?

Dr. BINFORD: They are very common. I don't know if Linda wants to chime in here, but they are among the most common spiders that people see in the United States. They are very diverse in North America and they are harmless.

Dr. RAYOR: Yeah.

FLATOW: Do you think that they look so hairy, is that what makes them so unattractive to people?

Dr. BINFORD: You know, I -

Dr. RAYOR: This is Linda.


Dr. RAYOR: I've thought about this a lot, and I think it's that one, they don't have two cute little eyes, instead most of them have eight eyes, and the way they walk is much jerkier than many of the insects. And so it just seems more extra-terrestrial to people.

Also, the way silk hangs down, it's easy to walk into silk or into a spider in a web without really feeling that there ought to be something that close to you.

FLATOW: Is there a proper way to handle a spider if you - you don't want it in your bathtub.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: You don't want to step on it, but you want to get it - you want to liberate it, how's that?

Dr. RAYOR: In a cup.

FLATOW: In a cup.

Dr. BINFORD: Yes, and I'd just recommend against grabbing them with your hands. Most spiders are not aggressive but, you know, if you squeeze it enough, it will bite.

FLATOW: And is the venom from most spiders is something to be worried about, or does the common household spider give you just a little pain, and you don't have to go to the emergency room?

Dr. BINFORD: True. The common household spiders are not harmful at all. And in many cases the bites are not felt. And in contrast to insect bites, spiders' bites don't tend to cause itching - maybe a little bit of redness, maybe a little bit of soreness, but the majority wouldn't cause any reaction at all.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Can you have the amblypydia(ph) as a house pet? I mean...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. RAYOR: You know, actually, the amblypygids are wonderful pets. You can keep them in relatively small containers. And what I found is that I had originally been keeping them in - solitarily, just by themself, and I think they were relatively depressed. And so once I started allowing youngsters to stay in groups, they were much more active, much more interactive.

And so basically, you just need a container with a good bark substrate up against the glass that they can move on.

FLATOW: Well, two questions then: where do you get them, and what do you feed them if they're going to do this?

Dr. RAYOR: Most spiders are - I feed everything on crickets or flies. And I actually buy - I buy crickets, buy about 3,000 every couple of weeks for my lab. Where do you get them? Actually, I've gotten most of mine from Internet dealers. And the ones that I think are particularly interesting are - is this Tanzanian species that you got on the Web site, Damon diadema.

FLATOW: Don't you think there's something poetic about buying spiders on the Web?

Dr. RAYOR: It's an amazing world.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: I'm glad you got the joke. Thank you. We're talking about spiders this hour in TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News; talking with Greta Binford and Linda Rayor, both arachnologists - is that the right word?


Dr. RAYOR: Yes.

FLATOW: Yes. And did either of you ever have a fear of spiders that you had to overcome? Or were you just born loving spiders - or not being afraid of them, might be more proper?

Dr. RAYOR: For me - Greta, you want to go first?

Dr. BINFORD: No, you go ahead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. RAYOR: Okay. So I'm from Denver. I know that - now I know that there are spiders there. I basically do not remember spiders growing up at all. When I started my graduate work at the University of Kansas, this was my first real exposure to eastern deciduous forests. And my first semester I was walking around outside, and I was seeing these amazing spiders that were so cool and I was bringing them back to the entomology grad students to identify. And they were very snooty with me and said, you know, I don't know what they are; they're spiders, who cares?

And I found a very nice-looking grad student who was also interested in spiders, and we did science together, and I married him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. RAYOR: That's how I got interested in spiders.

FLATOW: He fell into your web, as...

Dr. RAYOR: It was a romantic adventure for me.

FLATOW: Let's go to Terry in Luze(ph), Delaware. Hi, Terry. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

TERRY (Caller): Hi, thanks so much for taking my call. I'm an arachnophile from way back, and I had for 13 years a Chilean rose-haired tarantula that I would take into my classrooms at the beginning of each school year. I was a middle school teacher, still am. So we would have what I would call, you know, Arachnid 101. And I would teach them about the spider. Some of them were terrified at the get-go, or used it for a great excuse to jump out of their seats and make a lot of hollering noises.

But eventually, once I'd talked them through it, and I walked around holding Rosie in my hands and showed them the different parts - the fangs, the silk coming out, the eye spot - they got fascinated. I told them they didn't have to touch it, didn't have to even come near it, but if they wanted to, they could touch it while I held her.

And almost, you know, all of them ended up wanting to touch her and becoming very fond of her. I regret that after 13 years - she died recently. And I tried to...

FLATOW: Thirteen years. That's a pretty good life.

TERRY: Yeah, yeah. Apparently, they could grow, you know, live to about 35 if they were well treated. And when I got her, she was the same size as when she died. So I'm not sure how old she was.

FLATOW: Let me ask this, because we're running out of time. Are there - and thank you for the call - are there spider clubs that people can join, who have spiders for pets?

Dr. BINFORD: Yes. There's an excellent organization in the United States, the American Arachnological Society. And it's the - the best scientists in, actually, in the world are part of this organization. But also many lay people come to our meetings. You can learn a lot at the Web site, There are great links there for general information about spiders and to a new book that's a manual of spiders of the North America, which is a great start for people.

FLATOW: Can you learn how to raise an amblypygid?

Dr. BINFORD: There are other hobbyist focus groups. And Linda, do you want to chime in there?

Dr. RAYOR: Yeah. Probably the first place I would look is And this has a lot of information on care sheets. And also I think my references are there on how to take care of amblypygids basically.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Is the spider a bug?


Dr. RAYOR: No, it's an arachnid.

FLATOW: I'm used to I thought maybe even they are making that mistake.

Dr. RAYOR: They're willing to subsume the spiders.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, I'm hoping, you know, I see people cringing all over America who are arachnophobics. So I'm hoping that we haven't really upset too many people today. But I certainly...

Dr. BINFORD: I've been thrilled with the calls from the arachnophiles and the arachnocurious. I think that's a good sign.

FLATOW: The arachnocurious. Well, on our Web site, when we have the spiders shown on the videos, we have - arachnofriendly I think is the name we've dubbed them. I want to thank you both, ladies, for taking time to be with us today. And good luck with your spiders.

Dr. BINFORD: Thanks very much.

Dr. RAYOR: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Dr. Greta Binford is assistant professor of biology at Lewis & Clark College in Portland - that's in Portland, Oregon. Dr. Linda Rayor is senior research associate in the department of entomology at Cornell University.

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