Last week, one of my co-workers was exiting the lady’s room when she came to a sudden stop. There on the floor in front of her was a massively massive spider. It was black with red fangs and six evil eyes. Wicked and monstrous. Or so it seemed in that moment. Most of us have had moments where we encounter the object of a phobia in an intimate encounter, and it will make our skin crawl most unpleasantly. Spiders regularly appear at the top in lists of human fears. Most of us will simply dole out a swift and crushing death, void of consideration, with nary a second thought.
But my co-worker did not do this. Instead, she walked into the IPM quad – that’s theIntegrated Pest Management Innovation Lab, a USAID-funded program that helps farmers in developing nations find sustainable alternatives to pesticides – to find Muni.
Muni, or Rangaswamy Muniappan, is a world-renowned entomologist, the director of the IPM Innovation Lab, and an insect aficionado.
As you can imagine, in the IPM office, we spend a lot of time researching, writing and talking about insects. It’s always a treat when we get to actually examine one – especially through Muni’s microscope.
Muni had no compunction in scooping up the little creature and popping it under the scope. The thoughtful co-worker had the first look, but we all had a chance to inspect the arachnid up close.
I’m not going to lie—it was a little scary-looking, though not in a repulsive way. Fact is, I had a hard time tearing myself away from the eyepiece. The spider’s compact body was covered in fine, distinct bristles; its multiple eyes were alert and moist; and although it crouched immobile on the slide, its spindly legs quivered with energy.
Researchers have found that, for most people, arachnophobia is more of a problem than the spiders themselves. Spiders are everywhere, and they aren’t going anywhere. So many of us would do well to swap out our revulsion with a fascination, or at least a wary respect. They are amazing creatures.
In the context of agriculture, spiders are generally on the farmers’ side. They eat insect pests and don’t harm plants. And scientists are also looking into using spider venom as an eco-friendly pesticide.
In my campaign to empathize, I interviewed a few members of my family on their feelings and descriptions of our eight-legged friends, and my sister and father in particular had some lovely qualifiers:
“They’re graceful,” my sister said, “and sort of scary – a little malevolent perhaps, but exotic.”
My father, (who has a healthy respect for hard work since he himself has to get up every day at the crack of dawn) remarked on how industrious they are. “They start all over every day when their work is knocked down. They’re tenacious and indomitable.”
E.B. White, author of the beloved children’s book, Charlotte’s Web, was arguably the first person to make spiders lovable for the general public. In a letter to an acquaintance, he had this to say:
Once you begin watching spiders, you haven’t time for much else—the world is really loaded with them. I do not find them repulsive or revolting, any more than I find anything in nature repulsive or revolting, and I think it is too bad that children are often corrupted by their elders in this hate campaign. Spiders are skillful, amusing and useful. And only in rare instances has anybody ever come to grief because of a spider.
So, as I am learning, we can think of them as role models, allies and clean housemates. But I still don’t like it when they crawl in my bed.