All About Spiders in America

Learn all about spiders, and arachnophobes beware, arachnids are everywhere!

The Black Widow

The Black Widow is the most common poisonous spider in the United States.

iStockphoto.com/Mark Kostich

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They’re everywhere! Lurking in your house and garden. Crawling about your garage and toolshed. Hiding in your woodpile. Spinning their webs in the corrals, the barn and the henhouse. Fearsome-looking creatures with eight legs, six or eight eyes, and fangs! What are they? SPIDERS! Read on to learn all about spiders in America.

If the very sight of a spider sends you fleeing in terror, you’re not alone. Some researchers claim the fear of spiders – also known as arachnophobia – is one of the most common phobias, and that half of all women and 10 percent of all men suffer from it. If spiders give you the willies, then the very idea that there are 2,500 species in North America alone (and 38,000 known species of spiders worldwide) probably sends chills down your spine.

While you might not want to share your home with them, some species of spiders seem to find their way indoors. There’s a good chance you’ve found web-builders like cobweb spiders and cellar spiders in your closets, attic or basement. And it’s not uncommon to find a daddy long-legs ambling around the living room floor (although the daddy long-legs, or Harvestman, is not a spider at all, but a harmless second cousin to the spider family). My wife and I readily dispatch most spiders we find in the house, but are careful to pick up and deposit outside any daddy long-legs we discover.

Spiders eat what?

Nearly all spiders are carnivores, which means they won’t harm your flowers or vegetables. In fact, most species of spiders are considered a beneficial addition to gardens, orchards and crop fields. They feed on mosquitoes, flies, mites, crickets, grasshoppers, beetle larvae and other destructive insects. Lacking teeth, spiders cannot eat solid food. Instead, they use venom to kill or paralyze their prey. The venom is transported through a duct in their fangs, and digestive enzymes are regurgitated to liquefy the prey. The spider then sucks in the pre-digested liquid food as sort of a bug-juice milkshake.

Some of the most common garden spiders include Grass spiders, Orb Web Weavers, Long-jawed spiders, Cobweb Weavers, Wolf spiders, Sac spiders, Crab spiders and Jumping spiders (now there’s a name guaranteed to grab an arachnophobe’s attention!).

Some years ago, a horde of voracious grasshoppers descended on the tomato plants beside our home near an orchard overlooking Washington state’s Yakima Valley. Each day I’d go out to see if our plants had survived another day, and one morning I discovered that a large spider had built an elaborate web stretching between two of the plants. Ms. Spider had already trapped one sizable grasshopper and was busy wrapping it in spider silk. My wife soon became entranced by the spider’s dining habits, and started catching and tossing grasshoppers into the web just to watch the “gift wrapping” process. As quick as a cowboy hog-tying a steer in the rodeo arena, that spider trapped, wrapped and consumed dozens of grasshoppers in the following weeks.

Some spiders have eyes (eight of ’em, remember) bigger than their stomach. The Fishing spider (Dolomedes) catches and feeds on small fish. The Wolf spider and other members of the Lycosid family have been known to kill and feed on minnows, lizards and tadpoles. The Goliath bird-eating tarantula, the largest of all spiders, reaching a foot in length with fangs up to two inches long, has been documented killing and eating birds in the tropics. And the females of some
species, including the Wolf spider and the aptly named Black Widow, are known to kill and eat their mates. Why? According to researchers, because they’re hungry – and because they can.

While all species of spiders produce “silk” through a group of fingerlike spinnerets at the tip of their abdomen, not all of them construct webs. The silk they produce is used to make egg sacs, to capture and hold prey, to create shelters, to transfer sperm during mating, and even to create a sort of spider parasail. Web-building and orb-weaving spiders often create highly elaborate webs designed to trap future meals. Other species, such as the Wolf spider, are runners that chase down their prey.

Look before you reach

Most spider fangs are too small or too weak to penetrate human skin, and their venom is not strong enough to harm us. But there are a few species of spiders found in the United States that can pose a health threat to humans. They include the Black Widow, the Brown Recluse, the Hobo spider and the Sac spider. And while most of them are very shy and prefer to avoid human confrontation, they will bite if they, their eggs or their young are threatened.

Black Widows, the most common poisonous spider in the United States, have long legs and black or dark brown bodies, and are most commonly found in dark, secluded spots – barns, woodpiles and grain bins. The female is the poisonous one and is easily identified by the red hourglass marking on her abdomen.

The Brown Recluse, most commonly found from the Midwest to Mexico and as far east as Georgia, also injects venom from its fangs, and can cause serious tissue damage at the site. The Brown Recluse is sometimes called the Violin Spider because of the distinct violin-shaped marking on its back. They, like the Black Widow, prefer dark, secluded places, such as corners and crevices, woodpiles, chests, attics, basements and window wells, beneath rocks, and occasionally in that long unworn shirt hanging deep in the closet.

Experts say Sac spiders likely cause more bites than any other type of spider, and their bites are often misdiagnosed as Brown Recluse bites. Typical symptoms of a Sac or Hobo spider bite include a stinging sensation followed by redness, mild swelling and occasional blisters. The best way to avoid being bitten is to look before you stick your hand in a place where spiders are likely to be found.

Even if you do have a fear of spiders, things could be worse. If you’re a gardener, you probably don’t suffer from agoraphobia – the fear of wide, open spaces. If snakes don’t bother you, then ophidiophobia isn’t a problem. If you have a dog, you likely don’t suffer from cynophobia. And if you’re willing to board a plane and fly to a conference where you’ll deliver a presentation, then you’re likely immune to aerophobia, acrophobia and glossophobia – the fear of public speaking.

And before you destroy the next spider you see, consider the important role they play in the ecosystem. By one estimate, spiders of the world consume more than 1.8 billion pounds of insects per day. Even Little Miss Muffet would be impressed! 

Jerry Schleicher is a former glossophobe who credits Toastmasters with helping him overcome his fear of public speaking.