Entomologist Rick Vetter is enjoying his retirement. The extra time allows him to pursue spider research free from the distraction of what he considers the less fascinating six-legged species that most of his colleagues study. Vetter understands that not everyone shares his passion for eight-legged creatures. But he was surprised to learn that some entomologists actually have a serious aversion to them.
Vetter first began noticing spider antipathy among certain entomologists during his career as a researcher at the University of California, Riverside. When he pulled out a live brown recluse spider sealed in a bag at lunch one day, for example, he recalls looking up to find that an aquatic entomologist colleague he was having lunch with had “‘vaporized’—I’m talking, in less than five seconds she had disappeared down the hall.” During fieldwork, another entomologist he collaborated with was fond of warning, “Don’t go over there, there are spiders!” And still another once leapt back when Vetter popped the lid on a black widow’s container, “like the spider was going to decapitate him.”
Although spiders and insects both belong to the same animal phylum—the arthropods—for some insect-lovers, Vetter realized, those extra two legs make a difference. Intrigued, he decided to conduct a survey of arachnophobic entomologists. He contacted the journal American Entomologist and an insect listserv and arranged to publish a query seeking professional entomologists who regularly handle whole-bodied, living arthropods and admit to having negative feelings about spiders. He received 41 qualifying responses, and asked those people to fill out a standardized psychology test called the Fear of Spiders Questionnaire as well as answer a few additional questions.
According to the survey results, most of the respondents’ spider aversions qualified as a mild dislike, but some scored in the range of full-blown, clinically diagnosable and debilitating phobias, as Vetter described in an article published in American Entomologist. “I thought Vetter’s study was quite illuminating in the sense that I didn’t expect to see those reactions in many colleagues,” says Gene Kritsky, an entomologist at the College of Mount Saint Joseph in Cincinnati and editor in chief of American Entomologist. Kritsky admits to occasionally being “startled” by large wolf spiders that cling to his office walls, but says the arachnids otherwise do not bother him.
The participants also ranked their like and dislike of 30 animals from a list including slugs, cockroaches, rats, mosquitoes and snakes. Spiders came in 29th place—just behind ticks as the most-hated creature. Rather than a fear of venom alone driving this aversion, the entomologists frequently cited spiders’ many legs and the “unsettling” and “unexpected” ways they move as the primary reasons for detesting the animals. More than 20 percent thought spiders were "disgusting and ugly," although none ranked spiders as "filthy," demonstrating an awareness that spiders do not act as vectors for disease—unlike many of their own insect research subjects. “Think of the diversity of insects—butterflies, mantids, grasshoppers, beetles, caddis flies, mosquitoes,” Vetter says. “There are all of these different creatures with varying shapes, forms and morphologies, and yet show some entomologists a spider and they cannot assimilate that it’s just another insectoid kind of creature.”
As with many phobics, most of the entomologists traced their fears back to a traumatic childhood experience. In anonymous confessions included in the paper one researcher recalls witnessing a spider egg sack hatch on her bed; two others cite being tormented by a father or older sister with a live spider; another describes running face-first into an orb weaver web when he was a child; and still others remember warnings from parents that spiders are dangerous.
Although many of the entomologists acknowledged that their paradoxical fears are not rationally founded, some go to great lengths to avoid spiders and spider-related encounters. Some purposefully steer clear of colleagues' spider posters in university hallways and opt against getting professional help because spiders may be part of the therapy. One arthropod collections manager at a museum said visiting in the spider room still gives her “the jeebies,” although she knows the specimens are dead. “Even filling out the survey creeped me out,” she wrote.
Finally, several of the entomologists who participated in the study said they took solace knowing they were not the only insect experts harboring secret arachnophobia. “This study is not going to change the world, it’s just a fun curiosity to know that you have people out there who work with insects in their lives, yet have the same phobic responses as people in the general public do,” Vetter says.
“It makes you wonder how many people in medical school have a fear of shots,” Kritsky adds.