spider wasp

When my wife told me it’s not uncommon to encounter large spiders in the home in Australia, the thought of it stayed with me, lurking in the back of my mind for years as we planned to move here. Oh, did I mention I don’t like spiders?

I know. If I have a problem with spiders, I didn’t choose a very good place to migrate. But I’m not sure if I’m really arachnophobic. Fear is not quite the word for what spiders make me feel. I fear drowning, or being run over by an SUV. My feelings about spiders are much more vague and diffuse, a sickening sensation. Sometimes when I enter a dark space where they might be found, my imagination (which seems located on my skin) takes over. The creeps is the most simple and eloquent description for this state. It’s something I suffer quietly. If you were with me you might not notice my increased heartrate and hesitant movements.

Anyway it doesn’t really interfere with my life. But it’s there in the corner somewhere. It’s something I think about, maybe more than other people. Morbid fascination is part of it.

There are spiders common throughout Australia called huntsmen. These are just the spiders Amo was referring to. They are pretty big, a couple of inches or more, with splayed, crablike legs. They look something like little tarantulas.

As their name suggests, huntsmen are one of many kinds of spiders found in every part of the world that roam about looking for prey rather than building webs. It so happens these are the ones I have always hated to be around. The orange or yellow-and-black orb-weavers don’t bother me at all, as long as they stay on their webs. I can even find them almost pleasant, if not exactly cute. On the other hand the hunting spiders — usually grey or black or brown and often, uh, furry — are the ones that creep in sheds and woodpiles and dark corners. The ones that go looking for trouble. The spiders most likely to appear in the bathroom at two in the morning.

Needless to say I’ve been wondering how I’ll handle having huntsmen in my life on a regular basis.

Australians will inevitably point out that huntsmen are harmless. True enough. They rarely bite people, and their venom is not enough to cause serious harm. (And there are, of course, other horrifically dangerous spiders to worry about here; that’s another story.) But the way spiders make me feel has little to do with how poisonous they are or aren’t.

Once I trapped a relatively large black widow found in a box of organic grapes. My arachnophobia did not come into play, maybe because I was facing the situation with a purpose (and a pair of gloves). The adrenaline I felt was natural and sensible; it had to do with real danger. I might have felt the same way around a rabid dog or a loaded gun.

No, arachnophobia, the kind that I have anyway, is all about the creepy way even harmless spiders move, how they seem to come out of nowhere. The unseen or imagined: something that takes place in my mind while getting in bed in the dark. It’s how a harmless little animal can be the stuff of nightmares.

I’ve always loved learning about nature, especially animals. I’ve read a lot about spiders since I was a boy. The idea that intellectual knowledge will help arachnophobia has no bearing on me. I appreciate them. They are remarkable creatures. I don’t want them in my bedroom.

The day we arrived here in Sydney, Amo and I decided to take a walk in the afternoon to prevent jetlag. There’s a big park with extensive bushland and hiking trails about ten minutes’ walk from our North Shore home. (One of the great things about life here — even in the city, there’s more nature than people know what to do with.) As we were stepping through a wooded housing area close to the park, something on the ground caught our eye. There was a brilliant flash of yellow and movement across our path. The next thing I knew a large huntsman was right in front of me. I froze, and stared at it, with my pulse quickened slightly, making sure it could not get close enough to me to come in contact — the same familiar reaction I have whenever I see a spider. Only I realized the huntsman was not walking, but was being dragged along by a huge, wicked-looking wasp.

I knew about spider wasps, of course, but had never seen one in action. She was quite a sight: brutally hauling her prey by the face, at impressive speed. Her yellow markings gleamed fiercely in the afternoon sun, offset by an intense, chromelike midnight blue. The unfortunate spider was rather limp, already subdued by the wasp’s own venom, utterly helpless. If you know anything about these wasps, you know that the spider was not dead, and that an awful fate awaited it.

I didn’t take this picture, but this is exactly what I saw (except on the ground, not a fence). The scale is fairly accurate. Note the casual great strength of the wasp in carrying the deadweight of the huntsman up the vertical surface.

Spider wasps are badasses. They’re the Bengal tigers of the insect world, the queens of their own little jungles. They hunt the hunters. They’re painted like race cars. Just look at the wasp in this picture — she looks like a machine, like a biomechanical weapon.

I just couldn’t believe it. There I was on the very day I landed here, stepping into the bush, quietly wondering when my first unpleasant encounter with a spider would take place, and knowing I would eventually just have to get over it. But of all things, I had this vision: my nemesis, my little nightmare, in the clutches of a cruel enemy.

Does it mean something? Does it signal an opportunity for sympathy, a path to even more understanding for the little buggers?

Or maybe the spider wasp is my new power animal.


3 comments so far

  1. Hallee on

    hmmmm…I may not be the first sibling to visit you.

  2. Amo on

    Glad the orb weavers don’t scare you – we are utterly surrounded by them. The giant web across the street is quite a sight in the morning dew.

  3. redback « outernational on

    […] that are dismayingly common here), I had only seen one — and that one was being subdued by a spider wasp. For a couple of months they occupied my mind in anticipation; I kept expecting one to jump out at […]

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