Crawlies, Un-creeped: the Truth Behind Your Arthropod Phobias

Here’s a task for you: try to rid your audience of their phobias by taking up-close photos of some of the creepiest bugs in our collection. Some are venomous, some do bite, but as usual, none of them want to hurt humans. Any bite or sting in the world of arthropods is an act of self-protection. Unless, of course, you’re prey…

Let’s start with insects. Take a look at this guy (or girl, rather).bug12

This is a female giant Asian mantis, Hierodula membranacea. With her spiny forelegs used for catching prey and her habit of devouring other bugs alive (not to mention her tiny pupils that look right at you), she seems pretty creepy. And she’s big at about five inches long and flies! But she’s not poisonous, doesn’t bite, and is practically harmless. In Asia, mantises are revered for their patience and hunting prowess, and are kept as pets. Creep factor: 4. Real danger: 0.

Now how about this big beetle?bug10

Size alone might keep you from allowing the Atlas beetle, Chalcosoma atlas, to crawl all over you, but it’s a beautiful and fascinating species. Its elytra or wing sheaths on its abdomen are incredibly strong and have a green iridescence. Its inch-long horns pose no threat to humans, but the beetle does use them to fight other beetles for mates. The front horn is attached to its head and is mobile, while the hind pair are attached to its thorax and remain still. Creep factor: 2.5. Real danger: 0.

Now let’s look at some roaches.


I’ll be honest. These are my great phobia. Madagascar hissing cockroaches, Gromphadorhina portentosa, emit a sound when threatened, but they are harmless. In spite of their creepiness, they are some of the oldest and most vital insects on Earth, acting as a clean-up crew that will eat just about anything, turning waste into nutrients that plants can use. Roach species keep themselves immaculately clean and will not hurt you, and these ones don’t even fly. Cockrell Butterfly Center Director Nancy Greig finds these little guys cute and cuddly, and I’m trying hard to see them through her eyes. One day, Nancy. One day… Creep factor: 6.5 (according to Jason). Real danger: 0.

Check this out.bug13

The white-eyed assassin bug, Platymeris biguttatus, is the first on the list that can harm humans. It injects venomous saliva into its prey, moves quickly, and flies. They stalk other insects, pounce and bite in a flash, then suck the fluids out of their victims. Assassin bugs are true bugs in that they belong to the insect order Hemiptera and are mainly characterized by their mouthparts which are modified for piercing and sucking. Their bite is more painful than a bee sting. Pretty creepy, but what you don’t touch can’t hurt you. I’d say they’re more awesome than scary. Creep factor: 4.5. Real danger: 2.5.

As they say, go big or go home. Take a look at this!


This strange-looking fella is a giant jungle nymph, Heteropteryx dilatata. No lie, it’s big. About eight inches of spiny legs, long antennae and small wings. When you touch its back, it fluffs its wings, emits a noise that sounds like a ratcheting wrench, and arches its abdomen like a scorpion to make itself appear larger. Here’s an example:


While the insect is harmless, this display can be intimidating for those unfamiliar with the species. Creep factor: 4.5. Real danger: 0.

Here’s another big guy.


This female spiny devil, Eurycantha calcarata, is less aggressive than the male of her species, which has pronounced spines on its back legs. When disturbed or seized by a predator, this seven-inch-long insect thrashes its abdomen back and forth, using its spines to injure its enemies. Since our skin is much softer than its exoskeleton, the spiny devil can inflict a nasty puncture wound without biting or stinging. Creep factor: 3.5. Real danger: 1.5.

Now let’s move on to arachnids.bug9

Boom. Burn the house down. If you’re arachnophobic, there’s nothing more frightful than the goliath bird-eater tarantula, Theraphosa blondi. This tarantula, named Birdie, is locally famous for her size — about seven inches across, much larger than the palm of your hand — and her feistiness. Like many tarantulas, when threatened, Birdie scrapes tiny barbed hairs from her abdomen which can irritate and blind the eyes of mammals and other predators. She has venomous fangs, eight legs and two pedipalps for snatching her victims. You wouldn’t want to pick her up. However, she is a beautiful specimen with her mocha-colored fluff, and her athleticism as a predator is remarkable. This girl lives up to her name and can occasionally prey on birds in the wild. And like any spider, she won’t hurt you if you don’t mess with her. Creep factor: 9. Real danger: 4.

While we’re on the subject of tarantulas…


How about this well-fed Costa Rican curly-hair, Brachypelma albopilosum? Unlike the goliath bird-eater, the curly-hair is much more docile, but no less efficient at catching and envenomating her prey. I wouldn’t pick one up in the wild, but our entomologists handle this spider, named Peanut, on a regular basis with very little trouble. Creep factor: 8. Real danger: 2.

Last tarantula, but certainly not least… 


You arachnophobes are probably like, jeez, how many tarantulas does the world need? This Chilean rose-hair tarantula, Grammostola rosea, is more docile than the curly-hair. In the right light, the fur on her cephalothorax glows with a red iridescence, plus she’s cute and cuddly. She still has fangs, though. Always respect the fangs. Creep factor: 7. Real danger: 2.

Now for some little guys.


Size isn’t a factor with this famous creep-tastic black widow spider, Latrodectus mactans, but her bite is potentially deadly to humans. Symptoms of a black widow bite can include localized pain and swelling around the bite, muscle cramps, tremors, abdominal pain and vomiting. If you think you have been bitten by a black widow, seek medical treatment. The red hourglass shape on the underside of her abdomen is an advertisement for danger, but it also allows us to easily identify the spider if a bite does occur. These shiny, black arachnids hide in crevices away from humans, but can occupy places like barns and sheds and can be aggressive around their egg sacs. I’d say the danger here outweighs this spider’s creepiness. But yet again, they are good at what they do, have evolved a powerfully efficient venom, and won’t hurt you if you don’t disturb them. And she’s like a little black pearl with legs. Creep factor: 6.5. Danger: 9.

Let’s look at another small-but-deadly spider.


The brown recluse, Loxosceles reclusa, prefers dark places to hide in, similar to the black widow, and their venom is just as formidable, though they are non-aggressive and only bite when threatened, usually when pressed up against a victim’s skin. Their venom, used to catch their prey, contains enzymes that break down skin, fat, and blood vessels in humans, leading to localized necrotic tissue if left untreated, serious medical conditions and eventually death. If bitten, seek medical attention. You can recognize a brown recluse by the violin shape on its cephalothorax, which is pretty cool if you ask me. For this reason alone, I’d call the brown recluse the classiest and most musical of spiders. Who else garbs themselves in classical instruments? Creep factor: 6. Real danger: 7. 

Finally, and most creepily, look at the adaptations on this guy!


To my eye, whipscorpions, Mastigoproctus giganteus, are about as creepy as it gets. It’s big at around four inches in length, has eight legs and a pair of pinchers, and a whip-like tail in place of a stinger. They are carnivorous, feeding on millipedes, slugs, and even cockroaches (which makes them my friends, of course). While some species of whipscorpions can exude an acidic compound when threatened, which smells like vinegar, they are harmless to humans. Plus, look at how awesome they are! They’re like the Indiana Jones of arachnids! Creep factor: 10. Real danger: 0.

Visit the Cockrell Butterfly Center to see these creepy arthropods in action and learn more about their unique and fascinating adaptations.



Is that a Brown Recluse??

Adult Male Jumping Spider Hiding in Leaves - (Habronattus coecatus)
Creative Commons License photo credit: Opo Terser
adorable jumping spider

Poor, poor spiders! People are always saying “I hate spiders,” “I’m arachnophobic,” and “I kill any spiders I see!” Hearing these things just breaks my heart! Spiders are some of the most feared and completely misunderstood creatures in the world. 50% of  women and 10% of men have at least a mild case of arachnophobia, and even more claim that they do. I find that most people will tell me that they have arachnophobia, but after being coaxed to pet my 15 year old tarantula Rosie, they become absolutely fascinated by spiders!

Arachnophobia is a real, irrational fear that can cause panic attacks in people who are afflicted, but most people don’t actually have it! My uncle, for example, claimed to be so afraid of and grossed out by spiders. One day, he noticed a large St.  Andrews Cross spider residing outside of his office window. At first he was repulsed, but after a little research, he found out that it was harmless, beneficial, and actually quite attractive. He then started asking me questions about it and now this self -proclaimed bug-hater is buying lady bug kits for his 5 year old daughter. I’m so proud!

The Business End

Creative Commons License photo credit:

Why do so many people fear spiders? Possibly because it’s learned from our parents, or because of the way they are portrayed in movies and on TV, or maybe it’s just the way they look! Whatever it is, just a little bit of knowledge can go a long way in helping you get over your fear. Probably the most feared spider in the United States is the brown recluse. This poor little spider has found itself caught in the middle of a string of urban myths which have led to the deaths of tons of innocent spiders!

How bad is a brown recluse bite? It can kill you! It will make your body parts fall off! It will scar you for life! False, false, and false! The brown recluse, as evidenced by it’s name, is a very shy and reclusive spider. They are not aggressive and certainly don’t seek out anything to bite that cannot be it’s prey. They have extremely small fangs that cannot bite through clothing. In fact, they have a heck of a time biting unless they are smushed up against your skin. This is often the case when people are actually bitten by these spiders. They roll over onto it in a bed, it gets tangled up in clothing or shoes, whatever it is, they will only bite in response to pressure that they can’t escape from. But don’t be afraid of your bedding, clothes, and shoes all of a sudden! Recluses seek shelter in undisturbed areas, so best to check or wash your guest room bedding before people stay with you, and shake out those shoes or clothes you haven’t worn in years!

Actual brown recluse bites are extremely rare and the large majority of bites heal fine with no need for medical intervention at all. Bites are misdiagnosed all of the time even by medical professionals! There are tons of other conditions that have very similar symptoms to a brown recluse bite, including, but not limited to: Staphylococcus infections, gangrene, herpes, diabetic ulcer, fungal infection, chemical burns, dermatitis, squamous cell carcinoma, vasculitis, syphilis, toxic epidermal necrolysis, sporotrichosis, and lyme disease or other insect bites. Conditions such as these are way more likely to be the culprit if you find yourself with necrosis of the skin.

Approximately 80% of bites are misdiagnosed and can prevent proper treatment of what could be a serious disease. There HAVE been cases reported of significant reactions and even deaths associated with actual brown recluse bites, but usually only with the very young, elderly, or people with a weak immune system. All in all, the chances of you getting a bite and having any severe reaction are extremely slim. The best thing to do is exercise caution when dealing with old linens, shoes, clothing, boxes, and other things that have been undisturbed for quite some time. Other insects and other arachnids such as scorpions can also make homes of these things, so better safe than sorry!

People often think that every spider they see is a brown recluse, because they fear getting close enough to properly identify them.

Here are some tips to help you figure out that the spider you’re looking at is NOT a brown recluse…

– It is in a web: recluses often line their hiding places with an irregular web, but they are active hunters that do not use a web to catch prey. If you see a web outside or even in a corner of your house, there is no brown recluse in it.  House and cellar spiders are commonly seen in your home, but don’t be afraid of them. They are harmless and can actually eat brown recluses. If I have a small web in the corner of my home, I leave it be!

– It is a very large spider: the brown recluse is a medium to small spider, usually about the size of a dime or nickel at the largest. They are not very big at all!

– Brown recluses are not native to your state: They are not found all over the United States. If you live along the west coast, the east coast, or in the far north, you do not have them!

– It has colorful markings or patterns: The brown recluse is just that, brown! Their color can range from very light to darker tan, but they have very few marks. The violin shaped marking on their head can be darker than the rest of their body, or close to the same color and their abdomens have no markings.

– It has 8 eyes: the brown recluse is a sicariid spider meaning it has only 6 eyes. They are arranged in pairs in a specific pattern.

– You are seeing it!: again, they stay hidden during the day and hunt at night. Most people will never see a brown recluse in their lifetime!

spider 006
Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
Not a brown recluse!

There are lots of spiders that resemble the brown recluse. Several have markings similar to the violin marking. Many have a similar body shape. Others also have similar eye number and arrangement.

So what is the best way to identify a brown recluse? Practice! We always have one on display here at the Cockrell Butterfly Center, be sure to look at her closely next time you visit. There are several pictures online as well as pictures of spiders that are often mistaken for them.

If you find a suspicious spider in your home, bring it in for an identification, we’d be happy to look at it for you. If we do identify it as a brown recluse, remember not to panic, your home could be overrun with them and you will still probably never be bitten.

I hope I’ve shed some light on this shy little spider. We can all live with spiders, they shouldn’t be feared, but respected. They are largely harmless, shy, beneficial, and some are out of this world gorgeous! So until next time, happy bug watching!

An actual Brown Recluse

Photo From You : Insect Identification

This week we have a very interesting photo which has come all the way from Maryland! Anthony Prushinski found this medium sized brown spider at the bottom of his pool.


An unidentified spider and a dime at the bottom of a

Thank you Anthony for the photo, unfortunately, I don’t think I can be all that helpful with this one! I cannot see clearly enough to identify the species. I can, however, tell you what it is not! I imagine you may be worried that you have found a Brown Recluse. Although the body shape, color, and legs are similar, this is not a Brown Recluse! Considering the size of the spider, my best guess would be some sort of Wolf Spider. Wolf Spiders can be large and may look intimidating, but they are non-agressive and harmless.

I would like to take this opportunity to share with you guys what we look for in a photo to properly identify your questionable critters. Most people know when they come accross a ladybug, or a honeybee, but odds are, if you don’t know what the heck it is, we’re going to have to look very closely at it to identify it. Close-up photos are best and the clearer the better. We’d like to tell you the exact species and many times there are very obscure qualities that separate the species from all the rest. Many spiders look alike, so with these guys we need to be able to see thinge like colors, patterns, eye arrangement, length and arrangement of legs, ect… . If you’re not able to get a clear picture, or the bug is too small, feel free to bring it to the Butterfly Center (or mail it)! We have microscopes, keys, books, and all kinds of other resources here to help us out.

Right now we are in prime bug time. It’s hot and everyone is a flutter with activity. It is a wonderful time to get outside, go for a nice walk and snap some pictures. We hope you keep them coming!

Happy bug watching!