This story was originally published in September 2018.
Some people believe author E.B. White may have based the title character in the classic children’s book, Charlotte’s Web, on a species of orb spiders living in his Maine barn.
Members of the family Araneidae, orb spiders are also called “writing” or “scribbling” spiders due to their behavior of spinning decorations into their webs.
“That’s exactly what Charlotte did,” said Kathy Murray, entomologist with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. “No one knows if [E.B. White] actually based her on spiders in his barn, but he did live in Maine and he’d have had orb spiders in that barn.”
In the book, Charlotte saves her best friend, a piglet named Wilbur, from slaughter by weaving or writing messages like “Some Pig” or “Terrific” in her web above his pen in the barn.
In reality, while orb spiders do weave intricate patterns into their webs, those patterns do not include words or pithy statements in support of other animals.
Why real life orb spiders decide to weave such complex patterns into their webs is a bit of a mystery, but Murray said it most likely has to do with mating.
“It’s the females who spin and weave the webs, and it could be it’s designed to attract a male spider to mate,” Murray said. “Of course, once they mate, she eats the male, so it’s also a way of getting some extra protein.”
Whether it’s for mating or saving fictional friends, an orb spider’s web can be an impressive site, with some reaching diameters close to 2 feet.
A favorite place for orb spiders to build is between posts and ceilings of porches on homes, and that can result in a bit of a fright to people heading out the door and running full on into a web.
“I really don’t like that much myself,” Murray said. “But they won’t hurt you.”
For some, the experience of hitting a web or just seeing one of the more than 300 species of spiders known to live in Maine can be far more than a simple startle reaction.
Arachnophobia is very real
“A lot of people are bothered by spiders, but in mental health we differentiate between if it’s a phobia or a fear,” said Dr. David Prescott of Acadia Hospital in Bangor. “One out of 10 people meet the diagnosis of a phobia, but for just a very small percentage of that group will that phobia be bad enough to disrupt their lives.”
Forty percent of phobias are related to bugs with the fear of spiders — known as arachnophobia — holding the top spot, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
“Our body’s fear responses are hardwired in,” Prescott said. “When that response is triggered it can come out in a big way, [and] it’s the same as we humans had back when we had to run from saber-toothed tigers.”
Children can also learn the fear of spiders by watching how adults react when confronted by one, he said.
That response will present in the desire to run, attack or freeze up, Prescott said.
When it comes to spiders, people may do all three by freezing when first encountering one of the eight-legged creatures before putting as much distance between themselves and the spider, and finally returning with a rolled up newspaper to kill it.
“That could be part of our built in response,” Prescott said. “There are those who theorize that from an evolutionary perspective we learned to freak out at the really creepy, crawly things that could be poisonous.”
Maine’s spiders are harmless
None of Maine’s resident spiders produce venom that is fatal to humans, Murray said, but any spider is capable of biting if they are picked up and pinched or otherwise mishandled.
“But even that is rare,” she said.
Few people like to see spiders or cobwebs inside their homes, Murray said, but in limited numbers spiders can be helpful roommates since they capture and eat other bugs.
“If you don’t love to see them in your home, you can just escort them outside,” Murray said. “To keep them out, try to eliminate any other insects that are in your house because that is why [spiders] are coming in the first place.”
The easiest method is to vacuum up any insects inside a home and then make sure to seal up any cracks or holes in the walls through which bugs could be coming in.
“I don’t mind having them inside,” Murray said. “I know they are not doing any harm.”
In fact, spiders are quite beneficial to Maine’s ecosystems, she said.
“I would say they are essential,” Murray said. “They really help to keep things in balance [because] they are such important predators on insects.”
Still, to people with a real fear of spiders, the real life role spiders play in the ecosystem, or the fictional ones they have in children’s stories, are cold comfort.
But Prescott said there is hope for them.
“Phobias are really treatable,” he said. “The primary treatments work with behaviors and gradually getting close to that thing you fear, like spiders and learning coping skills.”
As for Prescott, he admits to not being a fan of insects.
“I’m the one who freaks out when a moth flies into the house,” he said with a laugh. “I’m not fond of spiders, but I will capture them and let them go back outside, [and] my coping skill is the thought that they are eating the other bugs.”