Questions and answers about spiders

Spiders, spiders, everywhere. I get asked a LOT of questions about spiders – from students, friends, neighbors, over twitter, and from journalists. I recently spent some time talking to a journalist in my hometown about spiders in Quebec*, and thought to share the details here! Here’s a copy of some of the Q&A with the journalist:

A beautiful dock spider (photo by Sean McCann)

A beautiful dock spider (photo by Sean McCann)

Q1) Why your obvious fascination with spiders?

Spiders are fascinating because they have remarkable biology and life history, and are certainly as beautiful as all other animals. They are the top predators in their own world, feeding on insects that may cause economic damage to our crops, or catching mosquitoes that seek us out for a blood meal. They build stunning webs, have remarkable diversity of body types and the live almost everywhere on the planet (all terrestrial parts, except the Antarctic). As babies the ‘balloon’ up into the air, and are among the best dispersers in the world – better than many flying insects. They are among the most common animals in ecosystems – we have recorded, for example, that wolf spiders occur in densities of over 1 spider per square m in parts of the Arctic tundra. What’s not to love?

Q2) How long have you been interested in them and why do you think they have a bad rap with so many people ?

I became interested in spiders when I was doing my undergraduate degree at the University of Guelph. A botany Professor there was working on the old cedar trees growing off the cliff faces of the Niagara escarpment, and during one summer he hired me to help with that work. While hanging off cliff faces, I couldn’t help but notice SO MANY SPIDERS and this piqued my curiosity, Professor Larson then allowed me to do a research project in the lab, and I did that project on spiders. Like to many things … a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. As I learned more, I became more and more fascinated by Arachnids, and continued on to do another undergraduate research project on spiders, and it just continued and continued until this day. I have been working with spiders now for over 20 years of my life.

Arachnophobia is real and serious for many people, but in many cases, people are not necessary arachnophobic, but rather have a general (unfounded) loathing for spiders and I believe this is largely because they have not explored their incredible biology and natural history. With education, I find people can shift from fear to curiosity and amazement. There have been studies done that illustrate that the ways that spiders move, and their extra legs, may contribute to a general fear of spiders – in other words, they can surprise us and are so “Leggy” that it causes a startle reaction and this perhaps leads to fear. This is very common in our society, and this feeds a cycle of fear, as our children learn fears from us. There may be some genetic basis to being afraid of spiders, also, and this probably relates to the fact that some spiders are indeed venomous to humans. In this part of the world, however, there are very few spiders of medical importance, and spider bites are exceedingly rare. Although everyone has a story about a spider bite, most of these are not verified, and other more likely causes should be investigated. Misdiagnosis is common in the medical field, also.

Q3) Why are they beneficial in the garden? And, even in moderation I assume, in the home ?

Spiders are beneficial because they eat many insects that themselves can be harmful to our gardens. In our homes they also feed on other insects that live in our homes. Without spiders, we would certainly have more other critters in our house and garden.

A cellar spider, with prey (c) A. Bradford

A cellar spider, with prey (c) A. Bradford

Q4) How many types of spiders do you think we have in this region and what would you estimate their total population to be?

There are over 40,000 different species of spiders in the world, over 3,000 species known in Canada, and over 600 species known from Quebec. That is a LOT of different kinds of spiders! There are certainly more species of spiders in the world than there are mammals or birds. I estimate an average yard in any small town in southern parts of Canada harbour easily 20-30 different species, and our local forests certainly can have over 100 different species.

It’s difficult to estimate population (i.e., how many of each kind of spider), but it’s fair to say that the old saying that you are always within three feet of spider is likely quite accurate, at least when you are in natural environments. The sheer biomass and density of spiders in some parts of the world is truly astounding.

Q5) What are some of the most common kinds of spiders?  What do they do during the winter?

Common spiders in our homes include things like the “Zebra jumper” Salticus scenicus it’s the little black and white jumping spider that is common in our window sills or on the walls of our houses, especially on warm summer days. Many of us have the Cellar spiders Pholcus phalangioides in our houses (they have long, gangly legs, but are not to be confused with “Daddy long legs – aka Harvestmenpersons – they are cousins to spiders, but not actually spiders!). In our gardens in the late summer, we see many individuals of the black-and yellow garden spider Argiope aurantia – it’s very large, with black and yellow striping on its abdomen, stringing up its huge webs in our gardens. Another very common orb-weaving spider, that also matures in the late summer, is Neoscona crucifera. We often see funnel-web or grass spiders (Agelenopsis) on dewy mornings: they can build their sheet-webs (with a funnel retreat at one end) on shrubs or on our lawns, in very high densities – obvious with a heavy layer of dew. We also find Canada’s largest spider in southern Quebec – an impressive animal!

The cute Zebra jumper (By Alex Wild)

The cute and common Zebra jumper (By Alex Wild)

Spiders do various things in the winter – in some cases the egg cases overwinter, and in other cases the spiders overwinter. Most spiders are “freeze avoidant”, meaning that they cannot freeze without dying, so they often adapt by ‘supercooling’ which essentially means they produce antifreeze in their bodies so they will survive below freezing temperatures. Spiders generally find places to hide in the winter, whether it’s in leaf-litter, under rocks, or finding a way into our warm basements.

Q6) Do you have a personal favourite spider?  If so, why, and what is it called?

I really like the ant-mimicking jumping spiders such as Peckhamia pictata  – it occurs in Quebec, and is a marvellous mimic of ants – most people don’t notice it because it fools us by its shape and behaviour – and so very easy to mistake as an ant instead of a spider. There are, in the world, about 300 different species of jumping spiders that mimic ants – a behaviour that is more common in the tropics, but also happens with some species here in the north.

Q7) How long have spiders been around on Earth and how long do spiders, on average, live?

Spiders have been around for perhaps 400 million years, which is a very, very long time. They have been on this planet far longer than us!

In this part of the world, spiders typically live one year, although some larger species may take more than one year to reach adulthood. In captivity spiders can live a very long time – I have a Tarantula named Harriet, in my lab at McGill, and she is approaching 20 years old.

© C.M. Buddle (2015)

*indeed, this Q &A was Quebec-focused, so may not be generalizable to all parts of the world!

Take a survey about science blogging!

Dear readers,

I’ve teamed up with Science Borealis, Dr. Paige Jarreau from Louisiana State University and 20 other Canadian science bloggers, to conduct a broad survey of Canadian science blog readers. Together we are trying to find out who reads science blogs in Canada, where they come from, whether Canadian-specific content is important to them and where they go for trustworthy, accurate science news and information. Your feedback will also help me learn more about my own blog readers.

It will only take 5 minutes to complete the survey. Begin here:

If you complete the survey you will be entered to win one of eleven prizes! A $50 Chapters Gift Card, a $20 surprise gift card, 3 Science Borealis T-shirts and 6 Surprise Gifts! PLUS everyone who completes the survey will receive a free hi-resolution science photograph from Paige’s Photography!

Thanks for taking part!!

Science blogging and science policy

I’m super-excited to be part of a panel later this week*, on science blogging and science policy in Canada. It’s part of the Canadian Science Policy conference happening in Ottawa, and this particular panel is hosted by Science Borealis. This session has broader goals of understanding and strengthening the links between science communication and science policy, and also promises to be interactive and provide perspectives from panelists on effective blogs, and blog writing. It’s also exciting that a blog post will result from this workshop, so the audience can see a product resulting from attending the session (there will also be a Tweet-up in Ottawa on Thursday evening – FUN!)

But wait… Imposter syndrome approaching! Although I blog frequently, what do I know about science policy or about how my blogging activities link to science policy?

Ok, let’s start with science policy, defined by Wikipedia as

Science policy is an area of public policy which is concerned with the policies that affect the conduct of the science and research enterprise, including the funding of science, often in pursuance of other national policy goals such as technological innovation to promote commercial product development, weapons development, health care and environmental monitoring. Science policy also refers to the act of applying scientific knowledge and consensus to the development of public policies.

That helps. Sort of. I should say, the part about applying scientific knowledge to consensus and development of public policies helps, and I think this is where blogging has a big role to play. To me, blogging is a lot about dissemination of research (as a scientist in Canada) or about sharing ideas around science or higher education in Canada. For example, blogging a be writing about a recent paper, or thinking about ways to communicate science at an academic conference.

Blogging can really be an effective way to share stories about science, and when they hit the more main-stream media, this can be one small step towards linking science to policy. As an example, after blogging about our research paper on northern beetles, and in combination with a press release from my University, I believe we were able to effectively share our work with a broad audience. Since this work related directly to ecological monitoring and biodiversity conservation in the Arctic, it can perhaps more easily get into the hands of policy makers when we think about northern development in Canada, especially in the context of climate change.

Blogs can also connect to people st a more emotional level: a blog and tweet about a paper on pseudoscorpions, for example, led to a CBC story about curiosity and passion in science. We need curiously and passion for science. We need kids, school-teachers, naturalists, and retired people to have an interest in science, and enthusiasm for science. If people don’t know about what we do as scientists, how will this be fostered? And, of course, we want voters in Canada to know about our science. Votes lead to exciting shifts in the landscape of science in Canada. Blogging can help!

Finally, it’s important to be reminded that the bulk of my research funding comes from Canadians**, and as such, it is my responsibility to let people know how I spend their money! This information is so valuable and plays into politics and policy development in important ways. I want people to be aware of the wonderful science we are doing in Canada whether it is about a diabetes breakthrough or discovering and describing new species of flies.

I’ll finish with a question: what do YOU think about science blogging and science policy? I value your comments, and will bring them to the session one Friday: please share your ideas and opinions.


*the session will be at 13:30, Friday 27 Nov.

**the bulk of my research funding comes from NSERC, paid for by taxpayers of Canada.

SciArt and SciComm at an entomology conference

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of attending the Entomological Society of Canada’s annual conference, held in Montreal. As usual, it was awesome: it was great to catch up with fiends and colleagues, and to hear about some amazing insect science. There was an active hashtag, too, that you can check it to get a sense of the breadth and depth of entomology in Canada.

A real highlight for me were the amazing conference notes that were sketched by the superbly talented Paul Manning*. I’ve certainly heard of this idea before, and read about how visual note-taking at a conference can provide new insights into the science, and enrich the experience, especially when shared with others. However, seeing this in action was quite special, and I was impressed with how Paul was able to grasp the fundamentals of talks, and draw out the key points. Case in point, check out this sketch of May Berenbaum’s talk on honey bees:


Here’s another example, based on a talk about wasp (Vespula) alarm pheromones, by Sean McCann. Here, Paul guides us through the talk, by using simple arrows, but also uses different coloured boxes to illustrate the ‘introduction’ compared to the ‘methods and results’. The take-home messages are super-clear!


And I am immensely grateful to Paul for doing  a visual sketch of my own talk, about the functional and taxonomic diversity of northern arthropods. It was a dense talk, and covered a range of topics, from ecological monitoring to complex measures used to evaluate functional diversity. Paul captured it very well, and was able to effectively get the main message of the presentation.


In sum, THANK YOU, Paul, for doing this, and illustrating the different ways we think about, draw about, and communicate science, and showing how visual note-taking has immense value. I can imagine Paul will remember those talks long into the future, and he has a permanent record to show for it. Although I dabble in sketching here and there, I’ve yet to give this a try at a scientific conference. I think I ought to bring a sketchbook to my next conference: I’m inspired.


*you can check out more of Paul’s great work on his blog.

How are you doing? Perhaps not “fine”?

When asked “how are you”, many people give a default answer of “fine”. Although that may be true a lot of the time, I worry that not everyone is “fine” all of the time. In my experience, this is especially true at this time of year: the late autumn can be tough on a lot of people, as the semester is no longer new and exciting, and the dark days of November* are ahead.

I’m involved with a lot of initiatives on campus around ‘wellness’ of our community, from mental and physical health, through to trying to best understand our campus resources, and think about ways we can be proactive around well-being. Part of my goal is to increase awareness of services and resources available to everyone, and to ‘check in’ with people as we enter a difficult time of year.

I decided to write a letter to our community, but a member of our communications team suggested a video message may also help to increase awareness. So, here’s the video. It’s low-tech and done without a script, but perhaps the message is relevant to your own community. Please share if that’s the case.


*I personally find November rather tough. A few years ago my amazing and insightful wife suggested I take a photo every day in November, to explore the beauty that the month has to offer. That helped me a lot, and I’m immensely grateful for her suggestion to see beyond the dreariness to embrace colour and texture. Honestly, I think that project helped me with my own mental health, and I no longer dread November to the same degree.


It started with the crickets

It all started with the crickets.

And it got a lot bigger than that.

I couple of weeks ago I received a gift from one of my MSc students – a lovely little tarantula that we affectionately call “Shelob”. My family was reasonably tolerant of this new addition. Shelob is a Chilean Rose-hair, a sort of pet that is sometimes referred to as a pet rock. But it’s a rock that needs feeding, hence the crickets. “Feeder crickets” are crafty little insects and despite my assumption that the terrarium for the crickets was sealed tightly, that was not the case. Unfortunately we had guests over for the weekend, and they were unimpressed by the cheeping crickets from under their bed in the middle of the night. And my teenage son was very angry one morning, having been woken up a bit too early by crickets in his bedroom*. The crickets were everywhere:


Crickets: Everywhere

Crickets: Everywhere


I'm not the only one with a cricket problem.

I’m not the only one with a cricket problem.

Living with an Entomologist (or Arachnologist) can be a challenge. It requires our partners / families / roommates / friends to be very tolerant of some odd behaviours. In my experience entomologists really know how to bring their work home with them. Our field of study is a passion that moves beyond the research lab or field site. It’s a passion that means we need to have sweep nets at home as well as at work, and most entomologists I know have a vial (or two) in their pocket, so they can collect their study specimens wherever they are (although we sometimes forget). This means, by extension, that our freezers at home become a place for frozen food AND dead insects. This is clearly something that is shared with entomologists around the world (which means, of course, that there are thousands and thousands of freezers in homes that act has a short-term specimen storage location as well as a place for ice cream and frozen peas – that may either impress you, or creep you out).

A typical freezer: note the food AND the vials with dead insects.

A typical freezer: note the food AND the vials with dead insects.

Another generality that emerges from these Tweets is that our partners, friends and/or families often have to be our ‘helpers’: holding up a thumb for scale, being a good landing spot for mosquitoes, or holding various entomological equipment while we scramble on hands and knees to grab that elusive specimen.


Holidays? They sure are fun when living with an entomologist…

The division between “work” and “play” is a difficult one to make for entomologists: there is a single-minded joy associated with collecting our study species, no matter where you are (honeymoon?) and no matter the time of day. It’s actually quite fun to run around the backyard with a sweep net, chasing *that* butterfly. A few years ago I recall seeing a very lovely butterfly heading from my backyard to the front yard – I was barbequing (in bare-feet) at the time – thankfully the trusty sweep net was right next to the house. I made a dash for it, hooting and hollering the whole time. The butterfly was quick – so much so that it was about 200 ft up the street before I collected it. My neighbors then became very well aware of what I “do”: the barefoot entomologist.

The final personal anecdote I will share is the “Specimens on the doorstep” phenomenon, shared among many entomologists: once you are known as the “bug person” in your town or city, BEWARE – people will drop off mason jars with odd critters in them. You know, the beetle that is eating Samantha’s roses, or the ant found in a neighbor’s dishwasher. So often I come home and one of my kids says to me “Dad – there’s another jar for you on the kitchen table”. I guess this isn’t all that normal…?

Fire ants at the foot of the bed. Oh my.

Fire ants at the foot of the bed. Oh my.

The hashtag #LivingWithAnEntomologist certainly took off: It’s clear that this concept hit a nerve, and that my own observations were actually quite general. SO many people tweeted their stories about what it’s like to live with an entomologist. Thank you to a most wonderful community of friends and colleagues.

To my dear and loving family: I’m sorry (But not really).

Cheep cheep.


* Note: I have some minor hearing loss, and despite EVERYONE telling me about chirping crickets in our house, I just don’t hear them. Lucky me, I suppose.

Spiderday (the seventh)

Welcome to spiderday. THE place to get all the stories about arachnids, from the past week. And boy oh boy it was a good week!

Let’s get started:

A spider from Singapore: it vibrates its web at high speed if it's threatened. Wow.

A spider from Singapore: it vibrates its web at high speed if it’s threatened. Wow. Photo by Chthoniid, reproduced here with permission.

A spider of sorts.

A spider of sorts.

A mitey good pun.

A mitey good pun.