How we decorate our offices says a lot about who we are. Maybe you put up cute family photos and a bumper sticker that reads “Must Love Dogs.” Or maybe, just maybe, you fill your shelves with an entomologist Barbie, a venomous P. Metallica tarantula, a king snake named Severus, and a hognose snake that goes by Brutus, plus assorted roaches, mealworms, and spiders. Black and brown widow spiders, to be exact. Luckily for me, when I step into the office in Nacogdoches that holds these things, all of the potentially hazardous creatures are safely enclosed in containers. Well, almost all of them.
“That’s my monitor spider,” says Ashley Wahlberg, as she shows me around her space in the biology building on the Stephen F. Austin State University campus. She assures me that the spider that has spun its web across the back of her computer is just a common house spider, a species that is “very loyal” to its preferred location and won’t venture far. As if that’s a good thing.
Wahlberg, a second-year PhD student in forestry who has become known as “the spider lady” around town, focuses her research on non-native brown widows, which have an orange or yellow hourglass marking, as opposed to a black widow’s red one. Brown widow venom is technically more potent than the black widow’s, but its bite is less harmful to humans. That’s because brown widows release much less neurotoxin than black widows do, on the rare occasions when they bite at all. Usually, if a brown widow is scared, it’ll just curl up into a little ball. Wahlberg is especially interested in how the species interacts with and possibly affects the native black widow, which just happens to be one of the most feared, and most misunderstood, spiders in Texas. Her office shelves are lined with containers of widows of both colors, so that she can monitor their behaviors and reproductive habits. She proudly shows me a small plastic container housing her red widow spider, which a friend mailed to her as a gift.
“It’s very special to me,” she says of the creature that many would prefer to stomp out with a bootheel.
Like many Texans, I own a laminated copy of the ubiquitous “Spiders of Texas” pamphlet, which I picked up at H-E-B a few years ago to help me identify the multitude of eight-legged strangers that pass through my home. On the cover is a photo of a shiny black widow, its signature red hourglass marking on display. It’s likely no accident that a black widow is the cover model for the pamphlet. Besides the brown recluse, the widow is the spider we’re taught to fear most. This reputation helped give rise to a specific type of femme fatale in books and on the screen, the murderous “black widow.” In nature, the female black widows are much larger and more harmful to humans than the males, so maybe the pop-culture mythology has some validity. Still, as Wahlberg and other arachnid aficionados will tell you, our collective fear of these critters might just be a little bit overblown.
“I understand that people don’t like them,” Wahlberg tells me. “But I think they’re fascinating.”
As a kid growing up in the Willowbrook neighborhood of Houston, Wahlberg was always “into nature,” which for her didn’t mean just butterflies and ladybugs. It meant snakes, reptiles, and insects of all kinds. She met her husband, Scott, while working as an education outreach specialist at Texas Snakes & More. It wasn’t until she took an arachnology class in college, at West Texas A&M, that she really fell in love with spiders. In the early days of her graduate research, she saw parasitoid wasps hatch out of a spider egg sac, and she was hooked. Later, after she got the rare chance to see a green mantisfly emerge from a spider egg sac—something she’s still only witnessed once, after collecting four hundred such sacs—Wahlberg decided to pursue a PhD and focus on widows. She says she was “completely enamored” of the creatures.
As one of the many Texans who do not exactly adore spiders, I was curious to meet Wahlberg and find out if she could change my mind. I was raised by a mom who continually warned me about overturning logs or rocks, because if a black widow bit me, the outcome would be certain death. My mom also told me to be careful of sharks if I so much as stuck a toe into the Gulf, so you could say some mild paranoia runs in the family. Wahlberg’s monitor spider would have been my mother’s worst nightmare.
When I ask about her office safety protocol, Wahlberg says simply, “Remember to keep the lids closed.” She does open a few containers to show me the spiders and egg sacs up close. The widows are surprisingly docile, and Wahlberg tells me that they’ll only bite in self-defense, such as if you accidentally sit on one and half squash it. Even the “Spiders of Texas” pamphlet reassures readers that “bites are rare” and that the “reaction is often similar to a bee sting,” which is not what my mother and many others have long believed about black widow bites. Once, when Wahlberg opened an egg sac, about five hundred baby widows crawled all over her skin. She wasn’t alarmed, since baby widows cannot penetrate human skin, and only adult female black widows bite. (Still, she adds that she would never intentionally cover herself in venomous spiders.) Like several other spider enthusiasts and arachnologists I spoke with, Wahlberg says that black widow bites, though potentially horribly painful, don’t typically cause serious illness or death, especially in healthy adults. If a bite becomes infected, or if a small child has a suspected bite, a trip to the ER is in order. In general, though, as Wahlberg sees it, if you get bitten, “You’re gonna have a really bad day.” Of the more than two thousand black widow bites reported annually in the U.S., none have been fatal since 1983.
In fact, black widows help humans a lot more than they hurt us. Martin Nyffeler, a senior lecturer at the University of Basel in Switzerland who has spent 48 years studying spiders, including nearly ten years in Texas looking into the impact of spiders in cotton fields, says that widows prey on nuisance species: “By destroying fire ants, the black widows actually play a beneficial role in the ecosystem.” He also coauthored an oft-quoted study that found an estimated 400 to 800 million tons of prey are killed each year by the global spider community. That’s no small thing, since fire ants are estimated to cost Texas farmers and ranchers more than $230 million in damage each year. Widows also eat cockroaches and other pesky species, such flies and mosquitoes. With more than 45,000 spider species around the globe and nearly 900 in Texas, spiders are sparing us from being “knee-deep” in roaches and ants, as retired Texas Tech research scientist James Cokendolpher told me.
Wahlberg has built relationships with her neighbors around town, so they know to invite her over when they have some widows in the yard. She says kids will often follow her around on these missions, eager to learn about what’s lurking under the porch. Fans of the “spider lady” ask her questions via Facebook, or they leave widows for her in coffee cans and McDonald’s cups. Wahlberg is happy to add those arachnids to her research collection on campus.
After getting to know her office spiders, I venture out to watch Wahlberg hunt for spiders in the wild. In this case, “the wild” means along a bridge by Pecan Acres Park on campus, and under the exterior window ledges of the college food hall, a spot Wahlberg frequents when she’s looking to collect. “People probably think I’m a creeper, but I’m just looking for spiders,” she says.
Along for the minitrek is Kaleth Salazar, a master’s student in biology who also studies widows. His office is down the hall from Wahlberg’s; he used to help her feed the spiders in exchange for extracting their venom. (Salazar’s project focused on obtaining the full genetic sequence of a specific toxin found in the brown widow’s venom.)
As the three of us walk, zipping our jackets higher against a chilly gust of wind, I ask Wahlberg how the brown widow made it to Texas from its native southern Africa. She suspects that many of them came over to the U.S. on shipping containers, and some researchers believe they were transported into other parts of the country from Florida by hitching rides underneath cars and trucks. Wahlberg recalls that her husband once brought home a plastic watering can from Home Depot, and inside were thirteen brown widow egg sacs, which thrilled her to no end. So I guess the moral of that story is: always check your brand-new watering cans.
The bridge that Salazar and Wahlberg lead me to looks like nothing special from afar, but sure enough, beneath almost every single arch they spot webs, spiders, and egg sacs. In the warmer months, there would be three times as many spiders. Wahlberg says she never collects spiders from this bridge, though, because it’s so rare to find black and brown widows existing together like this. For now, she simply observes them.
We then head over to the dining hall to inspect the window ledges. As soon as we start searching, I understand why Wahlberg feels like a “creeper” when she does this. My face is inches away from a student who is sitting inside, just trying to eat a sandwich. When Wahlberg collects the arachnids at spots like this, she gently pokes them with large tongs, and they typically fall right into her container. “Every now and then you get a runner,” she says. Part of Wahlberg’s research involves figuring out whether the brown widows are invasive—meaning that they outcompete other species, to the detriment of the environment—or merely non-native. So far, she doesn’t have an answer. “Ask me again in a few years,” she says.
Spending the morning with Wahlberg has definitely given me a new respect for widow spiders—within limits. When we return to her office and she takes the lid off a container with a jumping spider inside, I still brace myself. It’s true that seeing the widows up close, just hanging out in their containers, makes them seem less terrifying than the creepy crawlers of my childhood imagination. I might not collect the next one I see, but I am less likely to smash it. After all, they’re a crucial part of the ecosystem, and anything that helps rid the planet of roaches can’t be that bad, right?
“You don’t have to go killing everything in nature,” Wahlberg tells me before we say goodbye. “If you take time to learn about spiders, they’re not as scary. I guess I’ve just always been attracted to what other people fear.”