Some entomologists, the scientists that study insects, have a work life that presents a challenge: they’ve devoted their careers to creepy-crawly animals, work with them every day, sometimes get up close and personal with them and are maybe even fond of them, but they’re scared of or disgusted by spiders.
After asking around among working entomologists, arachnologist Richard Vetter found 41 researchers who are afraid of spiders or at least averse to them, and discovered an apparent paradox. “They don't find anything gross about bugs in general—as long as those bugs have the right number of legs,” he writes in the new paper about his survey. “Despite the assumption that entomologists would extend warm feelings toward spiders because of their habituation to arthropods in general, arachnophobia does occur in some members of our profession. For these people, two more legs makes a big difference.”
Vetter interviewed these entomologists about their negative experiences with spiders and which aspects of spiders they don’t like, then had them complete a “Fear of Spiders Questionnaire,” rate their disgust and fear of spiders and give like/dislike scores to other animals.
He got a wide range of responses. Some of the interviewees professed only a mild disgust or fear of spiders, but still claimed to react to them differently than to insects. For example, some of them said an insect crawling on their arm is tolerable, but a spider would get brushed away. One forensic entomologist who routinely works with maggots gave spiders a high disgust score on their survey and said that they would “rather pick up a handful of maggots than have to get close enough to a spider to kill it.” On the other hand, some entomologists’ scores and ratings suggest that they’re clinically arachnophobic.
Like layperson arachnophobes, Vetter found that most of the entomologists developed their feelings toward spiders in childhood, often because of a negative incident. One scientist recounted that her father once teased her with a large spider in a jar and later watched a spider egg sac burst open on her mattress. Another described a childhood nightmare that recurred over four years, wherein she ran into the large web of a human-sized spider and woke up just before being eaten. Despite the distance of time and experience with insects, these fears couldn’t be overcome in adulthood. The researcher who had the eggs in her bed has such a strong fear of spiders that she had considered counseling, but avoided it for fear that she might have to encounter live spiders as part of her therapy.
Of the things about spiders that the entomologists don’t like, a few stuck out. One was that “they bite,” even among the scientists that work with insects that also bite or sting. One researcher who works with Hymenoptera, the order that includes bees, wasps and ants, said that while he does get stung in his research and finds the stings painful, stinging insects still don’t provoke the same negative response that spiders do.
Another thing the entomologists don’t like about spiders is the way they move. Sixty percent of the researchers said that the fact that spiders run fast and show up unexpectedly contributed to their feelings about them. One researcher (the eggs-in-the-bed lady again) had the opposite problem, and said it was the slower, more deliberate movements of spiders like tarantulas that bothered her.
More than half of the entomologists also said that spiders’ many legs contributed to their fear and disgust. “Although this is also a common response from the general public, who are more accustomed to bipeds and quadrupeds,” Vetter notes, “it is curious that entomologists, who work with hexapods, would find the additional pair of legs in spiders to be a significant negative feature, instead of just assimilating spiders into the same broad arthropod morphological scheme.” Six legs are just fine. Eight? No thanks.
When the entomologists rated their like or dislike of 30 other animals, insects took four of the top five "like" spots, with butterflies getting the top score and dolphins breaking the insect monopoly. Spiders were, no surprise, ranked highly unlikeable, coming in second to last. The only animal the entomologists liked less was the tick.
Vetter points out that other research has found that many arachnophobes anthropomorphize spiders, thinking of them as vengeful or malicious. The impression he got from his interviews, though, was that the entomologists didn’t do this and realized their fears or dislikes of spiders were paradoxical, but couldn’t overcome them. One of the scientists Vetter interviewed specialized in, of all things, spiders, and said that even though he worked with them professionally, he could not help but be creeped out by them.