University of Washington arachnid curator Rod Crawford in front of the spider collection he has been keeping for the last 45 years.

If you are passionate about spiders and have some extra time while you’re in the Seattle area, consider a visit with Rod Crawford, curator of arachnids at the University of Washington (UW) Burke Museum of Natural History. Crawford began working with arachnids as a UW student, and 45 years later, the collection remains under his watch.

Although it is a public collection, you won’t see the spiders among the well-traveled exhibit floors of Washington’s oldest museum. Instead, you will need to be escorted by Crawford down the back stairs, through a cabinet-lined hallway, and into a decent-sized-if-it-weren’t-for-all-the-shelving office. As it is, you can slip in between the side-by-side desks (which hold Crawford’s microscope, computer, and various books, papers and research) and the narrow rows of doored cabinets that house the more than 167,000 alcohol-immersed arachnid specimens. Having been built up from less than 2,000 spiders when he took over research on the collection, it is now the second largest collection on the West Coast and largest collection of Washington state spiders in the world.

It all started by chance and coincidence. “I happened to be interested in spiders and I met a guy by sheer chance and coincidence who was working [at Burke] on butterflies,” Crawford recalled. “I saw a bunch of spiders no one was working on.” So he met with the then-curator of entomology “Beetleman” Melville Hatch, who found him a desk and became his mentor. (Hatch is credited with identifying and naming 13 beetle species and authored the five-volume Beetles of the Pacific Northwest).

At the time, Crawford was majoring in chemistry, but soon, he said, “I got so into spiders that I changed my major to zoology.” The collection had initially been put together by a graduate student who did her dissertation on spiders in 1939 — and it had not been seriously worked on again until 1971 when Crawford took over.

At that time, Crawford said, his duties were to look at already identified spiders and try to identify others, both from the existing collection and from miscellaneous spiders collected by other students and himself. “At first I was just groping because there was no one around who knew spiders,” he said. Today, he continues studying the arachnids, answers “some silly questions and some smart questions” from the public, and takes a field trip every few weeks to collect more spiders.

PCO ADVICE. Crawford cautioned pest management professionals to make sure they accurately identify spiders and their habits before selling contracts or performing treatments. “When someone calls about spiders, too many try to sell quarterly perimeter spraying to keep spiders from coming in; but they don’t come in from outside,” he said. Many of the spiders of the U.S. are not native, but were brought over from Europe, Asia, South Africa, or Australia. “They don’t do well outdoors; they’ve adapted to inside.” Additionally, he said, “Every building has a permanent population of house spiders.” Some were there since it was new construction, some came in on boxes, etc.

Exterior spider treatments also can be ecologically counterproductive. Not only do spiders very rarely bite people, but their bites are generally harmless, and “spiders are crucially important to the planet,” he said. “They are the main control for insects, the main reason we don’t have thousands of insects going through boom and bust cycles like locusts.”

Crawford takes great care to preserve his spider collection.

Additionally, he said while there are a few spiders that are fairly recognizable and identifiable, most need to be looked at under a microscope for identification, and many need the expertise of an arachnologist for accurate identification.

BUSTING MYTHS. There is a common superstition that if you get bitten and don’t know what it was that bit you, it must have been a spider. But this is actually very unlikely, Crawford said. “A spider almost has to be standing on you to bite, because its fangs are on the underside.” So, it’s highly unlikely that all those bumps and itches one has in the morning are the result of having rolled onto a spider and gotten bitten. In fact, in his 45 years of working with spiders, “I’ve handled hundreds of thousands of spiders and gotten only three bites — one of which was last year,” Crawford said. “If a person never saw the spider, it’s almost certainly not a spider bite.” And if that person goes to the doctor, and gets misdiagnosed with a spider bite when it is really a MRSA staph infection or even cancer, it can be deadly. “Spider myths can kill you,” he said.

Even the fear of spiders, while very real, has little basis beyond cultural influence, Crawford believes. Why are so many people stricken with arachnophobia? “They learn to be afraid,” he said. They learn it from other kids. (He says, “A kid thinks it’s funny to scare others with spiders.”); they learn it from fearful parents, teachers and the media, he added.

Burke Museum is currently located at 4331 Memorial Way Northeast, Seattle, Wash., but it will be in a newly constructed building — with Crawford having a new home for his arachnids — by 2019. For more information on Crawford, his arachnid collection and research, and to arrange a tour, visit http://staff.washington.edu/tiso.

The author can be contacted at llupo@gie.net.