An arachnophobe and an arachnophile walk into a lab

Publication date
Tuesday, 16 Jan 2024

Man holds a spider in a clear box
Ben Shoard. Photo: Nic Vevers/ANU

Scientist Ben Shoard says he feels like his job is to do PR for spiders.

And I do PR for scientists.

So here we are: an arachnologist and an arachnophobe, brought together by the need to do our jobs.

Oh, and a funnel web is there too.

When Shoard says he’ll bring one of his spiders to the interview, I say, “That sounds amazing!”

This isn’t true. It doesn’t sound amazing at all.

In preparation, I read the WikiHow page on overcoming a fear of spiders. It suggests I should draw “a happy non-threatening spider” on a piece of paper and then imagine it wants me to be its friend.

Friendly spider being drawn
Hello, friend! Photo: Nic Vevers/ANU

The next step on the WikiHow is to increase my exposure to spiders.

Shoard meets me outside the biology building at ANU, clutching an adorable little pouch. My colleague will later tell me she’s made a baby’s bib out of the same fabric.

“It’s in there, is it?” I ask, pointing, cool as a cucumber. I don’t know how I was expecting the spider to be transported, but this was not it.

Once we’re inside, Shoard slides a plastic box out of the pouch to reveal a male Blue Mountains funnel web. Funnel webs are Shoard’s area of expertise. He has recently completed a Master of Science in Biological Sciences (Advanced), with his research project being the development of a phylogenetic tree of the 36 different funnel web species.

I fear my happy spider drawing may have created a false sense of security.

Funnel web spider close up
Male funnel web not wearing a top hat or even a bow tie. Photo: Nic Vevers/ANU

I have a very strong feeling that this spider doesn’t want to be my friend, which I can tell even from a great distance, which is how I conduct the rest of the interview.

Shoard says he just loves spiders and always has.

“So many people will say ‘I love animals – but not spiders.’ Not me. I love all animals, with no exceptions, and I just feel like spiders need more love.” He might give me the side-eye at this point, but I’m too far away to tell for sure.

He says funnel webs make for a great research subject too.

“There’s lots of tramping through really remote bushland to collect them, which is great fun. They like eucalypt forest, sometimes moist, sometimes a bit drier, but almost always under a rock or log.”

There are a few species of funnel web you’ll find in Canberra, including on Black Mountain, he says, and if you drive an hour outside of the ACT, there are another four or five species.

Shoard also runs a group called the Goulburn Region Spider Seekers and the Australian Spider Identification Facebook page, which has over 90,000 members. The most common questions to the page are about funnel webs.

“A lot of people will post a trapdoor spider photo and go, ‘I found this funnel web and it's well outside of where funnel webs are meant to be’. And we go, ‘Well that's actually a trapdoor’.

“The most reliable way to tell them apart is if there is a spur or spikes on the first leg, in which case it's not going to be a funnel web. And for a funnel web, the spinnerets at the back poke out and with trapdoors they won’t. But it can be tricky to tell, which is why we started doing that page.”

I imagine getting close enough to a spider to see its first leg. (Step 7 of the WikiHow is: Use positive self-talk.)

Shoard says that while funnel webs are venomous, they’re not going to leap out and try to kill you for no reason.

“Look,” he says as he picks up my abandoned pen from the lab bench and waves it towards the spider in its container. In response, the spider looks all the world to me like it’s going to leap out and try to kill me.

“See, he's not even trying to kill me,” Shoard says.

Funnel web spider close up, focused on fangs
Not even trying to kill you. Photo: Nic Vevers/ANU

“We just need to educate people and build awareness of spiders, to show that they’re not actually the bad guys we want them to be.” (Step 5: Understand spider behaviour.)

Take white-tailed spiders, for example, he says. Their bites have long been blamed for causing necrosis, but there’s actually no evidence for it. (Step 4: Dispel spider myths.)

“And the funniest thing about white-tails is they actually hunt redbacks and house spiders and both redbacks and house spiders can do a lot more damage than a white-tail but everyone's scared of white-tails.

“I found one last night and left it in the house because I’ve got a lot of house spiders at the moment, so it's just like a little natural balancing act.”  (Step 6: Accept and understand that spiders are a natural part of the world.)

He’s been pleased to hear from a number of people, he says, that the Australian Spider Identification page has helped them overcome their arachnophobia.

“It starts off slowly by seeing the odd picture and reading a bit about them, and then they build up their own courage and now they are safely able to relocate spiders from their house rather than screaming and relocating themselves from their house.

“It’s education: it really does work.”

Ben looks at spider on table while Tabitha exclaims in background
The author demonstrates just how amazingly far she has come with the spider by standing amazingly far away from it. Photo: Nic Vevers/ANU

He slides the lid back on the funnel web’s container and puts it safely inside the pouch.

I hesitantly collect my pen.

“You wouldn’t want to have a car accident with that passenger!” I say as we walk back outside.

 “Well, I’m a snake catcher too,” he says. “So it would be better than a snake.”

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