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Lies We Believe as Children, Part I: The Daddy Longlegs Dilemma

For the last two months, I’ve been working closely with students in our area to get them engaged and excited about nature. (Granted, for two years before this, I did much the same thing in a residential experiential learning environment.) A big part of getting students out and excited is answering their questions. And they ask a lot of questions.

mite or spider?

But there is something unique about these nature-themed questions: they are probing into something alien, something unknown and uncertain that is nature itself—at least to small children.

A lot of these questions are things I wondered as a child as well, and perhaps you wondered too. So, let’s settle it once and for all, with a segment I like to call “Lies We Believed as Children!” For the first installment, let’s tackle a big one, shall we?

Lie # 1: Daddy longlegs are the most poisonous spiders in the world

There are several flaws that negate that statement flat out. Let us first examine the definition of both ‘poisonous’ and ‘spider.

Poison is something that is ingested, or something we would have to eat for it to be harmful. Venom is injected (typically through scary spider fangs) that makes your hand sizzle and melt off in a turn of dramatic and gross events. (Disclaimer: I don’t know of any spider venom that would have such an effect, but it’s a lot more exciting than pain and swelling and trips to the emergency room, right?!)

Next, a spider is an arthropod in the arachnid family with eight legs and two body segments (a head—okay, technically a cephalothorax, a head and thorax combined, but head works—and an abdomen). If we were to examine a daddy longlegs, it does indeed have 8 legs, but only one body segment! Wowza! That separates it further from the arachnids and places it with the mites. Fun stuff, right there.

So, let’s put together all we know. Daddy Longlegs are not spiders, nor are they venomous spiders. They are also lacking venom and silk glands that are typical of spiders. These little mites are called Harvestmen or Harvesters. They do emit a weird odor when disturbed, and sometimes can secrete it onto the skin of nosy humans, which can react like a bite, but I promise it’s not.

Fun fact: I once knew a naturalist who could catch a daddy longlegs, elegantly flip it over (without harming the lil’ guy at all—believe me, with all those jelly-legs, it is quite the feat in itself!), and tickle its tummy, thus inciting the weird odor, which to me, smelled of strawberries. Weird indeed.

And there you have it. Daddy longlegs aren’t spiders nor are they harmful to humans. So go out into the world without fear of daddy longlegs—you can worry about something else instead, like spiders that are actually venomous (you’re welcome!).

So, until next time, dear readers, here’s to happy trails and lots of quails!


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