As arthropods go, it’s hard to find a more intriguing specimen than the spitting spider – a six-eyed arachnid that creates venom in its mouth and spews it on prey, gumming up unlucky insects in 1/700th of a second.
Another favorite from the world of crawling things is the telephone pole beetle, whose larvae sometimes become male by eating their own mothers.
Then there’s the ant-loving cricket, the scaly-winged bark lice and the assassin bug – all of which, along with their spider and beetle friends I’ve mentioned above – have turned up inside some Raleigh abodes.
“Don’t freak out,” said Matt Bertone, entomologist at N.C. State University. “They’re actually very beautiful, and they’re not biting you.”
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I visited with Bertone in the basement of Gardner Hall on campus, where he explained how he and a team of bug finders discovered more than 500 kinds of arthropods in their survey of homes in and around Raleigh – a conservative number given that the researchers involved didn’t venture into crawl spaces or shine a light under refrigerators.
He showed me the tiny world of carpet beetles and eulophid wasps, small enough to crawl up Lincoln’s nostril on the head of a penny, as common as the dust on your windowsill.
“You’re not going to notice these things,” he told me. “But they’re amazing under the microscope. Scales all over them. Crazy hairs on the larvae.”
Prior to this, nobody had much studied indoor, domestic bugs, even though humans have long shared space with such uninvited guests. One of the first cave paintings, Bertone’s paper notes, depicts a camel cricket. The N.C. State study, nicknamed “Exoskeletons in Your Closet” and published in the journal PeerJ, details a wider diversity of segmented invertebrates than previously guessed. In lay terms, your crib has bugs.
The N.C. State crew visited 50 homes of various sizes and ages in a rough square formed by Pittsboro, Clayton, Wake Forest and Durham. Once there, they worked their way from ceiling to floor, inspecting only visible surfaces, collecting their samples with forceps and aspirators. Yes, that means they sucked bugs up through a tube, catching them in a filter.
They found some rarities: the telephone beetles, for example, and even a pair of tiny hermit crabs. “They were not pets,” Bertone said. “Somebody had maybe gone to the beach, and they crawled out of something.”
But the real surprise was how prevalent some of these arthropods can be. Cobweb spiders, for example, showed up in every house, and in 65 percent of the rooms.
“We would show people, and they would say, ‘I need to clean more,’ ” Bertone told me. “This is a typical collection. They’re just flying around. You’re not going to notice these things.”
So now this academic bug collection has been shipped to California for deeper analysis. But the why of their presence is unclear. Have some of these cobweb spiders moved indoors because they’re better adapted to drier spaces, or because they can go for longer periods with less food?
Many of these, Bertone noted, likely arrived by accident, trapped indoors after an adventure inside a handbag or when a window was closed. Is it helpful having them around? Do they eat less desirable intruders? Do they carry unhealthy microbes? Does the fact that we didn’t even notice most of them mean we shouldn’t sweat their buzzing around?
The door to more research, much like the rusty screens that an arthropod crawls through, stands open. We are not alone.