Final Escapades of 2019

Trigger Warning: This blog post contains photos of spiders and other bugs.

Happy New Year!

This brief blog post is a precis of the last Pict family escapades of 2019, what we got up to over winter break.  We were not overly ambitious or adventurous, choosing to stick fairly close to home and keeping each outing brief, because our focus was on quality family time, enjoying each other’s company, and relaxing after what has been a stressful, chaotic, and busy few months.

The first family event of winter break was a cinema trip to see ‘Rise of Skywalker’.  We are a family of Star Wars nerds.  Mr Pict and I have loved it since we were kids and so we introduced it to each of the boys when they were babies. We, therefore, had to see the latest installment in the saga as soon as we possibly could.

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Mr Pict and I took our youngest son into Philly to see the Christmas lights and wander around the market that sets up near city hall every holiday season.  The light show that projects images onto the facade of city hall is well done, though the accompanying music could have been louder.  I really detest crowds but at least the throngs were all people in good spirits and nobody was in a particular rush.  It did, however, make me appreciate the relative peace and quiet of the adjacent garden space with its antler clad figures and twinkling fairy lights.  We had a wander around the market stalls, just taking in the sights, sounds, and smells.  We were not making any purchases so didn’t have to get involved with any jostling and thankfully we didn’t need any refreshments because the queues for food were astounding.  The whole area of the city had a good buzz to it.  I think maybe sparkling lights make everything feel better.

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We had a lovely Christmas Day, full of fun and feasting.  My personal highlight was receiving a Little Baby Yoda made for me by my 14 year old son.

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Mr Pict took our 12 year old skiing in the Poconos.  I have never had an interest in skiing but Mr Pict introduced all of the boys to the sport a few years ago.  Our current 12 year old is the only one who took to it so a day of skiing has become an annual event for the two of them.

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Finally, we had some tickets for the Insectarium so we took a trip there just before the new year.  Our only previous visit there had been in our first winter in Pennsylvania, almost exactly six years ago.  It was the subject of one of my early blog posts.  Much of the Insectarium was the same but the building has also expanded so it includes a butterfly pavilion.  We enjoyed wandering among the large butterflies, most of which were the same species.  I cannot remember the name of them but they were large with brown patterned wings which opened up to reveal a stunning, shiny blue.  They also seemed to be fond of eating oranges.  The absolute highlight of our time there for my youngest son and me, however, was being permitted to hold a tarantula.  We loved it.  I was completely smitten.

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That concludes my round up of the last embers of 2019.  Let’s see what is in store for us in 2020.

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The Black Widow Spider Dilemma

A few days ago, my husband declared he had found a spider that might be a Black Widow in a corner of the garage.  I was ushered in to perform a closer inspection (since Mr Pict and the kids have varying degrees of arachnophobia) and to identify the spider and then deal with it accordingly.

Obviously we are very aware that there are Black Widows in this area.  As I have discussed before, we are on a steep learning curve when it comes to dangerous beasties since Britain only has one venomous critter (the adder snake – and it’s pretty timid) and no rabies.  That said, in all of his years growing up in America, Mr Pict never once encountered a wild Black Widow.  I was, therefore, pretty confident that the spider inhabiting our garage was not remotely a Black Widow.  I mean, that would be as unlikely as Black Bears roaming the streets because they fancy hitting up a Wawa for a snack. Oh yes.  That happened.

So I scooched down into that dank and dusty corner of the garage and had a look at the suspect.  Certainly it was the right size and shape and proportions to be a Black Widow (I have seen them in captivity as well as in books) but it was not shiny black.  I was about to dismiss the idea entirely but wanted to double check that this was not some other spider we might not want to have malingering in our garage.  To my phone and google I went.  Actually first I tried that (soon to be deleted) app CamFind.  I snapped the Spider but the app’s suggestion that what I had taken a photo of was a grey-brown spider was not especially helpful.  Google was more helpful.  I pulled up a page about identifying Black Widows and started to compare notes.  Our eight-legged guest was definitely very similar to a Black Widow, including its web construction, but it was definitely dark grey and brown rather than black.  I could not see the underside of its abdomen and was not about to start picking it up but at that point but I assumed that Mr Pict had misidentified the spider.  Besides, it was in the garage so it didn’t really matter.

Later on, however, while waiting for some food to cook, I idly looked at the google results again and clicked on a different link.  This one was much wordier but critically it explained that some northern Black Widows are not in fact black.  They can be grey or brown.  Furthermore they do not all have the red hourglass under their abdomen.  Some may have a very faint and almost self-coloured hourglass shape.  Ugh.  I was compelled to go back into the garage and see if I could see the abdomen.  Our compliant spider had moved around on its web so that, by tilting by head uncomfortably close to the wall, I could make out the underside of the abdomen.  There it was: the tell-tale hourglass.  I was more annoyed that Mr Pict had been correct than anything.  He once misidentified a groundhog as a possum so I don’t place much stock in his creature identification skills.

That’s when the conundrum began.  What should I do with the Black Widow inhabiting our garage?

My first and strongest thought was to just leave it be.  We don’t use the garage except for storing some tools so it was doing no one any harm.  It was right in the corner of the room, beside the exterior door too, not near the door that connects to the house.  The chances of an encounter were slim.  We can live in harmony with nature, even if that nature is a bit more ferocious than we are used to.  That was how it went on for a couple of days.

Then Mr Pict went into the garage and – not being able to stop himself from checking in on the spider – he noticed egg sacs.  Oh dear.  That was a game changer.  One spider was easy to live in harmony with.  A whole bunch of spiders marauding through the garage, maybe even the house, trying to stake out their own territories, was a whole other issue.  My kids wig out every time they happen upon a spider unexpectedly as it is.  I can usually dismiss their worries without even budging.  However, if I happened to know that a Black Widow had just spawned a bunch of baby minions in the vicinity, I would perhaps have to encourage their vigilance and keep checking the spiders each time they met.

Roll on dilemma.

I considered relocating the spider.  I could get it and its egg sacs into a jar and take them outside and release them … where?  Where, in all conscience, could I transplant a Black Widow to?  Not to the garden because then it would be an even more unexpected encounter between it and the kids.  Do I just deposit it in a park or something? But what if I subsequently read that someone had been bitten by a Black Widow and it might possibly have been “my” one.  No, that would never do.

All of the guides I read online about how to “deal” with Black Widows said to exterminate them.  They were emphatic on that point in fact.  However, when you’ve lived your whole life in a country where no critter can kill you beyond a sheep or deer lurching in front of your car, it is very hard to wrap your head around actually taking the life of an animal.  I did poison ants when we lived in Essex because they were getting into all of our food but invasion is an act of aggression, right?  So I was only defending myself.  This spider wasn’t even giving me a nasty sideways glance.  Well, that I could tell.  I wasn’t risking getting close enough to its many eyes to determine that.  Could I deal with killing a spider and its unborn spiderlings?  Could I have that stain on my conscience?  It was a genuine ethical dilemma.  Regardless of the fact that Black Widows are not endangered, I had to give it some deep thinking.  I couldn’t just snuff out a living thing that easily.  So I let the spider keep on squatting in the garage for another 24 hours.

Reader, I confess.  I killed the spider.  It was the egg sacs that troubled me the most.  It was the thought of all those spiderlings ranging out across the garage, probably entering the basement, and my four sons perhaps being bitten.  Not all at once.  I know Black Widows don’t attack in herds.  Like velociraptors.  I know the possibility was slim but, as a parent, I didn’t want there to be even a slim possibility.  The spiders had to be eliminated.  I put my wellies on – just in case – and reminded my kids that the emergency number here is 911 and not 999 – doubly just in case – and I headed into the murk of the garage to commit my foul deed.  Insecticide was the weapon of choice.  I took no pleasure in directing the spray at the web but I was thorough.  I killed a spider and its unborn spiderlings and I am not proud and it doesn’t sit easily with me.  

This was not a “first experience” I relished.  I hope it was a first and last.

I also hope it really was a Black Widow.

Meeting the bugs at the Insectarium

Today we went on a family trip to the Insectarium on the outskirts of Philadelphia.  

My four boys and I love all things creepy-crawly.  Back in Scotland, we loved to go on minibeast hunts as part of our nature rambles.  Of course, in Scotland there was nothing poisonous or venomous in the bug world so we could happily scoop things up into our hands to study them.  That’s going to be a learning curve here.  Our favourite was the dor beetle, a type of dung beetle with a matt black upper carapace but a beautiful, metallic underside the colours of petrol in a puddle.  Despite the fact they were abundant so we were always likely to find them on any walk, we were always happy to encounter them.  There were also a plethora of dragonfly species where we lived and we loved to see them darting around, dashes of bright colour, in the warmer months.  As well as wild insects, for a period we also had pet cockroaches.  Madagascan Hissing Cockroaches to be precise.  Having them in a tank was a bit like having fish: they don’t cuddle on your lap and you don’t have to take them for a walk (bonus!) but studying them can be fascinating and almost meditative.  I got them used to being handled so they were more interactive.  You can’t pick up a fish and stroke it.  So my boys are very much “slugs and snails and puppy dogs’ tails” boys and I’m their bug lovin’ momma.  This trip was, therefore, very much our cup of tea.

My husband, on the other hand, has a bit of a love-hate relationship with spiders.  If he happens upon one unexpectedly or if one suddenly scuttles across the floor late at night, he has been known to release a piercing scream.  And he swears one wolf spider tried to attack him with its “fangs”.  But the same dread they fill him with has also led him to be fascinated by them.  He is always drawn to spider exhibits in any display of captive beasties.

The Insectarium is a funny wee place.  The Insect Museum, it turned out, is housed in the same building as an extermination business.  In fact, the two operations are run by the same people.  So in the same shop where one buys tickets to go and marvel at the wonders of insect and arachnid life, there is also someone advising how to search and destroy insects who are running amuck in houses.  Love and hate.  Diversification in a business is a good idea, of course, but that’s quite some mixed message.

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The first floor of the Insectarium is devoted mainly to specimens of insects.  The walls are lined with butterflies in frames and there are glass cabinets filled with cases of bugs and spiders.  It reminded me of a Victorian curiosity cabinet or the dusty sections of an old museum.  One of my favourite museums is the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.  It had a remodel a few years ago but when I was little it was pretty much arranged as it had been for centuries and on one of the top floors there was a musty room filled with wooden cabinets, each covered by a leather flap which, when raised, revealed hundreds of insects, butterflies and arachnids pinned in serried rows.  The Insectarium was like a hobbyist’s version of the same.  

The boys loved seeing the glow-in-the-dark scorpions under the ultraviolet light, a hive full of live bees that was a glass panel so that they could see them buzzing around the hexagonal cells and a display set up like a kitchen with live cockroaches milling around.  They also got to vote for their favourite baby insect.  Three of them were loyal to our former pets and voted for the baby roach but the littlest Pict voted for the baby leaf insect.

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The upper floor, however, was the main event: tanks upon tanks filled with live beasties.  Highlights were the Black Widow Spider, the Goliath Tarantula, the chubby scorpions and – for me at least – the variety of cockroach species.  We were also amused by a tank full of decorated shells, painted in bright colours, for the hermit crabs to choose from.  Pimp my shell.  The boys and I also got to hold various insects including a fancy Leaf Insect and a beetle that feigns death, on its back, legs up the air and everything, as a defence strategy.

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We had a fun day.  Everyone enjoyed the trip: the boys and I got to indulge our love of seeing and handling insects but in a way that is safer than just shoving our hands into someone leaf mulch in the wild – at least until such time as we have learned to identify venomous bugs – and my husband was excited to see a Black Widow, which he loves.  And hates.  And for my next insect pet, I would like a Glorious Beetle.

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