Getting 'Inspidered': Antelope Island fest attendees confront web of myths

Aug 10 2013 - 8:53pm

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Antelope Island guide Stephanie Cobbold (right) dissects a spider web during the Spider Festival on Saturday. Cobbold and other volunteers gave presentations, led tours and helped with spider-related games and art projects. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
An orb weaver hangs in its web while guide Stephanie Cobbold looks for more specimens during the Spider Festival on Antelope Island on Saturday. The large, nonvenomous spiders are common throughout the island. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
Melanie Leytham looks at a black widow that was found during a nature walk at the Spider Festival on Antelope Island on Saturday, August 10, 2013. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
Stephanie Cobbold (right) leads the hunt for spiders during during one of the nature walks at the Spider Festival on Antelope Island on Saturday, August 10, 2013. Cobbold and other volunteers gave presentations, led tours and helped with spider-related games and art projects. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
Stephanie Cobbold (right) dissects a spider web during the Spider Festival on Antelope Island on Saturday, August 10, 2013. Cobbold and other volunteers gave presentations, led tours and helped with spider-related games and art projects. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
Antelope Island guide Stephanie Cobbold (right) dissects a spider web during the Spider Festival on Saturday. Cobbold and other volunteers gave presentations, led tours and helped with spider-related games and art projects. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
An orb weaver hangs in its web while guide Stephanie Cobbold looks for more specimens during the Spider Festival on Antelope Island on Saturday. The large, nonvenomous spiders are common throughout the island. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
Melanie Leytham looks at a black widow that was found during a nature walk at the Spider Festival on Antelope Island on Saturday, August 10, 2013. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
Stephanie Cobbold (right) leads the hunt for spiders during during one of the nature walks at the Spider Festival on Antelope Island on Saturday, August 10, 2013. Cobbold and other volunteers gave presentations, led tours and helped with spider-related games and art projects. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
Stephanie Cobbold (right) dissects a spider web during the Spider Festival on Antelope Island on Saturday, August 10, 2013. Cobbold and other volunteers gave presentations, led tours and helped with spider-related games and art projects. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)

ANTELOPE ISLAND -- Jonah Leytham stood on his tiptoes, stretching to see a leggy arachnid that Spider Festival guide Stephanie Cobbold was holding on her bare hand, just above his view.

Jonah's older, taller brother and sister, Melanie, 6, and Nicholas, 8, leaned in for a closer look. Just then, the gray-brown orb weaver -- about an inch in length -- executed a daring escape, plummeting from a drop web and landing solidly on 5-year-old Jonah's forearm.

The boy's shriek alarmed a nearby seagull flock, and likely caused dogs in nearby counties to tilt their heads in concern.

"He has a terrible bug phobia," explained mom Mandy Leytham, 34, of Syracuse. "He doesn't even like flies. We brought him here to help him get over it."

Fifty or 60 visitors had stopped by the Antelope Island State Park's Spider Festival booth by early afternoon. "Come Be Inspidered," the banner suggested.

Most visitors seemed open to learning about spiders, a life form that has lived on Earth for more than 400 million years.

Activities for the island's first Spider Festival included an informational slideshow, talks, nature walks for spider sightings and crafts tables that allowed children to create colorful, pipe-cleaner spiders.

"We wanted to dispel people's fears and some spider myths," said Wendy Wilson, park naturalist. "This time of year, people do see a lot of our orb weavers, and they look pretty intimidating, but they are completely harmless."

Wilson said there's no way to know why webs are so common this time of year, but it probably has to do with a bountiful supply of food -- mosquitoes and brine flies.

Most varieties of adult spiders don't survive the cold winter months, but the egg sacks they leave behind release a new generations of babies in the spring.

Wilson said the island is home to a "handful" of orb weaver varieties, which build webs so large they are hard not to notice.

There's a handful of funnel spider varieties, who keep a lower profile and hang out at the back of their funnel-shaped webs, she said.

A handful of crab spider varieties position themselves in the blooms of wildflowers. A handful of jumping spider varieties also call Antelope Island home.

Just to be clear, Wilson's repeated use of the word "handful" doesn't indicate any personal desire to hold a spider in her hand.

"I have a healthy appreciation of spiders, but I don't need them on me," Wilson said, with a laugh.

The island's only spiders able to hurt humans are black widows, she said, and those tend to hide well and mind their own business.

Cold comfort to the more vulnerable mosquitoes and brine flies.

"Spiders help keep the insect population under control, and they are food for other animals, like lizards, birds and snakes," Wilson said. "In your garden, spiders are great. They eat the insects that eat your vegetables."

Vance Nordstrom, 5 and visiting from Las Vegas, was a spider fan long before the festival.

"I love them," he said. "We have a pet daddy longlegs living in our garage. I go visit him. He is a lot of fun."

Vance's mom, Tara Pike, 42, said she's also a spider enthusiast.

"They are beautiful, and they eat bugs," she said. "They are part of the ecosystem and are very important. Of course, I was just down by the water, trying to save brine shrimp that got stuck in water that was too shallow."

Amber Adams, a California resident passing through with her husband and two kids, was not swayed by son Taylor's suggestion she hold a spider that was secured in a terrarium.

"No, I like that he's in a box," Adams, 30, told her 9-year-old son. "That's my favorite thing about him."

Taylor is a proud spider wrangler for his mom.

"I pick them up and hold them in the palm of my hand," he said. "She calls me when she sees any bug, and says, 'Get this away from me.'"

Amber Adams looked a tad embarrassed.

"I don't mind learning about them," she said of the captive spiders displayed at the booth. "But I don't want to hold them, even a little."

Back at the spider nature walk site, Jonah had been soothed by dad Patrick Leytham, and most of the family was fastening seat belts to head to the next festival site.

"We just moved from Las Vegas, where they don't have many basements or plants in the yard," mom Mandy Leytham said.

"Here, we do have a basement, and we have bushes and trees outside where spiders can hide. We found a spider in the bedroom, and we decided to come here and learn more about the area where we live now, and about the bugs and animals that live here with us."

She walked to the family car to get a final, official statement from Jonah.

"He says he likes spiders better than he did before, but he's still just a little bit scared."

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