Tarantulas, Hissing Cockroaches and Scorpions

Today’s tarantula day, I told my husband.

“I can’t believe you’re doing that, because you hate spiders,” he said.

Full disclosure: He added a word between “you” and “hate” that won’t be printed here. But it’s true. I <expletive deleted> hate spiders. Maybe it stems from childhood, with the stomach-churning incident of the wolf spider and her hundreds of babies. Maybe it was the giant river spiders that shared my old Wormleysburg apartment. Maybe it’s the spider family I’m currently battling, the giant spindly ones that dangle from powder-room fixtures and send me screaming for my husband.

Naturally, I’m not alone, but that’s the point of Adventure Chick – confronting our collective fears. So, the folks at Messiah College pointed me toward an alum in entomology who told me about Ryan Bridge, The Bug Man.

Bridge is a perfectly normal guy, living in a suburban home in Mt. Wolf. But head to a tiny room upstairs, and you learn that the Bridge family has roommates, hundreds of thousands of them. Most are dead and shelved, but along one wall in tanks and plastic tubs are the stuff of nightmares, all alive. Scorpions. Madagascar hissing cockroaches. And – cue the instinctual recoil – three tarantulas. Big, hairy, creepy tarantulas.

That’s what people always say when asked why they don’t like bugs, Bridge told me. They can’t state a reason, so they settle on, “They’re creepy.”

Ah, but bugs are creepy for a reason, he said. They were put on this earth to be the bottom of the food chain. All those ugly features, the spiny exoskeletons, and pincers and antenna and hairs are defenses. If you’re a bug, you either eat or be eaten.

Bugs creep us out because that’s what we were taught, Bridge said. As The Bug Man (ryanthebugman.com), he presents programs at schools and events throughout the region, trying to un-teach those lessons.

My introduction started with the Madagascar hissing cockroaches. Bridge opened their container and poked around, coaxing a few hisses from them. They scurried, like giant grubs. I tried not to throw up.

Bridge held one between thumb and forefinger. I ran a finger across its smooth back. Did I want to hold it? Ugh, but here goes nothing. I held out my palms. Six sticky, hooked legs started crawling around.

“Oh, God,” I said. “Eww. Eww. Eww.”

She was seeking the warmth of my hand, Bridge said. Slowly, I peeked a look at her features. I was starting to admire her rich black and brown colors. And then I dropped her. I was screaming. Bridge remained calm. He picked her up and put her back.

“No cockroaches bite or sting,” he said. “They don’t carry diseases. They get such a bad reputation, but they’re totally harmless.”

And yes, Bridge has eaten bugs. In worldwide travels to build his collection, he shares whatever is served. Tarantulas are roasted before eating to remove their hairs, he said. “They taste like crunchy popcorn.”

You’ve eaten…?

“They taste like crunchy popcorn,” he repeated.

Enough said. But – and this is an important distinction – Bridge bristles at the Fear Factor approach, at bugs eaten for entertainment. Hollywood should stop misrepresenting bugs as creepy and dangerous, he insisted. After all, insects are “one of the most important things to this planet.” It’s not just their role in the food chain; they also convert soils and dead animals, and they pollinate.

“They give us fresh air to breathe,” he said. “They clean our water. Without insects, the planet can’t survive. Without insects, people can’t survive.”

And speaking of misunderstood creatures, I held a scorpion in my hands and lived. Bridge has two scorpion tanks. In one are tiny bark scorpions, common in the U.S. Keep away from them, Bridge said. The smaller the scorpion, the more toxic the venom.

In the tank next door, Kevin, the Asian forest scorpion, was the hulking, black-bodied creature that Hollywood loves to put in sleeping bags to menace our hero. But Kevin’s venom is “virtually harmless,” made only to stun his favorite dish, termites (remember, eat or be eaten). I kept reminding myself of this while I held Kevin, whimpering the whole time.

After Kevin was back in his tank, I realized that Bridge was following a sinister plan. Working our way down the line of tanks, we had now eased into tarantula corner. There was nowhere else to look. A nameless young tarantula was on her back, seemingly dead but actually in the day-long process of molting. Roxie and Penelope, rose-haired tarantulas that Bridge swore enjoy being handled by humans, hunkered in their own tanks.

“They’re like a hamster with eight legs,” he said. “There are no deadly tarantulas anywhere on the planet. The bigger and scarier they are, the more people love to hate them.”

Bridge described their “web carpets,” the layer of web these girls lay on the ground to track their movements, feel vibrations and catch bugs. He occasionally tapped on Penelope’s tank, making me squeak at the sight of a tarantula in motion, two or three hinged legs rising at a time. Expertly, Bridge wasn’t forcing Penelope on me. He was just chatting, but he recognized the moment when I sighed and said, “OK.”

Hands extended, I felt a tiny tickle. “You gotta open your eyes now,” Bridge said. My eyes were shut? Oh, yeah. Squeezed tight. I opened one eye and then the other to a sight I never, ever expected to see – a tarantula in my hands. I whimpered and prayed.

“Now, is she biting?” Bridge asked.

No, but she’s ugly. “I’m sorry, Penelope, you’re ugly,” I moaned. A gasp. “She’s moving. Oh, my God. She’s moving.”

“You just constantly gotta remind yourself she’s not gonna bite.”

Biting is not my worry. There’s a tarantula in my hands. My breathing had returned to normal by the time he took her back, but I turned down a second offer to hold her. Then, I made an unconscious move, one I didn’t even recognize until Bridge pointed it out. Penelope was creeping off Bridge’s hand, and I sidled mine next to his, using my palm to extend the platform for her eight-legged stroll.

“You’re volunteering it now,” Bridge said. “You’re getting used to it. You’ll grow with this.”

Nuh-uh. No way.

“Yes, you will, because you put your hands out there and let her walk on your hands. You’re less afraid of her now than you were before.”

I did that? Really? Is this the beginning of Diane-spider detente? Are those powder-room spiders safe from drowning in a tidal wave of Raid? From now on, I will fear small scorpions, but I will be kind to cockroaches and spiders.

Yeah, right. Who am I kidding? Penelope, you’re cool, but I can’t say as much for your spider cousins the world over. I still hate the creepy little <expletive deleted>s.