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7 Bug and Spider Myths Squashed

Nothing gets us reaching for the can of bug spray quicker than a creepy crawly scuttling our way.

The approaching end of summer may give us some relief from their biting, stinging, and hiding in our favorite shoes. But the misguided collective wisdom about the insects and spiders in our lives shows no signs of abating.

We asked some experts to help us get to the bottom of whether the following “facts” about insects and spiders are really true.

Are tarantula fangs really too wimpy to hurt you?

There are actually two groups of spiders we call tarantulas, says Charles Griswold, a spider expert at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. Theraphosidae are “big, hairy spiders,” with large fangs that can bite you, he says, “though they’re not particularly aggressive.”

An Antilles pinktoe tarantula (Avicularia versicolor) on a man's hand.
An Antilles pinktoe tarantula. Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Creative

The American species in this group don’t seem to have particularly dangerous venom, Griswold says, but Asian and African members could be dangerous. Not enough is known about their venom to be sure. (Watch a video of the goliath birdeater tarantula, the world’s largest spider.)

The second group of tarantulas is a kind of wolf spider that lives in Europe. “It’s the source of the legend surrounding the folk dance, the tarantella,” Griswold says. Legend had it that the only way to cure someone of a spider bite—and prevent them from dying—was to dance vigorously.

“The actual wolf spider seems to have no such dangerous venom.”

Do we unwittingly swallow an average of seven to eight spiders a year?

“There’s absolutely no evidence whatsoever that we swallow spiders,” says Griswold. It’s highly unlikely they’d crawl into an open mouth, he says. “If you have your mouth open, you’re probably breathing heavily, which would frighten them.”

In some parts of the world, such as Southeast Asia, people consume spiders, but they do this willingly—as food, Griswold says. (See National Geographic’s animated video on edible insects.)

Could cockroaches really survive a nuclear winter?

That roaches could survive an apocalypse is a popular notion, endearingly rendered in the Pixar movie WALL-E.

American cockroach
An American cockroach. Photograph by Redmond O. Durrell/Alamy

But according to a 2001 article in the journal American Entomologist, cockroaches are relative wimps when it comes to withstanding radiation. American cockroaches die when exposed to 20,000 rads (a unit of measure for radiation), compared with fruit flies, which can withstand 64,000 rads, and a type of bug called a lesser grain borer, which handles 180,000 rads.

Cockroaches overall can be surprisingly sensitive, says Dan Babbitt, manager of the Insect Zoo and Butterfly Pavilion at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum in Washington D.C. “They almost didn’t make it through the last extinction [65 million years ago].”

Jeff Tomberlin, an entomologist at Texas A&M University in College Station, thinks the notion of cockroach as the ultimate survivor has its roots in the fact that roaches are flexible eaters: As long as it’s organic in nature, chances are good that a cockroach can eat it.

“So in a postnuclear world, they [could] find a way to survive,” he says.

Daddy longlegs (also known as harvestmen) have some of the deadliest venom in the world, but their fangs are too small to bite you.

“We hear this one constantly,” says Babbitt. “They have fangs, but they don’t have any venom.”

Close up of a daddy longleg.
A close-up of a daddy longlegs on Bioko Island, Equatorial Guinea. Photograph by Christian Ziegler, National Geographic

And technically, they aren’t even spiders, he says. They’re arachnids, the same group as spiders, but they lack a second body section that makes them spiders. (Also see “Ancient Daddy Longlegs Had Extra Set of Eyes.”)

Can earwigs really lay their eggs in your ear?

“No,” says Babbitt. He’s not sure where this notion started, but it’s not true. The earwig is interesting, though, because it’s one of the few insect species to care for its young, he adds.

Other parenting insects include the Madagascar hissing cockroach and the American burying beetle, Babbitt says. (See “Why Are Corpse-Eating Beetles Being Released Into the Wild?”)

Is there a difference between venomous and poisonous?

Yes there is, says spider expert Griswold. “If you get poisoned because something bites you, that’s venom,” he explains. “If you get poisoned because you bit something else, that’s poison.”

It’s the difference between ingesting a toxic substance (poison) versus getting injected with a toxin (venom). (Read about venom’s medical potential in National Geographic magazine.)

Do crane flies really eat mosquitoes?

Ever seen huge, mosquito-like insects fluttering around your walls in the summertime? They’re called crane flies, also known as mosquito hawks.

Closeup of a crane fly with four orange mites attached to its body.
A crane fly does not eat mosquitoes. Photograph by Darlyne A. Murawski

These insects won’t bite you, nor do they eat mosquitoes, says Texas A&M’s Tomberlin. The adults actually feed on nectar from plants, he explains.

While we’re on the subject, adult mosquitoes also feed on nectar, noted Smithsonian’s Babbitt. The females need protein from blood to produce their eggs—hence the reason they bite you. (If you’re ever mad at mosquitoes, just remember they pollinate a lot of those beautiful flowers in your neighborhood.)

Tell us: What other bug myths do you want laid to rest?

Follow Jane J. Lee on Twitter.


  1. Alan Seegert
    June 13, 10:54 pm

    Mosquitoes hardly pollinate anything, other than the Northern Bog Orchid. This is another of those persistent myths about bugs.

  2. Vivian Brumpton
    United Kingdom
    May 23, 2015, 7:26 pm

    In Britain we call crane flies daddy-long-legs.

  3. Debra Land
    Lowell, MI
    April 25, 2015, 8:12 pm

    One night our son walked into our bedroom with his finger in his ear. He said his ear hurt. I pulled his hand away from his ear. His finger came out of his ear and right behind it, an earwig popped out!

  4. Kevin Blumberg
    United States
    April 23, 2015, 4:17 pm

    My son would like to know if spiders would be able to differentiate between types of bugs they may catch.

    Any thoughts?

    Thanks in advance.

  5. Alice in
    April 7, 2015, 10:17 pm

    Cool. Nice facts

  6. anonymous
    October 3, 2014, 3:32 pm

    I recorded something in my bathroom , of a spider capturing an insect by its yarn https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PN5dvt2VUGI

  7. Emilie
    September 18, 2014, 10:38 am

    Bad news about the cockroaches in ears r that’s a not uncommon emergency room visit, because they do crawl into ears, and it can be difficult to get them out. Conventional wisdom said mineral oil, but a quick squirt of topical anesthetic seems to be much faster and more effective. Don’t try this at home, kids.

  8. Sue Parks
    September 17, 2014, 10:24 am

    Does the american version of the wolf spider really eat brown recluse?

  9. Karon
    September 16, 2014, 10:28 pm

    Glad to know I’m not the only person traumatized as a child by that creepy Night Gallery episode.

  10. Jena
    September 16, 2014, 12:03 pm

    I had a brown recluse bite last year. I was terrified that I was going to suffer from necrosis (didn’t happen). My doctor told me the big, awful bites in the photos are much more rare than we think, and that 80% of brown recluse bites are pretty minor. Is that accurate?

  11. Lilith
    Miami, Fl
    September 16, 2014, 5:47 am

    It is just as interesting to discover such myths exist; as it is to discover if they are valid or not.

  12. Hallie
    September 15, 2014, 2:23 pm

    Do we swallow 5 spiders a year in our sleep? Please lay this myth to rest and say it isn’t so!

  13. Titus
    September 15, 2014, 1:42 am

    Idk for sure, but I’m guessing that there’s some mistranslation with Earwig, because if you spread an Earwigs, they look like ears

  14. Liz Langley
    September 14, 2014, 10:36 pm

    Great story, Jane! I learned a lot!

    And I love all these wonderfully weird questions – am checking into them. BRB! 😉

  15. Aike Koedood
    September 14, 2014, 5:55 pm

    Pardon! So the crane flies won’t bite you, except when they do?

  16. Mike Hedrick
    United States
    September 14, 2014, 11:49 am

    I’ve not heard crane flies called “mosquito hawks” but instead heard dragonflies called that. If that is true, do they catch and eat flying mosquitoes or surface-wriggling larva?

  17. Shelley Cameron
    Edmonton, Alberta
    September 14, 2014, 8:59 am

    About 40 years ago, as a child, I watched an episode of Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery” on tv. It was various short stories of urban legends acted out. The ear wig story was represented on one of them, just as described above on a radio show. Scared me half to death as we had an abundance of ear wigs in our neighbourhood. I worried for years until finally talking to my mom about it and she told me it wasn’t true.

  18. Diane
    September 14, 2014, 4:07 am

    The earwig myth may have started before the show, but it was certainly popularized by an episode of “The Night Gallery” by Rod Serling called “The Caterpillar”. It aired in 1972. Pretty creepy, no pun intended.

  19. randy schatzle
    san andreas ca
    September 14, 2014, 12:50 am

    On the movie. “Them” giant ants terrorizes the desert eating and killing people. Can a nuclear bomb cause a accident which monster ants start a invasion of killer beasts. ?

  20. Christina
    Wildwood Crest, NJ
    September 13, 2014, 11:54 pm

    Merry..that was Rod Sterling on “The Twilight Zone”! I vividly remember that show. Phew! Glad that’s a myth.

  21. Josie
    Wichita, KS
    September 13, 2014, 10:27 pm

    Can fleas live on a human body? If yes, how long?

    Are wood roaches different than cockroaches? Do wood roaches prefer living outdoors?

  22. Ricardo
    September 13, 2014, 9:11 pm

    Is it true that a Ceti Eel will crawl in your ear, wrap around your cerebral cortex, and turn you into a pawn?

  23. Brooke
    September 13, 2014, 8:50 pm

    Is it true that when you squash a cochroach, you release their eggs? and you continue to spread the eggs where you walk (and wipe the bug juice)?

  24. Merry
    September 13, 2014, 8:42 pm

    Interesting to contrast the fear of Earwigs and Cockroaches engendered by that fictional horror story with the relaxed attitude towards beetles and other bugs shown in the cartoon movie The Wild Thornberries; the hero’s baby brother is continually putting beetles and bugs in his nose and the advice given when one can’t be extracted is to ignore it; it will come out on it’s own in a few minutes, which it does.

  25. Betty Johnson
    September 13, 2014, 8:41 pm

    I’ve heard urban legends about spiders laying eggs in people’s skin. Is that possible?

  26. Merry
    September 13, 2014, 8:33 pm

    The Earwigs laying eggs in your ears myth comes from a short horror story written long ago which I heard dramatized as a radio play on a public radio station many years ago. The question above about Cockroaches getting stuck in your ears seems to be from the same source but someone passing it along has changed the Earwig into a Cockroach. It said the Earwigs couldn’t back up and someone warned to take precautions against getting one in his ear didn’t but the Dr couldn’t get it out so he had to be under Dr’s care for a long period (weeks, months?) as it painfully clawed and ate it’s way into his brain and out the other ear but then the Dr said his worst fears, which he hadn’t wanted to mentioned to the man until he was sure, were realized: it was a female and had laid it’s eggs in his brain. The radio show ended with the man screaming. I wish I could remember who wrote it. There are alot of untrue things in it but it was a truly terrifying horror story.

  27. Annabelle
    September 12, 2014, 5:56 am

    Is it true that cockroaches can’t crawl backwards? I heard if they crawl into your ear, they won’t make it out on their own…

  28. Robert C Brooke
    September 11, 2014, 6:25 pm

    Are there instances of insects preserved in amber being infested with strepsipteran parasites?