While some may ring in the Halloween season by smearing shrubs with 99-cent store fuzzy webbing and plastic spiders, the arachnid purists over at the Natural History Museum have a more organic approach. Each autumn a screened pavilion on the museum’s South Lawn becomes home to more free-range, eight-legged tenants than anyone in his right mind could want – in short, an arachnophobe’s worst nightmare and an eight-year-old boy’s version of heaven.
We have paid several visits to the museum’s springtime Butterfly Pavilion through the years, joining the throngs of smiling families oohing, ahhing, and extending fingers. The Spider Pavilion crowd behaves quite differently – more along the lines of gasping, shuddering, and shrinking away. I didn’t see a single visitor needing a reminder not to touch. Enormous creatures (on the scale of what you don't want to find in your bathtub) perch in the center of doubly enormous webs, hanging out and waiting for museum staff to toss a few worms and grasshoppers their way.
The dramatic looking spiders journey here from as far away as the swamps of Louisiana, though local varieties are also represented. Breeds inclined to sit in their webs are chosen for the exhibit, and we learned that only females are selected because the she-spiders are so much bigger than the he-spiders. A few dangerous spiders (e.g. black and brown widows and brown recluses) are displayed in a glass case outside the main exhibit; the spiders spinning free are those not considered dangerous to humans.
Daytime visits are great for photo ops, but families harboring true arachnophiles and budding entomologists should should keep their eyes open for opportunities to do evening flashlight tours (as of this publish date, there are no plans for 2015 flashlight tours, but we're told that could still change). After dark is when the creepy crawlies are the most active, and if a knock-down, drag-out spider brawl sounds like a good time, after dark is the time to find one. Nighttime is also when spiders gobble up their own webs and rebuild them someplace else (TMI?) in the ultimate act of recycling.
Between pumpkin patches, haunted houses, and Halloween festivals, entertainment is not hard to come by at this time of year, but slipping in one outing that has a big educational element feels good - in spite of all those icky, hairy legs.
Spider Pavilion 2016 dates: October 30 - December 11
10:00am-5:00pm (last entry 4:30pm)
Adults $5; Children $3 (plus general admission: Adults $12; Children $5, under 2 free)
Or visit on one of the museum's free admission days.
Originally published October 13, 2011