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Excerpt: In “Bugged,” even tarantulas find that sex can be an awkward proposition

A journalist discovers there's a lot to learn about the complex world of insects

Cover illustration from "Bugged" by David MacNeal. (Handout)

2018 Colorado Book Awards finalist for General Nonfiction

Insects have been shaping our ecological world and plant life for over 400 million years. In fact, our world is essentially run by bugs: There are 1.4 billion for every human on the planet. In Bugged, journalist David MacNeal takes us on an offbeat scientific journey that weaves together history, travel, and culture in order to define our relationship with these mini-monsters.

I must admit that spiders scare me more than death itself. I’m quick to beg girlfriends, neighbors, or even strangers to remove them from my vicinity. I am totally Little Miss Muffet. Apparently, earlier in life, so was Amber Partridge, an invertebrate biologist at the Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster, Colorado.

“I slept in my car for a week freshman year of college because there was a wolf spider in my house,” Amber tells me. “I was raised to be so afraid of spiders.” We’re standing in her white-linoleum-tiled office, separate from the grade school berserkers touring the Butterfly Pavilion. Their zealous screams trickle in. Like a PR lady, Amber is equal parts bubbly and steadfast, armed with a brain library of bug wisdom and a silver Marilyn Monroe necklace charm. Clearly she’s gotten over her fear, because stacked along her office walls are shelves of what appears to be dirt and condensation labeled in clear plastic containers. NyQuil-cup-sized water dishes and a mix of curly-haired, Texas brown, pinktoe, and Chilean rose hair (aka “Rosie”) tarantulas are inside. All of them were bred in captivity.

“Bugged” by David MacNeal.

“How many spiders do you have?” I ask.

“Oh, my gosh!” Amber exclaims. “I probably have, let’s see, there’s fifty—plus the one hundred ‘Rosies.’ Hmm . . .” She trails off, finger on chin as she scans the cramped room. “Probably two hundred tarantulas in this corner here . . .”

My mouth goes dry.

Amber doesn’t only monitor tarantulas. In the Butterfly Pavilion’s humidity-controlled Rearing Room are various caged species getting lucky: green leaf beetles, man-faced bugs, Macleay’s Spectre stick insects wobbling in a rocky sway, Red List-ed tarantulas, Simandoa cave roaches now extinct in the wild. The fecundity produces a damp, sodden atmosphere.

For those unacquainted, here’s some tarantula Sex Ed 101: each developmental stage of an arthropod is called an instar. For example, tarantulas undergo molts where they shed the exoskeleton of their former selves, maturing around ages four to seven. Picture an eight-fingered hand working its way from a leather glove. After this ultimate molt, males can now breed, and many are equipped with protruding tibial spurs on their front legs intended to hook the female’s fangs while the male crawls beneath her for insemination. Otherwise, she’d dig her fangs into his noggin. The spurs later prevent males from escaping their postultimate molt—a tarantula’s final shedding. Unable to jump out of their skin, they die from dehydration. As part of her study, Amber ushers them through that phase, noting how “super awkward” they become. They’re confused. Their gait is off. I imagine the human equivalent to this senescence would be expecting to die at 65 and waking up at 90. Longevity in the arthropod kingdom really goes to the females, especially since some hobbyists have said female Mexican red-knee tarantulas live to see 50. The males need only to mature enough to contribute their chromosomes. “You get to a certain age and you’re like, ‘Okay, I really want to go to the bar tonight,’ ” Amber says, laughing through her nose. And after their jollies are had, it’s checkout time.

For today’s demonstration, Amber calls upon Greg Kinnear.

Initially, Amber’s spiders get numbers, and, though rarely, accidents will happen. When I visit Amber’s lab, Rosie no. 115 is recovering in the “Non-Working Rosies” sickbay. Successfully impregnated spiders receive actual names. Same if they encounter— like our male specimen today did—a celebrity. Besides loaning out Rosies to psychologists for exposure therapy, Amber is summoned to Hollywood to wrangle insects on film sets, as she did for Heaven Is for Real. She convinced the movie’s main star, Kinnear, to hold a Rosie—the one we’re now attempting to mate, thus convincing me that heaven is indeed for real.

I ask if we should put on some Al Green. “We always joke about that,” she says, half expecting the question. “But no. No Barry Manilow.” (I think she means Barry White, but “Copacabana” works too, I guess.) Our resolute matchmaker sets down a cage on a metal table fit with a partition between Kinnear—the tarantula, not the actor—and a female Rosie, which is perforated in order for their pheromones to travel through the terrarium, permeating and enticing each other. Amber must now steer the two using a green paintbrush she keeps in a pencil jar. Looking around at the 300-plus spiders, it’s obvious she is good at her job. She’s bred 23 pairs, 16 of which successfully had offspring. On average, her spiders mate within 15 minutes. So, she removes the plastic divider. The starting gate opens! And—

Nothing. Neither of them budges.

Kinnear emerges from his trailer—a tipped-over clay pot—his dark pink velvet asterisk of a carapace gleaming. The stage is already dressed with a web laid across the pebbly floor laced with thick ribbons of sperm, some of which Greg Kinnear—of Westminster, not Hollywood—has already sucked up into quill-like appendages near his mouth called pedipalps. But the atmosphere is tense. Amber guides the female toward him. Normally, in the wild, a male approaches a female’s burrow and politely taps on the edge. If she doesn’t come out to mate with him, he’ll try a burrow next door. Some male Rosies are brave enough to trespass inside. “But that could result in death,” Amber warns.

Hoping not to end Kinnear’s career, Amber delicately guides him, using the brush to rub the pheromones off his pedipalps and onto the female’s. She nudges the two closer. They’re coy.

“Kinnear doesn’t want any of this,” she says, disappointed by their apprehension. At one point, the female lifts onto her hind legs, presenting herself for insemination—but Kinnear hides in the corner. “He’s camera shy. He’s not a very good actor,” she says, visibly upset. “She may be a little aggressive and he’s nervous.” It could also be that she’s giving off a gravid pheromone telling him she’s already pregnant.

Instead, we opt for the spider that originally frightened Amber as a college freshman: a wolf spider.

We do an about-face in the small room and check on a pair in the terrarium. “Hi, you’re very pretty, honey,” she pacifies the fuzzy female. “We have a divider in here, but he decides to climb over it every night,” Amber explains. Normally, they’d receive separate homes, but caging both for a week to incubate pheromones makes for faster breed times. But something’s amiss.

“Humph . . .” Amber is stumped, and uses her brush to probe the male’s side of the divider.

Oh, no, I think.

“Did you eat your boyfriend?” she tranquilly asks the female. His side of the court is empty. There’s zero trace of any limb-y morsel.

“That’s unfortunate . . . You look like you ate him.” Dismayed, Amber hardly speaks as she sets aside the now lone wolf spider and grabs a pair of pinktoe tarantulas. We both brim with hope, noticing the sperm web draped on the dirt floor. But the once-amorous mood here at the Butterfly Pavilion has turned anxious. The pinktoes also get cold feet.

“I guess—” she sighs. “This is ridiculous. This is seriously like herding cats! I’ve never had this much trouble ever—ever!”

A week later, on the next go-around, Amber starts off with female Rosie no. 119 joined by male GRG2, short for Grammostola rosea and the alphanumeric name G2. Also, I’m holding the conductor’s baton—a size 12 paintbrush I’ll use to tempt the pair. “What you’re going to do,” says our matchmaker standing beside me, “is take the brush and rub the palps like this.” My hand quivers as the bristles approach G2’s outstretched pedipalps. As you’ll recall, these hairy straws store their semen, sucked up by the tip of their thorny embolus. My brush, frayed from years of coaxing, feels light against his pedipalp, which falls limp after each stroke. It feels like petting a very indifferent cat. I warily repeat the gestures back and forth, tickling the male and female with pheromones.

“Now you can start moving him toward her a little bit before she tries to climb out of the cage,” says Amber, tone as calm and cautious as a DMV instructor. This is difficult. They barely budge. Prod one way, they go the other. “So,” she says slowly, “guide him back towards her.” I manage to steer them to opposing sides of the cage. As Amber retrieves another male, I continue. The spiders flinch with each rub. I try to imagine if I’d appreciate being touched like this. How consensual is this? Meanwhile, jeers come from a box of hissing cockroaches on the Rearing Room table.

There is a danger component, so I must be vigilant. “I’ve had some pretty bad injuries where she’s gotten her fangs into him,” Amber tells me. “She’ll inject venom if she hasn’t eaten in a while.” She notices they’re in the same position. “Ugh, they’re so teenager-ish . . . Dude, you know what you have to do,” she berates G2.

I relinquish the conductor’s baton to the matchmaker. Eventually, we call quits on the Rosies and grab a pair of curly-haired tarantulas. Almost immediately the male jumps her from behind—“Sneak attack!”—and then proceeds to clumsily tap dance on her head. Believe it or not, this is a good thing. “Oh my god, this is amazing!” says Amber. “We’ve all seen these guys at the club. Just sayin’.”

The moment passes. “She wasn’t rejecting you, she didn’t understand.” But the damage is seemingly done. Amber returns him to face forward, stickhandling them like stubborn hockey pucks.

And then—a grand slam! Or rather intense flailing as the male makes a wrong move while crawling beneath the female. There’s a quick struggle with the female wrestling the male and I jump back and scream, “Oh, shit!” My presence killed him, I think. But the alarm dies down as they face and seek out each other with intertwining legs in a Greco-Roman grapple. He drums his pedipalps on her underside, and sticks his embolus into her epigynum, filling it like a gas nozzle fills a tank.

She gets backed into the cage’s corner and bares her two very ominous fangs. “She’s getting mad.” And possibly a little hungry. Amber breaks up the quarrel using the paintbrush. The mating was a success.

Next, data collection. Date, humidity, start/end time, and attempts get logged as well as comments. “New sperm web+short copulation” or an “A+” if sex goes smoothly. Occasionally a male will break off his embolus within a female’s copulatory cavity to prevent other males from reproducing. I’m a little surprised how rapidly it all happens after the hours put in. “That’s it?”

“That’s it,” she tells me. Except now the potentially gravid female gets a name. The matchmaker bestows the honor on me. I name her “Claudia.”

If Claudia ends up being gravid, she’ll produce an egg sac that Amber will delicately confiscate and incubate herself. Egg sacs can contain 1,000 spiderlings, four of which can fit on a thumbtack. Bug reproduction is bountiful and strange, and the variety makes the process truly impressive, especially given bugs’ proclivity for adaptation. How warm those breeding environments are can either damage the insects or generate swaths of breeding grounds. Mix in human travel, and we get our contentious relationship with pests and changes that have reshaped history. And it’s something we’ll have to face up to if we plan to live in their world.


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Buy “Bugged: The Insects Who Rule the World and the People Obsessed with Them” at BookBar.
Interview: “Bugged” author David MacNeal.

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