Terrifying orb-weaver spiders have returned to the Spring Garden El stop

Upside: Experts say they’re not harmful to humans.

Orb weaver spider at Spring Garden Station. (Note: Dramatization. Not actual size.)

Orb weaver spider at Spring Garden Station. (Note: Dramatization. Not actual size.)

Max Marin / Billy Penn illustration
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Everyone knows about SEPTA rats. But what about SEPTA spiders?

Arachnophobes, close the tab. Call it a day. This one’s a big old “nope” for you. Just remember not to stand under the light fixtures on at the Spring Garden station on the Market Frankford Line — or bring an umbrella if you do.

The spiders are back.

In the warmer months, particularly in July and August, a small army of arachnids makes camp at this outdoor El platform between the I-95 north and south lanes. While entomologists say they’re harmless to humans, Spring Garden riders are often shocked by the critters’ size, their large webs and, most terrifying, the sheer number of them.

At night, they’ve even been known to drop down on unsuspecting commuters.

“They’re huge and their webs are very big,” said El rider Samantha. “They’re very scary spiders.”

This season, SEPTA has received two complaints from riders about the eight-legged crawlers from riders, agency spokesperson Andrew Busch confirmed to Billy Penn. That’s a marked decrease from summer 2017, the arachnid population reached “nightmarish” proportions and garnered attention in the local press.

The transit authority has since invested in some regular exterminations and cleaning at the station. Complaints have been decreasing year over year since then — mostly because the quantity has gone down.

“Obviously, if they’re in great numbers, I know they can look intimidating to folks,” Busch said. “We haven’t seen anything quite to the level of where it was a couple of years ago. Last summer wasn’t quite as bad, and so far this summer we’ve been taking more preventative steps.”

More likely to get a ladybug bite

The spiders of Spring Garden Station have become something of a phenomenon. Social media posts about them date back nearly a decade.

Like clockwork each year, the hot and humid weather brings them out in droves at this one MFL stop — Busch said SEPTA doesn’t have this issue at any other transit hub.

Turns out these specific arachnids are known as orb-weavers, also called cross spiders or gray spiders. Females can grow to be an inch across or bigger, and the spider family is somewhat unique in that they’re attracted to human-made structures rather than vegetation. But why settle here, on this noisy and well-travelled corridor?

Isabelle Betancourt, curatorial assistant of entomology at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, says the orb-weaver is likely attracted to the high elevation of the Spring Garden platform, and its proximity to the river.

Despite some alarmism — “Spring Garden stop on the El is teeming with giant man-eating spiders,” one rider tweeted in August 2013 — SEPTA says they’ve never heard of actual spider-related injury on the platform, nor a single report of a rider being bitten.

“You’re more likely to have a ladybug bite you than an orb-weaver,” Betancourt told Billy Penn. “They are scaredy cats. They need to run and hide if their web gets disturbed.”

Yes, there’s a chance one might drop down in your lap by accident. But Betancourt has never heard of a bite, and even if it happens, their venom is not medically significant to humans, she said.

Spiders = fewer mosquitos

There’s also at least one upshot to keeping the eight-legged gang around.

The platform is clearly a good hunting destination for the orb-weavers. Like most spiders, they feed on mosquitoes and other flying pests that would otherwise be circling you at the Spring Garden stop.

A trip to the station this week found no signs of arachnids themselves. Spiders are nocturnal, and it turns out SEPTA had an exterminator spray the station before this reporter’s visit (a coincidence, the spokesperson said). But their vast, sinewy webs stretched along the concrete platform’s ceiling — and every night, they keep coming back.

Betancourt says extermination sprays won’t do much to keep the spiders from returning to that spot every year, though. Some regular riders — like Rita Peterson — say they’ve never even noticed the creepy-crawly creatures dangling above their heads.

“If they’re up there, I just haven’t looked up,” Peterson said Monday. “Maybe I’m glad I haven’t looked up.”

Sorry, Rita. They’re up there.

For people who experience acute fear of spiders — arachnophobia — Betancourt says cognitive behavioral therapy can help. And Busch said the transit authority welcomes all pest-related complaints. Reach out to SEPTA’s social media team (@SEPTA_SOCIAL on Twitter) or call (215) 580-7800.

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