Wolf Spiders, Actually, Are All Around
1:57 PM EST on January 7, 2024
When Sol de Janeiro's Delícia Drench™—the body butter that would allegedly launch a thousand wolf spiders—landed on Sephora's website in December, early reviews showered the cream in praise. Users loved the product's sweet smell, rich texture, and quick absorption, all things one might desire in a body butter. But one review, by Sephora user chemkats, gave Delícia Drench only one star, under the title: SCENT ATTRACTS WOLF SPIDERS. "If you're scared of wolf spiders- watch out for these lotions lol. I wanted to love them sooo bad, but one of the ingredients is like kryptonite to wolf spiders! When I put it on instantly one will come out," chemkats wrote. (Let us momentarily disregard chemkats's confusion about what kryptonite actually is and does, at least to Superman.)
The review continued to make its case, as chemkats explained "normally I'll see one every like 3 years, used this and it was every day. I stopped using it and haven't seen once since...." In the same review, chemkats described a wolf spider chase scene, in which the arachnid, so allegedly bent on whetting its mouthparts on the body butter, began chasing poor chemkats: "I'd run left, it ran left, I ran right, it ran right."
By late December, chemkats's review had gone viral. First it spawned a series of stories accusing the body butter of attracting spiders, bolstered by a series of Reddit commenters doing highly speculative spider science about putatively spider-attracting chemicals farnesyl acetate and hexadecyl acetate. Soon after, Sol de Janeiro published an Instagram story denying the body butter either attracts spiders of any kind or contains farnesyl acetate and hexadecyl acetate. Then came the reported stories interviewing actual spider scientists, who unanimously debunked chemkats's theory. Finally came Popsugar's "A Comprehensive Guide to the Viral Sol de Janeiro Spider Theory," which includes dated subheadings like "Dec. 27, 2023: An Informal Investigation Into the Ingredients Begins" and "Dec. 30, 2023: Sol de Janeiro Responds to Spider Claims."
I suppose this story is also one of those recaps. I had reached out to Matthew Persons, a behavioral ecologist studying chemically mediated predator-prey interactions and sexual selection in wolf spiders at Susquehanna University, when the chemical status of the body butter was still unknown. Persons got back to me this week. "It is unlikely that there is a chemical in body butter that attracts wolf spiders, but it is possible," he wrote in an email.
Scientists know that at least some wolf spiders can and do respond to airborne chemical cues such as sex pheromones, Persons explained. But scientists know very little about the chemical characterization of these cues, meaning it's not easy to tell if a chemical in a body butter would cause a behavioral response in a wolf spider. These pheromones are extremely specific for a reason; a wolf spider sending out a signal would likely want to attract others of its own species, not every random wolf spider in the vicinity. "Only about a dozen pheromones have been identified among the 50,000+ species of spider and all of them are chemically distinct," Persons said.
Persons also confirmed the spider science happening on Reddit was not really relevant to the question at hand, which is if wolf spiders are attracted to Sol de Janeiro's Delícia Drench™. The chemicals farnesyl acetate and hexadecyl acetate were found to induce a response in the spider family Pholcidae, which are commonly known as cellar spiders or daddy long-legs. "These spiders are only distantly related to wolf spiders and there is no reason to believe that wolf spiders would be attracted to a cellar spider pheromone even if they were an ingredient in the body butter," Persons said. Leave the daddy long-legs alone, they never asked to be dragged into product defamation on Sephora dot com!
Wolf spider courtship also consists of much more than chemicals. Many species of wolf spider multitask when they mate. For example, male Schizocosa retrorsa wolf spiders lift and wave their legs before pounding them in the ground to send vibrations to female suitors. This courtship routine also stirs the movement of air particles, which in turn prick the sensory hairs of the waiting wolf spider female. Could a body butter do all this?
As Persons sees it, the most plausible explanation is that chemkats simply didn't realize how just many wolf spiders are out there, around us. "I have hand collected 65 of them in 30 minutes from my garage door," he said. "I routinely hand collect 100 of them in about an hour from a soybean field." When Persons takes new students out to collect wolf spiders in the field, he said they are often struck by just how common wolf spiders are. The arachnids live around the world in just about any biome: deserts, mountains, grasslands, volcanic lava tubes and suburban backyards. Persons' personal all-time wolf spider record was collecting 156 of the arachnids by hand in half an hour, which shakes out to one wolf spider every 10 or 12 seconds. That collecting session happened at night, with the help of a headlamp. "You can see their eyeshine at night," Persons added.
It seems the larger mystery is not the Sol de Janeiro's Delícia Drench™ but the Sephora reviewer chemkats. Where do they live, and why are there so many wolf spiders there? In TechCrunch, Morgan Sung noted that chemkats has a history of leaving reviews that accuse beauty products of attracting spiders. In a different review on Aug. 15, 2022, titled "Smells divine BUT attracts spiders" chemkats wrote, "I had a spider bite my head, another bunch run towards me and the one tonight...evdrytime id change directions it would follow." In yet another review on Aug. 13, 2022 titled "Results but attracts spiders to your head lol," chemkats wrote "As far as results it definitely works, but since using it spiders & ants crawl up onto my head." I am no scientist, but it seems to me chemkats's wolf spider problem has less to do with beauty products and more to do with the places they spend their time, which may or may not be a spider den.
In the spirit of debunking, wolf spiders do not chase people, although they do chase and pounce on their insect prey. Spiders in general do not chase people; they actually try to avoid us. Despite the spiders' intentions, arachnophobia is one of the most common animal phobias, even though only a few species of spiders are dangerous to humans. Wolf spiders are venomous but their bite is as harmless to humans as a bee sting. But part of the joy of living on this Earth is sharing space with the life around us, life that is almost always more invested in their survival than threatening our own. If you look for them, I've got a sneaky feeling that wolf spiders actually are all around. But unlike us, they are minding their own business.