Our arachnid guru tells us how and why we are milking spiders for thier venom live in Spiders – Alive & Deadly.
A dream job for some and a nightmare for many, Lachlan Manning is the Head Spider Wrangler for the newly-opened Spiders exhibition. In this role he's responsible for the wellbeing of hundreds of spiders – many of them pregnant and due to give birth during the run of the exhibition. He's also overseeing the twice-daily live milking of spiders in the Venom Lab.
Why are we milking spiders?
When we demonstrate to the public the process of extracting venom from spiders, it will be in front of a live audience! This allows visitors the chance to engage and learn more about the importance and use of spiders in our lives.
As a huge bonus, all the venom we extract in these demonstrations will go to the Institute of Molecular Bioscience at the University of Queensland (UQ IMB) and be used by toxicologists in their research. The three main areas of toxin research they are performing potential pain medications, anti-cancer treatments, therapeutic uses, agricultural uses (such as pesticides) and evolution of arthropod venom.
Where are the spiders from?
The spiders have either been bred in captivity by professional invertebrate keepers, such as those at Minibeast Wildlife, or sustainably harvested from the field by researchers.
How do you extract the venom?
The venom must be collected by carefully inserting the fangs into a pipette tip or vial. A short zap of electricity, 6 -12 volts depending on their size, is applied to the mouth parts (known as chelicerae in spiders) in order to get the venom glands to contract and push the venom out the fangs and into the vial.
To make this procedure easier and less stressful for both staff and spider, the spider is placed into a gas chamber into which a small amount of carbon dioxide is slowly released. This causes the spider to go into a dormant state and venom can then be extracted.
How often can a spider be milked, and how many spiders do you think you’ll milk over the course of the exhibition?
An individual spider cannot be milked more than once every 60 days. This not only allows the spider a much needed break but allows the venom glands to produce more venom.
We will need to keep at least 120 spiders to maintain daily presentations. Over the course of the exhibition, we will have extracted some 240 samples of spider venom.
Which spider’s venom is the most highly-prized?
It would be unfair to say that one spider species’ venom is more valuable than another's. Though some of the toxins in some species' venom proves more useful in medical applications (such as tarantulas, family Theraphosidae, have toxins that could be used as pain killers) and other species will be more useful in pesticides (such as Portia fimbriata with miticides). But the venom of all species will help better understand the structure of venom, how it works and how it evolved.
What should visitors watch out for when they come to see you milking?
If visitors have been paying attention in the exhibition and were to watch a couple of presentations, they will notice that the venom extraction procedure changes slightly with the two main groups of spider: there are the Primitive Spiders (infra order Mygalomorphae) and the Modern Spiders (infra order Araneomorphae). They differ in body structure; visitors will need to come to the exhibition to find out how!
See spider milking every day of the week at 10.30am and 1.30pm in Spiders – Alive & Deadly.