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Big spiders take over local parks, but don’t be afraid

Arachnophobes beware! You may want to stay out of area parks for the next several weeks.

Many are packed with spiders, and they aren't of the itsy bitsy variety. These are big ones, almost humongous.

It's the time of year when banana spiders are mature and widespread. Hikers at the Okeeheelee Nature Center in West Palm Beach and joggers at Hugh Taylor Birch State Park pass by hordes of them along the parks' trails. Even a small park such as Tarpon River Park in downtown Fort Lauderdale has dozens of webs stretched between trees and power lines.

South Andrews Avenue neighborhood activist Cal Deal was grossed out by the spider encampment at Tarpon River Park during a recent bike ride. In an e-mail blast to friends and neighbors, he wrote: "Maybe we could make it into a tourist attraction for the new South Andrews: Arachnophobia World."

"I thought, 'Man oh man, look at these things,'" Deal said. "Then, I saw more and more. They're good-sized spiders, and I'm not a fan of spiders so I steered clear. It was pretty creepy."

Banana spiders are native to the Southeast and tropics and are most prominent in the late summer and early fall. Females can be up to 4 inches long and spin massive webs that stretch several feet across.

They love the open woods and swampy nooks common in parks in South Florida.

Because of their size, people often assume the banana spider is dangerous. But in reality, it is shy and has a venom that is not lethal, causing some pain in the area of the bite and redness.

State park administrators and their counterparts with Broward and Palm Beach counties are content to leave the banana spiders alone despite the sometimes frightening numbers that visitors encounter. Instead, they are often a point of conversation on nature tours.

Clive Pinnock, manager of the Okeeheelee Nature Center, said the spiders are actually a plus for parks. They feed on mosquitoes and other insects that annoy summer-time visitors.

"They are worth their weight in gold in the number of insect pests they consume," Pinnock said.

Still, Boca Raton relocates spiders from playgrounds and picnic areas. And, Fort Lauderdale is pushing the spiders in Tarpon River Park to a less public section. They say the spiders are native, and pesticide would just create other issues.

"I'm sure it would freak some people out, but they are typically harmless," Fort Lauderdale spokeswoman Shannon Vezina said.

Until fall, bikers and joggers may want to go slow on a first run along a park trail or select a volunteer to be a point person.

Glavis Edwards, the official spider expert at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, points out that the mature banana spider can be helpful beyond just eating mosquitoes.

If you're lost in the woods and hungry, the banana spider is nutritious because of the egg mass in the female's belly, he said.

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