LLELA is home to a popular native tarantula restoration project.

June 21, 2017

As many do-gooders have learned, good causes often need dramatic headlines to get people to act. 

Bill FreiheitSo when retired physicist Bill Freiheit saw that funding was running out for the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area where he volunteered, he quickly enlisted the help of a pair of charismatic allies. One was a Scarborough Renaissance Festival fan, and the other was a large, brown and hairy beast with fangs the size of a cat’s claw: Aphonopelma hentzi, aka the Texas brown tarantula

Bill Freiheit figured out tarantulas could be a big draw for LLELA.

Out of their collaboration came the Hentzi Project, a campaign to keep the doors open at LLELA through an attention-grabbing effort to restore Texas’ native tarantula population to the wildlife habitat around Lake Lewisville. Now in its fifth year, the project has proved to be a huge challenge as to species reintroduction but a glowing success as an educational tool.

“The biggest goal has been to educate, raise awareness and create an ongoing dialogue about all the related issues of climate change, habitat loss and wildlife in general,” Freiheit says. “Hopefully, we can also bring back this iconic species as part of the ongoing restoration work being done at LLELA.”

Leah Patton, aka the Spider QueenWhen he first set out to put his idea into action, Freiheit called on fellow thespian Leah Patton, a North Texas office manager by day and the Spider Queen in her spare time. The two had met at a Renaissance festival years before and performed there together, which is how Freiheit learned of Patton’s unusual hobby of raising tarantulas.

Leah Patton, aka the Spider Queen, raises tarantulas as a hobby.

Tarantula baby“We engaged and collaborated with the educational staff at LLELA to put together a Halloween themed tarantula adoption event every year. We made the news in numerous locations, both written and broadcast, thus engaging the public at large,” Freiheit says. “We knew it was a success when all of the various news sources picked up the story and we began hearing back through the various naturalist grapevine networks about it. The money raised was minimal, but the press LLELA received was very valuable. In the end, with the Hentzi Project and others, we attracted the attention of a couple of entities that took on the expenses of keeping LLELA open.”

“The biggest goal has been to educate, raise awareness and create an ongoing dialogue about all the related issues of climate change, habitat loss and wildlife in general,” Freiheit says. “Hopefully, we can also bring back this iconic species as part of the ongoing restoration work being done at LLELA.”

After using the project to save LLELA from the budgetary chopping block, the two turned their attention to making good on their stated mission of actually reintroducing the tarantula species to the site, which they see as an ideal location for their attempt.

Tarntula eggs“The Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area is approximately 2,600 acres of federal land set aside for flood control when the Lewisville Lake dam was constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers. It is leased as a wildlife management area to a consortium of entities for the purpose of education, restoration, recreation and research,” Freiheit explains. “It was chosen as the original Hentzi site by default, as I am personally involved with the restoration work at LLELA.”

TarantulaKnown scientifically as Aphonopelma hentzi, the tarantulas in the project are also known as Texas Browns. They are hairy and tan and dark brown brown with two body segments, a carapace and abdomen, Patton says. They have two small pedipalps – walking-legs – in front and eight longer, segmented legs. The eyes are clustered near the palps, on the top of the carapace, and the fangs are between the palps, folded up along the underside. At the end of the abdomen are two spinnerets where they make silk. The legs are darker and when fully grown can span four inches.

Fat baby tarantula.

They’re docile to humans and animals but a hungry monster among the insect world, eating mostly crickets and grasshoppers. They’re slow when they walk around but can sprint to outrun danger, and they give fair warning if you invade their personal space says Freiheit. 

“They are mostly harmless, but they do have a pair of fangs the shape and size of cat claws, so you don't really want to corner it and scare it. When threatened, they will rear up on their back legs and thump you with their front legs as a warning.

Tarantula“They live almost exclusively in burrows in dry undisturbed wilderness areas. They need a healthy supply of small insects, and they just need to be left alone. Construction and insecticide is probably their worst threat.”

Patton is the parental stand-in for the tarantulas they release into the wild. Like Freiheit, she has no formal degree in biology or animal science. Her experience comes from having cared for tarantulas since childhood when her 7th grade class kept one, and Patton took it home to care for it during summer vacation.

Years later, that school experienced prepared her to be tasked with incubating and hatching thousands of tiny tarantula eggs and raising the babies on a diet of mealworms until they’re big enough to make it on their own. Her daughter helps out when she can, and Freiheit has taken on some of the tasks as well. The work takes patience, and results are hampered by the slow growth of the tarantula along with a very low rate of viability among the hatchlings and no continual large-scale funding for the project.

“Only one in 100 might make it to maturity – fingers crossed – and that's a lot of tarantulas to try and raise,” says Patton. “Funding would be nice. It's my time, Bill's time, and that of my daughter, between her college classes. It's a volunteer labor of love.”

TarantulaPatton and Freiheit have committed themselves to another five years to see if their work pays off in any sightings of wild tarantulas at LLELA. If successful, not only may lake visitors catch a sight of one of these brown giants, thfe ecosystem as a whole will benefit from the presence of a large insect predator.

“Tarantulas keep populations of other insects in check,” says Freiheit. “They are part of the whole balanced ecosystem. If you've ever seen summers with plagues of crickets, grasshoppers or roaches, you can understand what an ecosystem out of balance can be like.

“When there are no tarantulas, it is an indication that the local Texas ecosystem is damaged, or even completely collapsed. Mankind depends on nature to provide numerous essential services, and without it, our own future is in peril.”

As to how anyone interested may help with the Hentzi Project, Patton says to simply take care of the habitat under our own watch: “Stop using pesticides in a broad-array manner. Check the area for native wildlife before beginning construction. Allow someone to attempt removal – a one-day project, or even a rain-day one. Stop killing them when you see one in the yard; it isn't going to attack you. It took ten or more years to get to a diagonal leg span of three-inches.”

TarantulaFor Patton, the prospects of seeing her work revive the wild populations of native tarantulas in the state keeps her motivated. 

“Think back, about 30 years ago, people saw them everywhere,” she says. “Especially on the roads in the countryside in fall and spring. Males in search of mates. How often does a person see this anymore? Even in areas where there is a decent population, one might see three or four in a night – not three or four hundred. Too many species have already vanished. Man needs to stop interrupting the chain.”

Similarly, Freiheit is driven by a compulsion to change people’s perceptions about ecosystems, even for some of nature’s most feared species. 

“Friends and family reactions pretty much follow the same pattern as the general public,” he says. “It starts with, ‘Oh HELL no!’ Then, ‘Not in my house.’ Ending with, ‘That's pretty cool!’ Mission accomplished.”

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