Our eight-legged friends


IT always makes me sad when someone expresses a fear of or loathing for spiders. They are the most amazing creatures, and without them we would be swatting away flies all day long and sleeping under mosquito nets.

I looked to see if anyone has come up with an explanation for arachnophobia. (This is the severe form, when seeing a spider or even believing there is one nearby causes panic. Many have a less extreme but nevertheless real fear.) There are two main theories: that it is genetic, ie some sort of primitive response going back the the dawn of man, or that it is cultural, ie if your mother screamed when she saw a spider, it’s likely that you will too. The first theory is undermined by the fact that fear of spiders seems to be a European-only phenomenon, so the most likely explanation is that the response is learned from parents or other adults. When I was looking for spider-related videos on YouTube I found that many of them are described as ‘scary’ or ‘nightmarish’, unhelpfully reinforcing the fears that many feel.

In this country, however, there is nothing to be afraid of – we have 650 species of spiders and not one is venomous to humans. I was once nipped by a spider but it didn’t break the skin, and no doubt it was terrified. (It is a different story in many other countries so you would be wise not to pick one up.)

As we come into autumn we tend to be more aware of spiders because dew forms on the webs and highlights them.

When I used to walk to school with my children, we would see hundreds of webs on hedges in the mornings. By the afternoon the dew had dried and the webs were next to invisible again.

One of the most common spiders in Britain is the garden cross spider (Araneus diadematus) which comes in a range of colours but can be distinguished by the cross on its abdomen. Other names for it are European garden spider, diadem spider, orangie, cross spider, crowned orb weaver and pumpkin spider.

It builds the typical orb-shaped web to catch its prey. Here is a video showing the process (I normally avoid BBC videos at least partly because of the accompanying ‘music’, which this one suffers from, but it is very good and well explained, though it does not bother to identify the species of spider. If it is not Araneus diadematus, it is similar).

When the web is complete, the spider may stay in the centre of it or retreat to a nearby hiding place with one leg on a signal thread which vibrates when prey (mainly wasps, flies and butterflies) has been trapped. It rushes out and bites the victim, which paralyses it, thus preventing it from harming the spider, and also starts the digestive process, then wraps it in silk and stores it for later consumption. I am not sure what kind of spider this is but it is similar to the garden cross.

As you can see, the process of catching prey damages the web, and the spider builds a new one almost every night, eating the old one first, which conserves and recycles silk proteins. At maturity in the second year of life, the males stop building webs and start hunting for females. This is a risky business because female spiders quite often eat their mates. If the male escapes this fate, he dies in the late summer anyway.

In the autumn the female constructs an egg sac from silk and fills it with hundreds of eggs. She remains nearby to protect it but dies after a few days.

The spiderlings hatch the following May. At first they collect together into a bright yellow bundle and if disturbed they will wildly scatter, reassembling when they feel safe.

When they are ready to disperse, they release fine silk threads on which they are carried off by the wind, a journey called ‘ballooning’. This was the best video I could find.

Wherever the small spider drops to earth it will start its new life. It takes two years to reach maturity and will hibernate over the first winter.

From one of our most widespread spiders to one of the rarest, the wonderfully named distinguished jumping spider (Attulus distinguendus), which is found in only two sites, one in Essex and one in Kent, and both under threat of development. You can see a picture on the website of the charity Buglife. Jumping spiders don’t build webs but use their highly developed vision (they have four pairs of eyes and are said to have the best vision of all invertebrates apart from the octopus family) to hunt and leap on to their prey. Here is a video of a different kind of jumping spider, a Hyllus diardi from the Far East. ‘It’s absolutely rapid,’ exclaims the proud Northern owner between burps (his, not the spider’s). It’s not often you hear someone call a spider ‘sweetheart’, but this is a real enthusiast.

Several large spiders have colonised our greenhouse, which is a blessing because their webs trap a large proportion of sciara flies, whose larvae like nothing better than to tuck into a nice fat cactus. And when we had a small conservatory built a couple of years ago, scores of flies congregated in the roof. Now the spiders have moved in (hidden behind various struts) the flies have gone, or at least we don’t see them before they get eaten.

Finally, if you find a spider in your bath, it won’t be able to get out because it cannot cling to the smooth surface, so it would be kind to help it by hanging a towel over the side to give it a ladder. Please don’t wash it down the plughole because it will drown.

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