What is it about spiders? No creepy crawly has lodged itself as deeply in the human psyche. Marvel Comics has not spun a character called Earwig-Man into a global movie franchise. The people of the West African diaspora tell no humorous stories concerning a trickster earthworm. No mere silkworm wove so skilfully she made a Greek god jealous.
Our fascination with spiders is the flipside of the repulsion they can evoke. I mention this because they are particularly evident in northern European homes and gardens right now. For spider fanciers like me, this is a welcome waypoint in the switch from summer to autumn. For arachnophobes, it must be very upsetting.
The first hazard are the webs produced by the European garden spider. These animals have natty, cryptic patterns on their abdomens that include a large white cross. The females achieve full adult growth around this time of year. That means their vertical webs are at their largest.
Insect flyways are often human passageways. I regularly walk face first into webs slung between potted shrubs or across the door of the greenhouse. This is a bigger inconvenience for the spider than for me.
But I sympathise with readers who find this scary. For me, the thought experiment is to imagine blundering into the web of Asia’s Giant golden orb-weaving spider, as Hong Kong-based hikers sometimes do.
I have encountered equally enormous Joro spiders in Japan. The webs of the females were very pretty, glittering in the sunshine of Naoshima. Walking into one would still freak me out.
The second autumnal peril for arachnophobes in temperate zones is the march of the male house spiders. Longer nights make these leggy fellows lonely. They set out to meet that special, hairy, eight-eyed lady. Many end up ignominiously trapped in bathtubs. Others meet the female of their dreams. If the male spider gets lucky, they mate. If he gets even luckier, she does not eat him afterwards.
House spiders have little in common with Spider-Man. The American superhero would disappoint movie-goers if he spent long periods crouching motionless behind a radiator hoping no one would notice him.
Nor would Anansi stories have spread so widely if the spidery Ghanaian trickster was easily vanquished by domestic sanitary ware. Shape-shifting Anansi was challenging the rules of reality long before the Spider-Verse film. George Fiawoo, a traditional African storyteller and dance teacher, relates how Anansi hoarded the world’s wisdom in a pot. Fiawoo says Anansi has a life lesson for all of us: success is often a reward for cunning, not hard work.
Nature writers such as WS Bristowe speculated whether spiders possessed both capabilities. They doubted structures as sophisticated as orb webs could be products of blind instinct.
Evolution is responsible, not intelligence, they concluded. But the evidence that webs provide of spider sophistication is another reason for their mythological importance. Athena punished Arachne’s pride in her weaving by turning her into a spider. Arachnids — the class of animals that include spiders — are named after her.
Weaving was historically a skilled, valuable activity dominated by women. Tales abound concerning female spiders. Some are actively benevolent, from Spider Grandmother in Native American traditions to the literate barn spider of Charlotte’s Web.
In contemporary popular media, female spiders inevitably tend to be dangerous but attractive. They include The Stalk, the wisecracking assassin of the Saga comics, and Rosie in the movie A Bug’s Life, suspiciously widowed for the 12th time.
There is genuine peril to humans in the bites of Latrodectus spiders such as Rosie. Black widows occur in warmer countries worldwide. A red flash on a black spider spells “beware”.
I have been bitten by house spiders and European garden spiders when I was dumb enough to pick them up between thumb and forefinger. The bites tingled rather than hurt.
The bite of the UK’s woodlouse spider is reputedly more unpleasant. Disturb them among flower pots and compost bags in the garden shed, and they run away. They have grey bums, red bodies and big fangs.
It is pointless telling arachnophobes the chances of a fatal bite are minuscule. They know that. When phobias are debilitating, professional exposure therapy can sometimes help.
I do believe that knowledge of animals can reduce the marginal fear of them. A good place to start is observing the endearing little zebra spiders that chase after gnats on suburban windowsills. Two large, dark eyes and paired, hairy palps make them look like moustachioed men in sunglasses.
Watch out in summer for flower crab spiders. These perch on the yellow or white blooms whose colours they copy. They stretch out their forelegs in a characteristic boastful angler pose while awaiting unwary flies. Right now, enjoy the autumnal display of orb webs in the garden when dew and morning sunshine is on them.
I can count on the company of a house spider or two for most of the year in the study where I write these columns. Poor Arachne is safe here from feather dusters and vacuum cleaners. She teaches me stillness and patience. In other words, she does not do much. She might say the same of me.
Jonathan Guthrie is the head of Lex
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