Every year without fail I am astonished by the sheer quantity of webbing produced by spiders in the autumn. And not being a spider expert, I can’t really say where it all comes from either. Besides the rear end of a spider, that is. Do spiders, like many animals, breed during the summer, producing an annual surplus of young ones which then spread out and begin to establish their own webs? I don’t know.
What I do know is that the visual effect can be stunning, especially when combined with a heavy dewfall or frost. Dawn at Moor Green Lakes nature reserve last Sunday saw every nettle clump, bramble stem, gorse bush and blade of grass liberally draped with silk, as though a bunch of spiders were having a street party and had got a bit carried away with the bunting. The whole scene was delicately picked out in droplets of early mist rising up from the lake, clinging to any and every surface they touched.
Is this the most underrated pleasure of the season? An overlooked natural spectacle? I think it might be, and I wonder whether spiders might win a few more useful friends if more were made of it.
Webs aside, the creatures themselves ought to be interesting enough, though they’ve not yet caught my attention the way insects have. I’m sure this is an oversight on my part as many spiders are seriously pretty, and certainly without thinking too hard I can name a few really rather nice ones: the bright ‘cucumber green’ spider Araniella cucurbitina, the rotund and spiky garden cross that spins an impressive proportion of those abundant autumn webs, and my favourite of all, the zebra jumping spider, which might even be described as cute – look at its little face! And what could be cooler than a ghostly pale crab spider, perfectly disguised as it lurks on a daisy, awaiting lunch.
House spiders (by which I mostly mean Tegenaria species) may not be either pretty or cute by most standards, but the sudden, alarming appearance of a sizeable specimen scuttling across the living room carpet on a dark November evening at least introduces a frisson of the wild to our otherwise increasingly domesticated lifestyles, so they’re worth a mention too.
Aside from those few, I must emphasise that the extent of what I don’t know about spiders is vast. How many UK species are there? How many of them are rare with an associated Biodiversity Action Plan? What is the largest spider in the world and just how big is it? Likewise, which is the smallest? I just don’t know.*
Beyond that they’re ‘scary’, society at large doesn’t appear to know a great deal about spiders either. Perhaps that’s why sensationalist news reports about a deadly plague of false widows gain so much credence with the public, whereas in reality Steatoda nobilis is timid enough that an entomologist** friend happily tolerates one residing on his bedroom curtains. Like most ‘dangerous’ invertebrates, it’s only likely to bite if provoked and, as with a bee or wasp sting, the vast majority of those bitten will be unharmed, aside from suffering a fair degree of temporary unpleasantness.
It isn’t merely real-world spiders that are the victim of such ignorance either. I saw a Halloween-themed gift bag on sale in Reading last weekend that was decorated with a ten-legged cartoon spider. And speaking of cartoon spiders, how fortunate that Spiderman appeared to inherit all the potentially useful skills enjoyed by spider-kind (climbing walls, locomotion by swinging from a lengthy line of silk) and none of the inconveniences (inability to get out of the bath, getting trapped by a giant glass and a piece of cardboard).
That ignorance breeds fear may be a cliché, but in the case of spiders I certainly think it’s true. Our irrational, inbuilt unease about spiders doesn’t encourage us to look beyond the hairs-and-legs-and-fangs to see fascinating, beautiful organisms; that’s probably something only a sustained educational campaign could fix.
So allow me to propose the introduction of spider studies, arachnology if you will, onto the national curriculum. Who knows, in a generation or so they may at last be celebrated as a natural wonder of autumn, as opposed to something generically spooky associated with Halloween. I’m not the world’s greatest arachnaphile and definitely no spider expert, but I reckon society regarding spiders with a bit more affection would have be a good thing.
Photos from top to bottom: webs at dawn in Hampshire, the cucumber green spider, a crab spider has lunch in Kent, an unidentified spider in the USA, and a cluster of spider babies in Cornwall.
*Although Google does! The answers are: there are more than 600 UK species, of which 31 have a BAP (look at their amazing names); the largest spider species in the world is either the 28-centimetre, 170-gram goliath bird-eater or the 30-centimetre giant huntsman, depending on whether you consider the biggest to be measured by mass or leg-span. And the smallest? Patu digua, from Borneo, which is, fully grown, smaller than the head of a pin.
**N.B. Spiders are NOT insects! (But in the war they will side with the insects…)