Autumn . . . and Jan Etherington enters the scary world of arachnids

Fen Raft Spider - photo by Sheila Tilmouth and supplied by SWT

Fen Raft Spider - photo by Sheila Tilmouth and supplied by SWT - Credit: Archant

Spiders . . . oh, I’m so sorry, I should have warned you, I really don’t want to scare you.

You were probably expecting a nice piece about autumn, but you don’t need me to tell you how lovely autumn is in Suffolk. And the first person to say ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ has to put a pound in the Cliché Box.

October makes me think of spiders. I don’t mind the ones outside. They spin dew-dropped, filigree webs at this time of year. Which is nice. It’s the ones that come indoors that I’m not keen on.

“Have you ever seen a spider that big?” My friend showed me a photo on her phone screen.

“I could hear it walking about,” she claimed. “5.9 on the Richter Scale, at least!” According to Mark Tansley, senior keeper of invertebrates at London Zoo, the spiders we see around the house now are mostly males looking for a mate. They’re larger than females, with longer legs. Eeek!

Many of us feel guilty about our dislike of spiders. After all, they eat unpleasant things like mosquitos and cockroaches, they don’t squawk or growl, or mug us like bees and wasps. They’ve got better table manners than flies and they don’t leave nasty slimy trails, just gossamer works of art. They’re extremely polite, shy and probably help old spiders across the road. Logic tells us we should smile and say ‘How lovely’ when a spider appears. So why do we, like Miss Muffet, shriek, run away and, sometimes, squash them flat?

Is it because they sneak up so silently? No. Butterflies do that and we smile with pleasure when they appear. It’s all those legs. Why have they got so many? Arachnids have two more than insects. What are the extra ones for? Not for getting out of the bath, clearly. If you have a spider in your bathtub, I read recently, leave a towel draped over the edge, so the spider can escape. Escape? Where to? The legend of Robert the Bruce, claims that he lay in a cave, contemplating a spider trying, and trying again, to spin a web. I think he was too scared to walk past it.

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Animals aren’t scared of spiders. My English Setter dog, Jagger, is curious and looms over spiders, inhaling deeply. Unfortunately, he has very large nostrils and frequently the spider disappears upwards in a wind tunnel, to the confusion of my stupid dog, who then wonders why he can’t stop sneezing. Cats, unnervingly, sit and stare at spiders for hours. Only when the spider moves, does the cat bat them into oblivion with a killer paw.

We’re lucky, really, we only have nice spiders here. Some countries have really nasty ones. Australia has the funnel-web, with venom 15 times more potent than rattlesnakes. Remember the tarantula that climbed all over Sean Connery’s chest in Dr No? That’s not nearly as dangerous as the hairy and highly venomous Brazilian wandering spider, occasionally found hiding in bunches of bananas.

In Suffolk, we have the fen raft spider which is, according to the Suffolk Wildlife Trust website, ‘large and beautiful’. It’s one of the largest and rarest spiders in the UK and was discovered in the Redgrave and Lopham Fen Reserve – in case it’s near your house.

Cigar-shaped with cream go faster stripes, it’s 23mm long and catches much bigger prey – even sticklebacks. On the plus side, it doesn’t come indoors. Phew!

The world is divided between those who are really frightened of spiders and the rest of us, who would rather they didn’t walk over our face while we’re asleep. If one comes into my house, I try to help it on its way, with an upended pint glass and an old birthday card. Someone recently bought me a ‘spider trap’, a pair of plastic scissors with a scoop and lid, instead of points. Very useful, except I can never find it when I’m hyperventilating.

A gardener told me that if you put three conkers in the corner of the room, it keeps spiders away.

“Does it work?”

“Well, I haven’t seen any spiders, but I’ve got a lot of Daddy Longlegs.”

“And how do you get rid of them?”

“I get the spiders back, to eat them.” Oh, what a tangled web . . .

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