Look at Life: Spider Season

20th September 2019

Close Encounters of the Arachnid Kind

By Lisa Botwright

It’s Spider season – the very short window of around a month or so, which starts from the middle of September as it begins to get cooler, when spiders venture inside our homes to terrorise humans… sorry, to seek shelter and to try and find a mate.

I say a ‘short’ window of time, but if you’re one of the approximately 18% of the UK population who suffer from arachnophobia, I realise this will seem like a very long four weeks indeed.

My social media feed is currently full of pictures of The-Biggest-Spiders-You-Have-Ever-Seen, which friends and acquaintances have spotted, with horror, in their homes. And the corresponding level of violence – from animal-loving, cute-kitten-posting pacifists – is shocking. Many are so terrified of their presence that they think it’s okay, vegans included, to squish them mercilessly.

Where’s the compassion, guys?

A fear of spiders is beaten only by an intense dislike of heights as our biggest phobia; it’s also the one with the biggest gender divide – two-thirds of women in this category, compared to one-third of men. “Phobias are no laughing matter for Brits: one in five admit that it regularly holds them back in life and attacks their self-confidence – and for some the effects are so extreme that it governs their movement, leaving certain places off-limits,” says psychologist Lauren Rosenberg. Even the sight of the eight-legged creepy-crawly pictured here, will have sent many readers turning the page over rapidly, with a shudder.

But why are we so afraid of these unassuming arachnids? Spiders are introverts; they have no wish to interact with us and happily aim to keep out of our way. (They must be far more frightened of us than the other way around.) They very rarely bite us; in fact most of them can’t even do so, according to expert Lawrence Bee: “The vast majority of spiders in the UK have fangs which are only designed to kill insects: they aren’t strong enough to puncture human skin, let alone inject harmful venom into us,” he explains reassuringly. Even the false widow spider, cited as ‘Britain’s most venomous spider’ will only give you a nasty nip akin to a wasp sting; attacks on people are rare and there have never been any reported UK deaths.

So, not only are almost all British spiders harmless, they actively protect us against those insects that are; greedily eating up all the mites and mozzies that otherwise plague us. In this way, they’re vital for the ecosystem too.

“If spiders disappeared, we would face famine,” claims Norman Platnick, who studies arachnids at New York’s American Museum of Natural History. “Spiders are primary controllers of insects. Without them, all of our crops would be consumed by those pests.”

But even if we accept, intellectually, that they’re innocuous, it’s another matter entirely when one scuttles across the floor in front of us, or suddenly appears from under the furniture. I’ve seen the coolest, most capable adults reduced to quivering wrecks over these tiny transients. Is there something innate about our universally shared aversion?

Scientists think so. A 2017 study found that babies, who couldn’t possibly have yet learned that spiders are something to be feared, demonstrated a much greater stress response to seeing pictures of them (and pictures of snakes), compared to pictures of harmless fish and flowers. The researchers concluded that “a fear of spiders is of evolutionary origin… mechanisms in our brains enable us to identify objects as ‘spider’ or ‘snake’ and to react to them very fast.”

Humans are genetically hardwired to be attracted to soft, cuddly, doe-eyed mammals. It’s what makes us want to take care of our young. Spiders are the opposite in every way. Their long spindly legs and mulitple, alien-like eyes seem to drain us of any empathy towards them.

Although oddly, as you’ve probably guessed, I’ve become quite fond of them. I moved into a very old cottage a few years ago and quickly found out that I was living alongside a great deal of eight-legged uninvited guests. There are so many ancient cracks and gaps in the walls that my home is like an arachnid theme park. I made the decision early on that I could either spiral into a constant state of fear and agitation – or, for my own sanity, I could just get used to them.

And I have.

Right now there’s a huge one living in my sitting room, and he (apparently 80 per cent of those we see around the home are male) appears every now and then as if to say ‘hello’. I’m appalled and enthralled by his skittering weirdness in equal measure.

So I’m here to champion the much-abused arachnid and to put forward the idea that spiders are softies – unless you’re a fly, that is…

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