Learning to love spiders

Garden spider (Araneus diadematus) - one of the orb weavers  (Photo: R Burkmar)

How would you describe a spider?

Of all the adjectives these fascinating creatures might inspire, ‘lovable’ is probably not up there in the top ten.  Ask someone to describe a spider and you will more likely hear people say ‘scary’, ‘horrible’, ‘disgusting’ or ‘terrifying’.  How wrong they are!  Surely more fitting words are: ‘fascinating’, ‘intriguing’, ‘impressive’, ‘amazing’, ‘incredible’.  And yes, even 'lovable'!  The attendees on last week’s ‘Learn To Love Spiders’ course at Preston Montford certainly spent a day, well, learning to love them!  Although I have a sneaking suspicion that most of them had a soft spot for spiders to start with…

Participants hunt for spiders (Photo: C Bell)The course, which Tom.bio ran in conjunction with Nigel Cane-Honeysett of the Shropshire Spider Group (SSG), was designed to be a ‘pre-beginners’ spider identification course.  During their work with the SSG over the past year or so, Rich and Nigel noticed that, in many ways, ‘beginners’ workshops focussing on identification to genus and species were too advanced.  There was definitely an appetite for a back-to-basics course which helped people learn about the natural history of spiders, their general anatomy and the different broad groups they fall into.  So the ‘Learn to Love Spiders’ course was born.  Lots of incredible photographs, film footage of interesting behaviours and some fascinating facts were also included.  And of course, a lovely selection of live spiders to look at.  I certainly learned a lot – and will try and give some of the highlights here.

First things first - what makes a spider a spider?  ‘Eight legs’ is an obvious one – but other things, such as mites and ticks, also have eight legs.  There’s also the body shape – in spiders, the head and thorax (first two parts of the body) are fused into a cephalothorax, with a very narrow waist between it and the abdomen.  And, of course, the production of silk is a key spider characteristic – although other invertebrates such as some caddis and moth larvae can also produce silk.  Spiders are also venomous – which is how they subdue and kill their invertebrate prey.

Some spider facts:

  • There are over 650 British species of spider, and over 40,000 worldwide;
  • Spiders are a very ancient group, widely regarded as evolving from the first creatures to emerge from the oceans;
  • Spider silk is one of the strongest materials in the world;
  • Spiders extend their legs using hydraulics, but contract them using muscles;
  • Spiders are in the Class Arachnid.  In Greek mythology, Arachne was a mortal woman who foolishly challenged the goddess Athena to a spinning competition – and won.  Athena changed Arachne into a spider, so she could spin forevermore;
  • Webs themselves are not sticky – the spider deposits drops of sticky substances on them.  It then ‘plucks’ the web, and the wavelengths the pluck creates help distribute the sticky blobs evenly along the web.  When moving around the web, the spider steps between these blobs to avoid becoming stuck itself.

Lace Weaver (Amaurobius) web (Photo: C Bell)There are several groups of spider in the UK.  Six are described below  You’ll likely be familiar with some of them, even if you don’t know it! 

  1. Wolf spiders – fast moving, ground-running spiders – you’ll have seen them running across bare earth or stones in your garden.
  2. Orb weavers – for example, the large, patterned spider that makes circular webs in your garden, most obvious in autumn.
  3. Lace weavers – even if you don’t recognise these chunky, dark coloured spiders, you’ll have seen their lace-like webs on house or garden walls, with a central hole or tunnel (photo right).
  4. Money spiders – the tiny, delicate spiders you find crawling up your walking boot, hanging off your sunhat or spinning flat sheet webs on fences or trees.
  5. House spiders – most commonly found scurrying across the living room floor in autumn, as males seek out females to mate with. 
  6. Jumping spiders – small, black and white spiders which you might have seen moving jerkily around wooden picnic tables or stone walls.  Will turn to watch you as you move round them!

Swollen male palps of a Nursery Web Spider (Pisaura mirabilis) (Photo: C Bell)After a bit of theory, it was time to start looking at some spiders.  One of the simplest and most satisfying things you can easily do when starting out is to work out whether the spider you’re looking at is a he or a she.  For this, you need to have a look at the palps – long appendages in front of the first pair of legs at the head end.  If the individual is a mature male, then these palps will end in swollen ‘boxing gloves’.  Many of you will have seen these, without necessarily knowing what they are – ‘eyes on stalks’ is a common misconception.  The males use these swollen palps to transfer sperm to the female.  Females, by contrast, have palps which lack these swollen ends.  All this is much easier to see if you use a brilliant little tool called a spi-pot.  Make your own, Blue Peter-style – instructions here.

And what of spider bites and the ‘deadly’ False Widow?  There are some great resources online provided by the Natural History Museum, British Arachnological Society and Buglife, which attempt to debunk some of the scare stories being perpetuated about British spiders.  If you’ve read some of the more sensationalist media coverage of Noble False Widows, it might be worth having a look at them for a bit of balance and rationality!  The bottom line is that there are no British spiders that can be considered deadly or dangerous.  A handful of spiders in the UK have the ability to pierce human skin, but will only do so in self-defence if handled roughly or accidentally squeezed or squashed.  Even the worse bite (which probably is by the Noble False Widow) is only comparable to a wasp sting.  The ‘flesh eating’ symptoms reported in the media are the result of secondary bacterial contamination of a bite, scratch or sting, and nothing to do with spider venom.  So don’t worry, and definitely don’t let it put you off getting to know spiders!  A quick show of hands during the course last Wednesday revealed that all except one of the 11 people present had been stung by a wasp; none, including the spider experts, had ever been bitten by a spider.

Garden spider (Araneus diadematus) - one of the orb weavers  (Photo: R Burkmar)As with all the species Tom.bio focusses on, spiders are under-recorded.  Relatively little is known about their distribution and behaviour.  Over the past couple of years, the SSG has greatly increased the number of spider records for Shropshire; but there is still a long way to go, and more spider recorders are needed! We have been working with the SSG to develop a spider training programme, with courses aimed at all levels, such as the pre-beginner ‘Learn to Love Spiders’, through beginner field ID workshops to more advanced ID courses using microscopy on preserved specimens.  There’s even a course on spider photography.  The idea is that, hopefully, people will move through this training programme and journey from complete novice to experienced spider recorder.

The next course in the series is ‘Field Identification of Spiders and Harvestmen’ later this month.  There are still some places available, and it’s a bargain at £35.

Still not convinced you could love spiders?  Have a look at some of these photos of South African jumping spiders.  As Nigel said, if ever a spider could be described as ‘cute’, it’s these guys.  Still unmoved?  I don’t believe you!


Lace Weaver (Amaurobius) web (Photo: CBell)