Yesterday I had a phone call from a colleague in the university’s marketing department. Apparently there’s been a lot of complaints, and some hysteria on social media, about spiders appearing in the rooms of first year students in our halls of residence. My colleague asked if I’d write something about spiders, and how they were harmless and nothing to worry about, that they could use to placate the students’ worries. This is what I wrote and I thought it worth sharing on the blog.
Spiders! Ugly. Unpleasant. Spooky. Dangerous…..even deadly?! Spiders in Britain are all of these things, right?
No! Absolutely not! Spiders are fascinating, sometimes beautiful, and are an ecologically important groups of animals. Although it’s true that large spiders can sometimes give us the jitters, myself included: I don’t like walking into them in the garden! In fact as a kid I had a real phobia of spiders that I got over by handling increasingly bigger ones until eventually I could pick up even the largest spider we have in this country.
Most of the fear of spiders is based on myths and misconceptions, rather than reality. Ignore the DRAMATIC HEADLINES about False Widow Spiders – it’s an uncommon species and it’s extremely rare to encounter one of these, never mind be bitten. They make their webs near rocks where there are deep cracks into which they can hide. So you’re not likely to find them in your room!
Spiders play a really important role in the environment by eating large numbers of flies, including some that bite or carry disease or that might otherwise be much more harmful to humans than spiders. Spiders in turn are a food source for many of our birds, and in the spring some birds also use spider webs to construct their nests. If we had no spiders then we’d lose a lot of the birds that are so familiar in our gardens, such as Blue Tits and Blackbirds.
At this time of the year spiders are more apparent than ever, and the one you are most likely to see is a large, beautifully patterned species know as the European Garden Spider. The big ones are the females; males are much smaller. They sometimes make their way into houses and can construct large webs. But they are harmless and would only bite if held tightly in the hand, and they are much happier outside than in your room. They can’t jump on you and they do not attack!
What to do if you find a spider in your room and you want to get it out but can’t bear to go near? Find a friend who is not so squeamish and ask them to use a glass and a book or piece of cardboard to gently capture the spider and take it outside. Don’t worry, it won’t find its way back! Before you release it, though, try to find the courage to look really closely at this creature: they are attractively speckled and really very pretty!
The other thing you can do is find some conkers from the Horse Chestnut trees on campus and put them on your windowsill. It’s an old folk tradition that spiders don’t like the smell of conkers and there is some evidence that it keeps them out of the house.
I’ll let you into a secret. As Professor of Biodiversity I’ve done ecological field work all over the world, including the rainforests of Africa and the savannahs of South America. Every now and again I come across spiders that are much larger, and potentially more dangerous, than anything we find in Britain. Initially they still give me a shiver; but once I’ve spotted them I can take time to study their colours and forms and beautiful webs, and appreciate just how amazing and important spiders really are.
Have a great year at university and don’t worry about the spiders!