Spiders: a guide for first-year students!


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!

14 thoughts on “Spiders: a guide for first-year students!

  1. Susan Walter

    It might be worth mentioning that even if an English spider is very annoyed very few species (none?) can pierce human skin. Also it’s turning out that all these stories of spiders that can bite causing necrotising wounds are not true.

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      During a night out in Bristol earlier this year I rescued a large house spider that was in the middle of the pavement and in danger of being trod on. As I carried it over to a quiet back alley the ungrateful bloody thing bit me! That’s the only time I’ve been bitten by a spider, and I’ve handled a lot. It didn’t draw blood, so you may be right, but I certainly felt a nip.

      1. Katherine Baldock

        I’m afraid it might be the Bristol spiders Jeff! After assuring my three year old nephew that spiders wouldn’t hurt him we were cleaning out the conservatory and poor Uncle Rob was bitten by a huge spider. Fortunately my nephew had gone home by then! Having never been worried about spiders I’m just a little bit more cautious about the large specimens crawling around our ceiling at the moment. I’m going to use the app to see if I can work out what we have.

  2. Steve Hawkins

    May I suggest that you recommend that your students follow the ‘British Spider Identification’, Facebook group, and get to know what spiders are around when, and that plenty of people adore our arachnids, and that, close up images show how astonishingly well crafted they are.

    Also you should know that I’ve been looking at the site for some time this season, and, though there is a concentration on the few species we see around the house and garden, one of the commonest groups that is being photographed, is the false widows. I would say they are *very* common, but watch the FB posts and make up your own mind.

    Most people are very upset if their Steatodas come to any harm, and they are distraught at how many beloved ‘Tegs’ are swiftly dispatched by the harmless-looking ‘Daddy-long-legs’, Pholcus, that makes many homes a no go area for other species.

      1. Steve Hawkins

        It’s a shame, Jeff, but I think that, even apparent enthusiasts on the FB page stop at getting their pictures ID’d, and don’t go on to send in any official record.

        This seems to be quite a general phenomenon: not confined to spiders, by any means. I wouldn’t venture names for spiders myself, but I often get sent pictures of plants and fungi that I can ID, and I say people should send them to the Recorders, and even give them links to do so, but I don’t think anyone ever does pass them on.

        I can’t claim to be immune from the affliction myself, as I have probably got thousands of pictures going back decades, that I never got around to sending to anyone, because I would be going out again long before editing, annotating, and looking up map references. At least I had a bit of an excuse, as Recorders were very slow to get into Google Earth, and GPS, and some didn’t even use email, but now anyone can submit evidence at the touch of a phone link, it seems plain weird that people don’t want to help with official recording schemes.

        As for spider bites: the NHM does have, somewhere, a list of recorded and identified spider bites in the UK, and there were more biters (though rarely painful) than I had thought. Unfortunately, all the links that used to go to the list, now just put you on the museum’s introductory page on recording. It’s a shame that this has happened just as the silly season for scare stories got going. I did email them about it, but I just tried again, and still cannot find the list.

        Incidentally, after seeing a number of Steatoda pics, from different angles and locations, on the BSID FB group, I would not be surprised, if some of the spiders that the children in the conker clip, are picking up, none too delicately, with their fingers, are, themselves, False Widows! 🙂

  3. Pingback: Spiderday (#18) | Arthropod Ecology

  4. Adam Hemsley

    ” it’s an uncommon species and it’s extremely rare to encounter one of these, never mind be bitten. ”
    Not in my back garden. We seem to have a population explosion of them, just last weekend filling a skip we knocked about 30 of them off the mortal coil. Frustrated by the number of them, webs around all our windows, shed and garage. What concerns me more is the biodiversity of the garden…. …we had some lovely looking spiders that cast their “traditional” octagonal webs and were interesting to look at. But in the last year or two I cant recount seeing any traditional webs (or spiders) just the messy webs that these falsies like to make. Is there a link, increase in one breed decrease in others?

    1. Steve Hawkins

      I don’t think the garden spider and false widow are likely to meet up very often. One likes the open garden shrubbery, and the other likes caves and cupboards.

      It may be a bit early for big garden spiders yet. It is not long since people were posting pictures of the living golden orbs that the baby garden spiders gather into: only to ‘explode’ in all directions if you try to touch.
      Quite a magical thing to see.


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