Eight schools in London have closed this month because of an infestation of spiders. The schools reported that they were concerned for the children’s well-being so they sent their pupils home – in one case for a whole month. It’s spider season again, when males are looking for females, spiders are at their largest and their webs seem to fill every corner and crisscross every path.
Each year, just as predictably, comes the panic. This is a busy, and frustrating, time for arachnologists – who try to calm people’s fears with logic. These spiders will not kill you, they say, the most they will do is give you a bite if you touch them, which will be no more painful than a bee sting. Yet in spite of these facts, the fear remains. Some animals, it seems, are simply born bad. The only logical response is to run away or kill them before they kill you.
As an artist, I became interested in spiders because, like me, they make things. I have collected their silk, watched their courtship rituals and even invited one to join me in a duet – I serenaded a garden spider and recorded the vibrations of its web as it plucked the threads in response. Yet I still feel a lurch of panic when I hold one. My palms sweat and I can feel my heart rate increase.
But if we want to take environmental conservation seriously, we cannot pick only the animals that we find attractive. We have to find ways of living with animals that make us feel uncomfortable. Instead of running away or destroying them, we can choose a third option: get curious. Where do these animals live? How do they communicate? What do they make?
I started collecting spider webs when I was living in a dusty basement as a student 15 years ago. I teased apart the individual strands of silk and wove them into drawings and sculptures – a very time-consuming activity. Orb weaving spiders, such as garden spiders, are able to produce seven different types of silk, each with different properties. Some are dry, strong and famously tougher than steel, while others form the sticky capture spiral of a web.
Surfing the web
The versatility of spider silk has made it an attractive and useful material to humans for hundreds of years. The oldest use of spider webs is as a wound dressing. Spider webs are close to hand on the battlefield and they also have antibacterial properties that help us to heal and resist infection. Recent research into artificial spider silk is expanding this medical potential by using silk to heal damaged tendons. It seems that our cells get on particularly well with spider silk proteins, not only do we not reject them, we actually stick to them. In the future we might all be part Spider Man or Woman.
Spiders have also played a central role in mapping the skies, measuring time and even fighting wars. From the early 19th century to the 1950s, spider silk was used to create reticules and cross-hairs in telescopes, optical instruments and gun sights – during World War II, there was a surge in people collecting spider silk to sell to gun makers. One of the most successful was a Californian woman, Nan Songer, who filled her sun room with black widow spiders. She described them as “docile as old milk cows”.
One of the most beautiful sights at this time of year is the glint of autumn light on spider webs. It is this magical appearance that has inspired people to attempt to weave clothes from spider webs. The problem is you need a lot of dry silk to make anything substantial, and spiders are resistant to commercial farming – they have a tendency to eat each other.
Perhaps an easier approach is used by the people of Malakula, an island in the South Pacific archipelago of Vanuatu. Early in the morning, the men of the villages collect spider webs from trees using a bamboo frame. The webs stick together like felt fabric, and they use this to create masks, spiritual headdresses and even entire tunics. In Malakula, spiders are venerated rather than feared or destroyed. They reflect the cycle of life; every night many species of spider eat their webs and reuse this energy to weave a new web in the morning.
Halloween is coming up, a celebration of all things fearful and I’d like to propose an activity. As evening falls and trick-or-treating begins, take a torch and go spider spotting. There are around 600 species of spider in the UK, and 35,000 in the world, so you can’t go far without spotting one – but here are a few of my favourites.
Starting in the bathroom is Tegenaria domestica, the house spider. At this time of year, these hairy brown creatures are probably males pausing for a drink of water while they search for females. On your way out of the house, look up to the corners of the ceiling where the Pholcidae – or Daddy Long-legs – live. These are the ones to encourage if you want to keep flies and other spiders at bay: they are keen cannibals.
Outside, head to any railings or fences. Here you will find two types of orb web: a classic Halloween symbol. If there’s a pizza slice cut out from the web, then it has been made by a Zygiella spider. But if it’s a complete web then it’s probably made my favourite of all spiders: Araneus diadematus, the garden spider and the species whose silk was most often used in optical instruments. It is largely thanks to this animal that we have accurate measurements of time and the land.
Finding out about spiders, and other unwelcome creatures, helps to lessen our fear. But it also enriches our world, by revealing our dependency on the extraordinary lives of others.