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Tuesday 6 December 2016

Crawlies aren't all that creepy

Published 25/09/2011 | 05:00

IT was in the heat of the night. The widow was in the bath tub. Turn on the taps. Or the shower. Or both. This was a town ships came to and left -- she, or her mother, no doubt arrived by deep water, miles away. More than likely it was a banana boat. From the Canaries. She swirled down the plug hole. I went and lay down, relieved.

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This creature was a False Widow, a distant cousin of the deadly Black lady. The False creature can nip, one reads, though human skin, is tough and just who would be picking one up, then? The American Black Widow and the Aussie Funnel-web might send you to a hospital. But they are very far away.

Spidery thoughts -- but this is the time for them. They appear to be here, there and everywhere this year, of various sizes and characteristics. It's the weather.

The warm spring followed by a wet summer has meant a proliferation of insects, an abundant food harvest, not only for swallows and martins, but for the web spinners. There are more to come because, whereas the scuttling males are the ones you see all the time, a big population of pregnant females is in hiding in dark corners and beneath floorboards, waiting to give birth.

This is not good news for arachnophobics, those people who become disturbed at the sight of the crawlies and who are convinced there are more exotic, and therefore dangerous ones about than ever before.

But there is no foreign invasion, even the occasional False lady (who is an Irish native by now), just your regular guys which, though carrying poison to kill prey, are too weak- jawed to worry a human.

Spiders have been around for a long time. Four hundred and sixteen million years ago, in the Devonian Period, long before the first reptiles, they were already spinning silk. In 2006 in America a 110-year-old piece of amber was found to contain a spider and part of a web. Entrapped in the web was a fly.

There are hundreds of different species of spiders in Europe. Worldwide there are hundred of thousands. Many still await classification, not only in the Amazon basin but on EU rubbish tips. Some spiders can swim, others can fly on silk parachutes. Some swing threads towards moths with a sex scent to attract. All are out to trap and kill live prey.

Not everybody is afraid of spiders. In Japan and the Philippines they may be kept as pets for use in spider fights. In Papua New Guinea, they are eaten with relish.

But in the western world, arachnophobia is a strong emotion experienced by many. Some psychologists suggest it is ancestral and that early man was terrified of crawlies which were silent killers.

But the poisonous strikers, which can hospitalise, are very far away and the son or daughter now beavering away in Australia will already have been instructed to keep a watchful eye in bathrooms and broom cupboards.

In this part of the world, spiders are basically good little fellows, keeping flies, ticks and even wasps in check and, though all might not agree, are more useful about the place than cats. And they don't usually emerge from bath drains, by the way. They fall in from above and can't scramble up the sides! Gather them up in a dustpan and release them in the garden.

Go on. Do it. Be brave! Not like me, the tap turner.

Sunday Independent

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