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Many decades ago, for reasons that escape me now, I found myself living in a small caravan on the beautiful East Coast of South Africa. I was not alone in that tiny little van. I shared it with three rather large rain spiders. Rain spiders are large, hairy spiders, given to bursts of speed that would make your average Porsche owner green with envy.
As a nature lover, I must confess that spiders and I have a rather uneasy relationship. Rain spiders are harmless, at least to humans, but that does not stop them awakening in me some deep-rooted primitive fear that probably stems all the way back to my prehistoric ancestors.
Despite my inherent cowardice, the trio with whom I was sharing the caravan and I had established an uneasy détente. They stuck to the roof at the end of the van, and I kept to my half. Other than that, we ignored one another.
A visitor cometh
This cozy little arrangement between environmentalist and arachnid worked quite well until a girlfriend announced she would be flying in for a long weekend. She had silky blond hair and almost criminally long legs. I was a lonely bachelor. No need to go into more detail than that.
When I fetched her from the airport, she took one look at my three roommates, climbed back into the car, and informed me that they had to go or we could just turn around and head back to the airport. I took another glance at those long legs and decided that my environmental ethics could be put on hold for a few days.
Now I faced a bit of a dilemma. I needed to remove the spiders from the van, but without harming them. That’s when I came up with what I thought was quite a neat trick. Taking a large bucket, I placed it over the first spider and tapped the roof of the van lightly. He immediately dropped into the bucket, and I was able to carry him out into the garden and wish him farewell.
The second capture followed much the same lines, and I was beginning to suspect that I was seeing a look of admiration from the blond seated in my car.
It was on the third capture that things started to go awry. The spider dropped into the bucket as expected, but it was as I was carrying him past the car that disaster struck. The spider shot up the side of the bucket, up my arm, and vanished into the sleeve of my shirt.
I cannot say, with any degree of certainty, exactly what happened after that. The human brain is designed to conceal certain memories that may be too traumatic to revisit.
What I do know is that when I began to regain touch with reality, I was wearing only my underpants and bouncing up and down like a Masai warrior at a bachelor party.
I may have screamed, though in my memory, I prefer to think of this is a sort of instinctive war cry rather than a plaintive yell of panic. The blond was standing beside me with her arm around me and saying words to the effect of “There, there. Don’t be frightened,” as I took deep, sobbing breaths.
She was a lovely kind girl, and she stayed for the remainder of her planned visit. I could see, however, that I had lost her respect. In an instant, I had gone from fearless, bucket wielding hunter to cowering wimp. How does one ever recover from something as humiliating as that?
Fear of those with eight legs
I am not alone in my fear of spiders. Although I would not like to think of myself as a full-blown arachnophobe, some studies suggest that up to seventy-five percent of people have a fear of spiders.
Growing up in Africa, there were plenty of spiders that were actually dangerous. But interestingly, Europeans are thought to be more frightened of spiders than people from other parts of the world. In part, this is attributed to the mistaken belief that spiders were carriers of the deadly black plague.
I live in France now, and here, very few of the spiders are actually venomous to a point that could cause harm to a human.
There is a species of the black widow whose bite can cause hallucinations and nervous system damage, but incidents of actual harm to humans is very limited. Despite my simmering fear of spiders, I still find them to be one of nature’s mini wonders and one that is often overlooked.
Tiny jumping spiders, for example, can jump fifty times their own length. Not all spiders use webs to catch their prey. Some simply hunt insects down, and others lie in wait to ambush the unsuspecting or the careless.
Spider web is stronger than steel by weight, and some spiders will spin a web made up of over twenty yards of filament in a single night. They may well have to start again the following day if the intricate net is destroyed.
Ambush by beauty
By far, my favorite spider in France is the beautiful crab spider. These guys are ambush predators who love to sit right in the center of a flower and then pounce on insects that come to gather pollen or nectar.
Interestingly, they can survive on both pollen and nectar themselves during times when insects are scarce.
They come in bright colors that range from ghostly white to bright yellow, and in many species, the female can change color to match her host flower. This change takes effect over seven days.
There are over 2000 species of crab spider (Thomisidae), and they are found all over the world, with exception of the north and south poles.
Although like all spiders, they can produce silk, they are hunters and use silk thread purely as a safety rope rather than to make webs. These safety lines are a wise precaution as they often take on prey much larger than themselves.
Obviously, this lifestyle makes these spiders really vulnerable to pesticides used in the garden. I hope that it adds to the many reasons you may have for abandoning chemical use in your own garden. Hidden beneath your nose may be a minor miracle of nature, just waiting for you to discover it.
Thank you for reading.