Spiders in space

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It’s staring at me. Pausing on its descent from ceiling to floor, the spider rests on the slender strand it has secured to an oak beam, and dangles boldly in front of my face. I stare back. While horrified that my attempts at spring-cleaning are being scuppered by arachnids, I can’t help but be impressed by the skill and speed of their weaving. This fragile creature uses a sticky substance from its glands to spin silky threads which allow it to roam at large throughout my home. Unperturbed, the spider, or ‘cobbe’ as they were once known, slips silently to the ground, and sprints off under the wardrobe.

There are more than six hundred species of spider in the UK, but you are unlikely to be room-mates with most of these as they prefer the outdoor life, hanging around in dark, damp woodland or log-piles. However, you will no doubt have to share your garden shed. Peer into a neglected corner, above a stack of discarded plant pots or behind the wheelbarrow. Is there a lacy cobweb? Look closely and you’ll probably see the spider lurking at the back, waiting for lunch. As its favourite meals consist of midges and mosquitoes, it’s not a bad neighbour to have, so resist the urge to evict it.

The European Society of Arachnology has declared the cyclosa conica, of the orb-weaver variety, ‘European Spider of the Year 2016’. It can be spotted lounging in its rather messy web, hairy legs folded, surrounded by remnants of previous meals. Parents of teenage boys will be familiar with the scenario. So far, so unappealing. The largest British house spider is the Cardinal, so-called because even the stalwart Cardinal Wolsey was supposedly terrified of the critters that stalked Hampton Court Palace. With some animals, thoughts of love occur in spring. Not so the spider. The reason you see so many spiders in the autumn – falling into the bath, scuttling across the living room while everyone is glued to Autumn Watch, is sex. The male spider is desperate to find that sassy female who is snuggled under the wardrobe. Having found her, and mated, the male pegs out, leaving his widow in peace for the winter. In spring, as temperatures rise and the supply of insects increases, lady spiders perk up and start popping out egg sacs. Each sac yields around 50 eggs, and a female can produce ten egg sacs. That’s a lot of spiderlings. Which is why my house is full of them now.

I don’t mind little money spiders. Although you have to get them tangled in your hair for it to be truly lucky. And I can tolerate the daddy long-legs or crane flies which flap about dementedly when you are trying to sleep, until you are forced to whack them with a rolled up magazine (not this one, obviously). It’s the webs that get me – dust them away, and the next day they’ve been reconstructed, good as new! Outside, strung across the grass, bejewelled with dew, these are glittering miracles of engineering. Indoors, they are a pain in the neck.

But I can’t begrudge the tenacity of these tiny creatures. In 1973, spiders Arabella and Anita joined the Skylab mission and went into space. They tolerated the crew’s experiments and graciously continued to spin their marvellous webs in zero gravity. Tough, fearless and adaptable, the arachnids are unlikely to be phased by a vacuum cleaner. The spiders are here to stay!