They say you can divide the population pretty evenly between those who are afraid of snakes and those of spiders. My best friend and I growing up are typical: Debbe gamely smushed arachnids the size of jawbreakers with her bare hands, while I cowered – embarrassing for a cowgirl. Payback occurred years later, when I had to take her boys through the snake tent at the local agricultural fair while she gibbered in a corner.
My Alamo with spiders occurred, as these things are wont, in Asia, on a remote tropical island on the Gulf of Thailand. Here biology ruled, and the locals laughed as I ducked giant, harmless flying beetles and killed foot-long centipedes (definitely not harmless!) with a 10-foot-long board.
But the spiders were the size of dinner plates. And hairy. They were harmless, living quietly in the palm leaf hut roofing hunting bugs. Until a heavy rain washes them out and onto your lap as you are snoozing in your hammock. Imagine waking in the dim light of a tropical evening to find a spider on your kneecap whose legs go all the way around your leg. Who has nowhere good to go, because the cloth sides of the hammock rise a good foot above your level. And you have a very predatory kitten asleep on your stomach, who has been bringing you bits of frog and other buggy gifts he hasn’t noisily crunched down beside your bed in the inky black of a tropical night.
It was a zoological perfect storm. Huntsman spiders might not be particularly poisonous, but anything that big can take a chunk out of you. So I couldn’t just brush the thing off and have it go underneath me on the hammock. So first I grabbed the kitten by the scruff of the neck, and dropped her off the side of the hammock. Meouw!
The excitement had gotten the Huntsman moving. Mercifully she had chosen to walk towards my foot. As she cupped my heel, I discovered another interesting feature about Huntsman: all that hair makes them tickle!
So I gently lifted my foot up and over the edge of the hammock and gave it a quick jerk, dislodging the spider. Then I sat in that hammock and shook.
After that, mere Canadian spiders never had quite the same power to scare me. I even contemplated studying them for a masters in biology. But kids got in the way, and I wound up in an old house by the river. When I first moved in, I would gently usher the spiders out of the house on a piece of cardboard. Now I simply squish them with my fist on sight. There are just too many.
Except for the black widows. They rank a tissue before being smooshed. I was horrified to discover these retiring but deadly residents had staked a claim to the same dusty corners through which my infants were crawling. Turns out most houses over a certain age probably host widows. But they are extremely shy, and almost never bite. We seemed to have only retained the fearsome stories of the last century, and not the knowledge.
Spiders, for all their viscerally frightening appearance, and creepy eating habits, are still very cool. If you’ve ever run headlong into a web that you bounced off of outdoors, you’ve met a garden spider. They sometimes weave in a zigzag of extra strong silk down the centre of the web.
They seem to use the silk as extra stiffening, or a handy lasso for tying up the giant prey they are willing to try for, or simply repair materials for the humans who keep blundering into their nets.
It ain’t easy being a spider, either. Given the continuous war I wage to keep them out of my house, I nevertheless have cause to pity them in red-wing blackbird nesting season, when every hapless bug is swept up in the endless hunger of the fledglings.
Or consider the truly macabre life cycle of the mud dauber wasp. Built like a Sikorsky construction helicopter, these bugs hunt spiders, paralyze them with the stinger at the end of their long abdomen, then carry them back to the mud ‘pots’ they construct to house their larvae. They stuff in the spiders, who must await their fate helpless but alive, until the larvae hatch and consume them.
Spider gender politics aren’t straightforward, either. Come fall, we name the giant cross orbweavers with the yellow braiding on their abdomen when they set up housekeeping in huge webs along our porch. Beatrice, Harriet and Margaret’s would-be suitors have a dangerous job of it: small and skinny carriers of extra genetic material compared to their bulbous potential mates, the males strum the webs of the giant females to detect their receptivity to sex rather than lunch. If the female is willing, she will leave her spot at the centre of the web. The male will alternate strumming the web with dashing in to either deposit genetic material or get eaten. And you thought first dates were stressful!
Eventually, the cold will immobilize the females. The babies hatch in November, which seems crazy: how does this tiny creature the size of a pinprick survive the immediate oncoming winter? More research is needed. But the sight of these tiny optimists, strung like beads along their web in miniature Christmas garlands, seems to me to epitomize the eternal optimism and striving of the natural world.
And then I squish them.