I found them very disconcerting. Some of them seemed very large, with a leg-span the size of my infant hand, and I knew that if one of them touched me, I would drop down dead with sheer horror. Fortunately, I grew a little less squeamish as I grew up, and so I was able to greet the Harvestman who appeared on the wall of the spare room last week with something like affection.
Harvestmen, as the name suggests, appear in the autumn, and always seem to me to be a sign of the lengthening nights and of colder temperatures. They have eight legs, with the second pair much longer than all the others, as you can see from the photo above. But this creature is not a spider – it belongs to a much older group of insects, the Opiliones. A Harvestman’s body is fused together into one oval blob, with a pair of simple eyes perched on top.
This basic design has been around, unchanged, for over 400 million years. When I consider that Homo sapiens has only been on earth for about 200,000 years it reminds me yet again of what a recent addition to Earth’s fauna human beings are, and how disproportionate our effect on the planet has been.
The second pair of legs are longer for a reason. The Harvestman has very simple eyes, and often lives in dark places (under tin baths, for example). So, if you watch as a Harvestman moves about, you can see it tapping away with those legs like a blind person with a stick.
Harvestmen shed their legs very readily (as any unenlightened person who has ever tried to swat one can attest), and indeed the shed legs continue to twitch, probably to distract whatever attacked them in the first place. Apparently a Harvestman can live on quite happily with only four legs, provided it has at least one of that second pair intact. How someone discovered this, I dread to think.
Harvestmen are completely harmless to humans – they have no venom, and feed mainly on aphids and baby slugs, although according to Bugs Britannica by Peter Marren, they do enjoy a nice slice of bread and butter in captivity. However, after I’d taken a few photos of this Harvestman, I was happy to let her go on her way (male Harvestmen have much more pronounced jaws that this one, so she was actually a Harvestwoman rather than a Harvestman). The more I know about a creature, the less fear and revulsion I feel. In fact, as the Harvestman tapped her way across the wall, looking for somewhere sheltered from my camera lens, I regarded her with something close to affection.