Well, it’s been a spidery sort of week. The newspapers have been full of articles about homes being invaded by giant arachnids, and there is a general air of spider-inspired hysteria. However, here in East Finchley not a single spider has crossed my threshold, in spite of my peering hopefully into every corner and checking the bath tub about three times a day. I would be delighted if a Giant Spider turned up in my house, but in spite of my lack of dusting and general housekeeping ineptitude, they have been keeping a very low profile.
Outside the house, though, it’s a different story.
This gorgeous creature is one of the four Garden spiders who have webs in my front garden. She is the largest of the bunch, and has conveniently made her web over one pane in my front-room bay window. She entertains me every night by repairing her web, cleaning her legs (one at a time) and occasionally running to wrap up some poor moth who has blundered into her trap.
Garden spiders spin webs which have a ‘signal thread’ running from somewhere near the centre to the spider’s hideaway, which is a corner of the window frame. When she is not sitting conspicuously in the centre, the spider is hiding at the top with one leg poised on signal thread, waiting for the type of vibration which means that dinner has arrived.
There is a great variety of size and colouration between the different Garden Spiders that are clustering around my front door: all of them have the distinct white spots on their abdomen, which form a rough cross-shape, but they vary in colour from orange to tan to dark brown.
Furthermore, they seem to have different personalities. The big spider in my bay window seems to have a calm and stolid nature, and it doesn’t matter how close I get to her, or how many times I poke my camera lense at her, she doesn’t move. The smaller spider on the web at the front of the house, however, made a run for it when I was a couple of inches away, and only paused when I withdrew to a safer distance.
Whilst this may sound a little anthropomorphic to the scientists amongst you, I should point out that there has been research into invertebrate ‘personality’, which found that amongst trapdoor spiders there seemed to be tendencies towards boldness and shyness that remained the same for particular individuals. Some spiders would consistently leave their tunnels to investigate a potential food source earlier than others. For the shyest spiders, the ‘reward’ had to be a full fifty percent greater than that which would lure a bold spider from his or her den. Science is finding that invertebrates are much more diverse and subtle in their behaviour than they have been given credit for in the past.
For many people, spiders are a sure sign that late summer and autumn are on the way, which leads to the question – where are all the spiders for the rest of the year? Well, with Garden Spiders, the eggs are laid in the autumn, survive through the winter, and hatch in May. The first spiderlings are tiny, and disperse soon after hatching (otherwise, they will take to eating one another). Then, they will shed their skins up to ten times during the summer, getting a tiny bit bigger every time. Eventually, by August, they have reached their full size, and instead of hunting in the undergrowth as they did when they were little, they begin to spin webs, and so become noticeable for the first time, as if they have sprung into being from nowhere. In fact, they have been here all the time, but, like most invertebrates, have been going about their business unnoticed and unremarked.
In just a few weeks time, all of these creatures will have died. I shall have just a little more time to lay on the sofa in the evening and watch the spiders before they are gone, and my poor long-suffering husband is allowed to pull the front-room curtains. Then I will know that winter really has come.