Dear Readers, on returning home from a week-long work trip, the first thing I noticed in the front garden was the way that the spiders’ webs were lit up by the late afternoon light. There are two garden spiders (Araneus diadematus) that are making their homes in the buddleia. This is a very widespread and common species – it can be found right through the northern hemisphere, so my readers from North America may also be familiar with these creatures.
The first spider, the large female in the photograph above, is an early riser – by 9 a.m. she has already constructed her web for the day. For most of the time, she lurks on a flowerhead, with one ‘toe’ delicately placed on a strand from the web. The whole structure will vibrate if anything flies into it, and then the spider has to make a decision: ignore it, if the prey is too small, cut it from the web if it’s something dangerous like a wasp, or wrap it up like a burrito for eating later.
This individual clearly shows the reason that this species is often called the cross spider – there is a lot of variation in colour, but they almost always have a cross-shaped pattern of white dots on their abdomen. This has led to their association with Christianity, and the idea that they are lucky. Lucky indeed is the animal that someone has decided brings good fortune – garden spiders are well tolerated, as invertebrates go, and it’s unusual for someone to kill a spider unless it’s actually in the house. The spiderlings, tiny golden creatures, are often called ‘Money Spiders’ and I remember my grandmother, not one for creepy-crawlies in general, finding a tiny spider crawling on her arm and being delighted, for this was a sign that our financial situation was going to improve.This is a very old and widespread belief: the Spiderzrule website ( a real labour of love by a dedicated arachnophile) shows that in 1507 on a spider on your clothes was an indication of happiness to come:
‘When a man fyndeth a spyder upon his gowne it is a synge to be that daye ryght happye.’
and in 1594, it was not just about happiness, it was about the dosh:
‘If a spinner creepe uppon him, hee shall have golde raine downe from heaven.’
Maybe because they came without any accompanying largesse, house spiders did not receive such a warm welcome in our house when I was growing up – indeed, on one occasion my grandmother dropped her hot water bottle onto a particularly large and hairy spider and flattened it. Whether the unsuspecting creature turned its eight eyes skywards and wondered what this rapidly descending rectangular object was I have no idea, but the method, though effective, was never repeated, largely due to the difficulty of extracting squashed arachnid from a candlewick hot-water bottle cover.
Still, in the garden spiders were welcome, and as a child I spent hours watching them making their webs . After seeing the diligence, skill and patience with which the spider goes about repairing her handiwork after some enormous clumsy child has fallen through it, I couldn’t help but be filled with admiration, and I am not the only one. Robert the Bruce was said to have gained determination by watching a spider try again and again to complete her web while he was hiding in a cave.
Christianity is not the only religion to have noticed the spider, however. When I visited the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, a building entirely devoid of human or animal representation, there is a spider’s web pattern in one corner. When The Prophet hid in a cave to escape the enemies who were trying to kill him, a spider spun her web across the entrance. When the enemies arrived at the cave, they surmised that no one was inside because the web was unbroken, and so The Prophet was saved.
I had not watched a spider actually making her web for a long, long time, and so I spent a few minutes this morning watching one in my back garden doing her work. Note how the silk comes from two separate glands, and how the spider uses her right back leg to ‘spin’ the silk into a thread and her left back leg to attach it to the web structure. I wonder if spiders have a kind of ‘handedness’ in the same way that we do – certainly it’s been shown that some species of mammal have a ‘leading paw’ that they prefer to use for certain activities, but I have no idea if anyone has ever looked into this in invertebrates.
It has long been thought that spiders can foretell the weather, and there is some truth in this. A spider sitting in the middle of her web means that the weather is likely to be settled for the next day or so. If the spider disappears to her shelter, this means that the weather is changing. Whether the creatures can sense air pressure, or humidity, or both is still a mystery. Incidentally, although they often look as if they’re vertical, spiders webs are usually at a slight angle, and the spider sits on the underneath side. Garden spiders also normally sit ‘head down’ on their webs.
One spider superstition that is extremely close to my heart is the belief that if a spider is found on a bride’s wedding dress, it will bring good luck for the partnership. When I got married in 2001, I gave my bouquet at the end of the evening to my mother so that she could enjoy the flowers while I was on honeymoon. When she took it to pieces she found, curled up in the middle, a spider. What better omen for the future could there be for someone who’s named themselves ‘Bugwoman’?