The Holy Spider

Garden Spider (Araneus diadematus)

Garden Spider (Araneus diadematus)

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.

IMG_4518A metre away, a much smaller spider has made her web. She rises a little later, and usually sits on her web, rather than in her shelter.

IMG_4521This 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.

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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.

IMG_4581One 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’?

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6 thoughts on “The Holy Spider

  1. Katya

    Hello, what a phenomenal post! I enjoyed every sentence!
    I’m hoping you might answer a question… the other evening I noticed a dark brownish black insect, about the length and appearance of a common centipede, slowly make its way across a newspaper on my sofa. When I leaned toward it, it stopped moving, suddenly lifted up its tail, just like a scorpion, and appeared to stand its ground like this, poised for defense. I have never seen an insect like this in my apartment. I live in New York City, where yes, loads of odd, seemingly out of place creatures can turn up, but it was still a bit of a shock to see this one. Was it some kind of mini scorpion smuggled in from the South of France? I gingerly picked the paper up to take it outside to my garden, where I shook it over some plants and the spider quickly fell onto them. I scurried inside because to tell the truth, I was a bit creeped out. I have been bitten twice in recent weeks and the bites have been extremely itchy – though I do not scratch them, and redness extends in a circle past the bite mark, which is slightly raised and hard, as if something is lodged within the bites, which then last for about 2 or 3 weeks. I have never been bitten like this, only by the odd pesky mosquito. Can you point me in a direction that might help me to discover what this creature might be? Thank you so much! Katya

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Hi Katya, gosh, what an experience! According to what I’ve been able to find so far online, there are no poisonous scorpions in NY. Your bites do sound very much like bites by some kind of flying insect – the hard centre is the reaction to the anti-coagulant that they inject rather than anything more horrible. The insect itself though…could it be an earwig? They sometimes raise their back ends defensively, as do some kinds of beetle. The book below looks like quite a good guide to NY invertebrates and might be worth a look. I will continue to explore, and let you know if I find anything…

      http://www.amnh.org/our-research/center-for-biodiversity-conservation/publications/general-interest/a-seasonal-guide-to-new-york-city-s-invertebrates

      Reply
  2. Katya

    Oh, thank you so much for sending the informative guide.
    I think what I saw may have in fact been an earwig. Since my apartment doors open to a small garden, any number of creatures can easily come in for a visit. I also googled some images of earwig bites, but everything I saw was far more extreme than the bites I had. After some more searching I happily discovered that earwigs are pretty benign, having no venom, nor do they seek out humans to bite, but will do so if provoked, which I would never do, anyway.
    NYC, like many cities, is in a bedbug battle, but after years of vigilance in my apartment on that front, and a recent, more careful search, I have never seen any evidence of bedbugs. So the study goes on….I look forward to all your posts!

    Reply
    1. viv_palmer_1999@yahoo.com

      Katya, also google ‘devil’s coach horse’ – not sure if you have them in the US but another formidable-looking but totally harmless beastie. Your bites don’t sound like bedbugs at all so no worries on that front!
      Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless device

      Reply

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