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Dublin: 10 °C Tuesday 22 October, 2019

Here's what you need to know about those huge spiders in your house

It is generally agreed that the false widows’ bite is about as serious as a wasp or bee sting, writes Billy Flynn.

Billy Flynn

THERE WOULD BE very few native English-speaking adults or children who wouldn’t know who came along next and of Miss Muffet’s reaction.

There would be fewer still who would question the necessity for her flight – while almost all of us would admit that we don’t know what she was eating or indeed was sat upon while she ate.

For lots of people, spiders are just scary. Borrowed from the above nursery ryhme was the title of the novel by James Patterson Along Came a Spider – a more modern tale but this one of kidnap and murder. The movie wasn’t as well-received as the book but the title has great implied menace.

There are many things people fear, but few make it to movie titles. Spiders have. There is a good chance that the reader knows someone who displays or readily confesses to arachnophobia. There is also every likelihood that the reader has never met anyone who has ever been harmed in any way by a spider apart from feeling forced to flee a bathroom, cupboard or perhaps tuffet. Why are we so scared?

Facts first

The fear of spiders has taken up many column inches over the years but there is little chance of it going away, it seems.

The Noble False Widow Steatoda nobilis – usually just referred to as the ‘false widow’ has been responsible for much of these. Facts first: S. nobilis is just one of a number of species of spiders of genus Steatoda. Though hailing from much warmer climates, several are established in the United Kingdom and at least one has been reliably reported here in Ireland.

shutterstock_284713235 (1) Source: Shutterstock/Therealjoco

They are superficially similar to the now famous Black Widow spider but are in no way comparable in terms of potential threat. It is generally agreed that the false widows’ bite is about as serious as a wasp or bee sting. Not nice and can give rise to nasty reactions in a few, but the tiny numbers of these spiders when compared to the stinging (Vespula) wasps mean that the risks are consequently tiny too.

Long before we had ever heard of a False Widow, we’ve been put in fear of and to flight from our own native spiders, despite the fact that no one has ever been harmed by them.

Why so scared?

The zoologist and well-known author Desmond Morris dedicated much time to the origins of this fear which he found peaks in children (particularly female children) around the age of 3 or 4.

This would be just when the child would be exploring beyond the limits of the home and may have been taught to be wary of harmful animals such as snakes and spiders. Our ancestors came from warmer regions where indeed species of these might have been harmful or deadly to a small child and it appears that these fears have been retained.

shutterstock_173668241 Source: Shutterstock/Peter Waters

They have no doubt been reinforced by literature and images from Genesis to The Exorcist (the scene on the stairs) and Snakes on a Plane. The way that these animals move is utterly unlike that of we mammals and the slithering and scuttling itself is often cited as a chief reason for the fear so many people demonstrate.

How many spiders deal with captured prey is another. The web-spinning spiders often do not kill the flies and other trapped insects but use their venom to immobilise the entangled bug and then mummify it (alive) in ultra strong silk shrouds in which they are kept nicely fresh (Along came a spider features a murderer who buries his victims alive).

Female fear linked to pubic hair 

One anthropologist has put forward an explanation of the largely female fear of spiders as being an instinctive fear of sexual development – particularly pubic hair which can spread – somewhat spider-like in appearance – on the confused adolescent. There is no question that in constructing human habitation we have often created desirable homes and hunting grounds for spiders. Our predecessors, not knowing how to differentiate between the good, bad and ugly ones – quite likely tarred them all with the same brush.

We’re still not good in this department. Scared or even panicked householders and parents tend not to make the very best identifiers, so reported descriptions (often ‘checked’ against online pictures) cannot always be trusted. It’s very unlikely that Irish households host venomous guests (not 8-legged ones, anyway). When ‘huge’ or ‘massive’ scary spiders are reported, chances are that these are Tegenaria domestica, a large but harmless house spider.

Like so many spiders, they do so much more good than harm, happily feeding (usually unobserved) on flies and the many other bugs the interiors of our dwellings attract. We owe them, in fact. However, I no longer try to rationalise this with a fellow human who is standing on a chair screaming at both me and the spider. Now I just take the arachnid outside and often then go for a walk until the fear inside subsides.

Billy Flynn an ecologist at Flynn Furney Environmental Consultants

Read: Here’s why massive spiders are invading Irish homes right now>

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Billy Flynn

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