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Thursday, July 02, 2020

How to have a healthy relationship with spiders

There’s no need to scream every time you see one of these remarkable creatures

Written by Ranjit Lal | New Delhi | Updated: June 21, 2020 10:02:41 am
Ranjit Lal, spider, tarantula, black widow, zebra spider, crab spider, lynx spider, orb weavers, Argiope spiders, wolf spider Size matters: Small spiders are normally sparkly and hugely entertaining. (Ranjit Lal)

A lot of people have arachnophobia — an irrational fear of spiders. Many people, especially rednecks trying to show how macho they are, go to the other extreme and have huge furry tarantulas or black widows strolling up and down their beefy arms or thick necks. There’s no need to either scream every time you see a spider or have a cuddle with a tarantula to develop a healthy relationship with these absolutely remarkable creatures. While I will keep a healthy distance from the large furry kinds that prowl about the undergrowth or crouch behind bathroom doors in forest rest houses, I am equally gob-smacked every time I see a web looking like strings of pearls on a dewy morning, and will eyeball those small, fierce, jumping spiders whose bright obsidian eyes remain fixed on you as though they’re in love with you.

If you would like to get to know them better, it may be sensible to start off with the smaller ones — they’re normally sparkly, sprightly and hugely entertaining. One of my favourites is the jumping spider, also know as the zebra spider or zebra jumper. They’re small chocolate-brown-and-caramel and spend their time fiercely posturing on walls, feinting like boxers before a bout. Let a mosquito or fly settle close and they’ll fix their eyes on them and wham! They leap so fast you can’t see the movement till they land on their victim. Always, like all of their clan, they’ll trail a safety line behind them, just in case the jump, say, off a table, goes wrong and they have to haul themselves back to safety. Their leaps are like vanishing tricks — they disappear from one spot and appear at another in a trice. There’s another tiny little jumping spider which looks like it’s made out of iridescent metal: it can appear gold or emerald green depending on the angle of the light. You might find it on your car, too, especially if it has a metallic paint finish.

The garden or large green plants may be other good haunts to look out for spiders. One morning, I stepped out into the balcony overhung with a madhumalti creeper and casually looked at the pale pink-and-white blooms as bees hovered around. Suddenly, one bee seemed to be having a fit. When I glanced at it, I froze. A translucent pearl-white crab spider, half the bee’s size, had pounced and was holding the hairy bee in an embrace. All too soon, she had sunk her mandibles into the bee, injecting it with virulent venom and the bee ceased to struggle. The spider remained stock-still. I knew she was sucking up the nourishing juices from the bee, having dissolved its insides with her venom and digestive juices. She would suck it dry and then discard the empty husk. You might find this revolting, but how is it different from what politicians and taxmen do to us? Crab spiders are beautiful because often they’re the same colour as that of the flowers they hide among and can change their colours accordingly.

Another common spider that lives among plants is the lynx spider, an elongated little creature that often looks like it’s been made out of fine blown glass. I’ve found them lurking on the undersides of kumquat leaves, waiting in ambush for something small and edible to land on the surface of the leaf. Lynx spiders (like several of the clan) make fiercely protective moms — to a degree. She’ll lay her eggs in a silken egg case, tethered to her by a thread, and she’ll drag the contraption along. She will threaten intruders and pull her precious egg case under leaves if it starts raining. I watched just-hatched spiderlings emerge from their egg case once, and, boy, were these tiny angel-white creatures into sibling rivalry! They’d saunter down a silk line, meet each other headfirst and try to throw one another off it. But it can get worse. If there are too many babies and too little food, they (even their mom) will turn on each other and turn cannibals.

There are the famous orb weavers, which may range widely in size. It is amazing how their cleverly crafted sticky nets can vanish, until you step into them! Some orb spiders, like those belonging to the Argiope clan, sketch a conspicuous zig-zag pattern around the centre of the web, which can serve as a warning for anything too large. But even these relatively large spiders are worth watching for the deft way with which they shroud their victims with silk, keeping their meals for another time. Walk into the web of a giant wood spider and you’ll feel like you’ve walked into a trap made of fine steel wires.

It’s usually the spiders that you encounter unexpectedly that give you the biggest frights. Shuffling into the bathroom in the middle of the night to find a monstrous wolf spider beadily eyeing you from the potty lid can be traumatising. But unless you’re a cockroach or something similar, you’re generally safe. So gently chivvy it away, use the loo and go back to bed…and sweet dreams!

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