Monday, 10 September 2007

Bobby's back

A commotion ensued some months ago when a visiting friend spotted a large, hairy spider on a lampshade in my living room. There was a general exodus Miss Muffet-style, accompanied by knocked-over chairs and screams of horror, and instructions to ‘Kill it! Kill it!’

After I’d dispensed Rescue Remedy to the more sensitive in the gathering, and lured them back inside with promises of chocolate cake and strong coffee and/or generous doses of whisky, I pleaded for the spider’s life.

What I did not tell anyone was that I knew what kind of spider it was – not, as someone suggested, a harmless if scary-looking rainspider; no. It was a Harpacterilla lightfooti, or ‘small baboon spider’, closely related to the tarantulas of South America and the only spider in its genus in southern Africa that is venomous (although not fatally so) to man. I also didn’t tell them that Harpacterilla’s bite hurts like buggery.

Because Harpactirella (or ‘Bobby’, as we called it, from its Afrikaans name, ‘bobbejaanspinnekop’, or ‘baboon spider’, a nod to its hairy appearance) will leave you alone as long as you accord it the same courtesy.

Somewhat mollified, although still a little jittery, the gathering reconvened in the living room to look a little more closely at Bobby. And while they did, I told them some things about spiders.

I know quite a bit about spiders because I love them. I am not a fan of tattoos, but when I was driven by peer pressure – specifically, the jeering encouragement of my teenagers – to get tagged, I opted for the image of small spider, in the middle of my back where nobody but the very privileged will ever see it. Including me, incidentally.

I love the ‘bolus’ spider, which attaches a sticky ball to the end of a line of silk, and whirrs this around like a cowboy until it catches an insect.

I love the ‘fishing’ spider, whose special talent is to build a funnel-shaped net, half in and half out the water, into which it gently drives the tadpoles it eats for dinner.

I love wolf spiders, normally terrestrial, who can produce a bubble of air, which they use to breathe underwater, like a diving bell. (Some can spend up to three weeks submerged!)

I love the ‘parachute’ spiders who, the moment they’ve hatched, climb up on a grass stem, let out a gossamer line of silk, and wait for a breeze, before flying away into the big wide world.

And when it comes to spider romance – phew! You’ve just got to admire their tenacity. Most male spiders are smaller than the females of the same species, and the females' first instinct is to eat more or less anything movable it sees, so courtship is a tremendously stressful affair. Some males politely twang on a female’s web to let her know he’s there and willing; others bring a present – a fly, for instance, sufficiently tightly wrapped in silk to distract the female for long enough for mating to take place. And what of the wily ‘bridal veil’ spiders, the males of which are very tiny and in constant danger of being snacked on by the much larger females, so ‘tie’ their paramours to the substrate with silk before mating.

And spiders never have to experience the PODs (post-orgasmic depressions, for those who weren’t alive in the ’80s) – they have ‘lock and key’ genitalia, in which same species’ reproductive organs fit perfectly together, so there’s just no chance they’ll mistakenly have sex with an unsuitable other.

And spider silk – wow! In proportion, it’s stronger than steel, twice as elastic as nylon and more difficult to break than rubber. Some spiders produce up to six different kinds of silk for different purposes – sticky silk for the catching spiral (in orb-web-spinning spiders), dragline silk, swathing silk. ‘Cribellate silk’, which is a special kind of ‘combed-out’ silk produced by some spiders, acts just like Velcro (which, by the way, was only invented in 1955).

And have you ever seen an orb-web-spinning spider (the ones most people know best, those that spin the classic spiderweb) actually spin its web? It’s an amazingly exacting and time-consuming process, and the result is not only an astonishingly efficient way of shopping for dinner, it’s also exceedingly beautiful. And what does the spider do in the morning when the sun comes up? It dismantles that feat of arachnid engineering, leaving its environment exactly the way it found it (minus a few juicy insects). And the next evening, it begins all over again.

All this, and more, I told my somewhat nervous audience, while Bobby sat politely on the lampshade, waving a hairy leg now and again, as if in agreement. And when he was gone the next morning, I said, ‘See? You have nothing to worry about. He’s moved along.’

As it turns out, however, he hasn’t. Bobby is alive and well and living in our house. Since we first saw him about five months ago, Bobby has popped up in the bathroom (hysterical screams from my teenage daughter), on a painting in the hallway (hysterical screams from my char) and perched on a book in my bookcase (one short, embarrassed hysterical scream from me, I have to admit). And he has grown large on the abundance of creepy-crawlies that inhabit our house: once about the size of my palm, he is now bigger than the span of my hand.

My children are begging me to catch and kill him. (Although what would I use? A gun?) ‘Don’t worry,’ I say. ‘He’s a spider. He’ll die… some time.’

Because I just can’t bring myself to tell them that baboon spiders can live for up to 20 years.

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1 comment:

meggie said...

I have a huge admiration for spiders. Their wonderful engineering feats, & clever ways to catch their food. We have large hairy Huntsmen spiders here in OZ, & though they are scary to see, I never kill them.
I dont know that I would want Bobby living in my house. Could you not relocate him to another outside area?
Thanks for another very interesting post, BTW.