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Live and Let Live

Essay, 2015

In one upper corner of my kitchen is a funnel-shaped spider web and at the centre, what appears to be a dead spider. Still hanging in the web are desiccated remnants from various bugs, mostly mosquitoes, black flies and fruit flies and the white wing of a small moth. Last summer, when my spider was active (yes, “my” spider) I would find bits and pieces of flies on the kitchen counter. A hairy leg here, a transparent wing there. I wiped them off before they could accidentally make it into raisin scones or pizza crusts.

Not many years ago I would have swept the web away and carried the spider outside. I wouldn’t have thought much about it—spiders don’t belong in a house—probably something my mother said, or something I picked up in my journey through life, something that has became a truism. But last year, I looked at the empty crevices by floorboards and light fixtures, window trim and firewood piles, and yes, even the slit behind the pine trim in the upper corner of my kitchen, and I asked myself, why not?

When I went looking online for reasons “why” or “why not” I stumbled upon the British.

You’ve got to hand it to the British. They are a nation of avid backyard naturalists. They may have eradicated their large carnivores and over 400 other species in the last 200 years, but they cherish what they have left. Maybe it’s because they live on an island 1/12 the size of Ontario, they know that 60 million humans with their great blundering earth movers and appetite for concrete and chemicals can cause great harm to the life around them.

In Britain, the hedgehog is cherished, of course, as are the robin, blue tit and wren. But Brits have advanced even further down the ecological pecking order in their give-a-damn, past the shy charm of turtles, the conspicuous beauty of butterflies and the furry white tummy of the harvest mouse. They care about all bugs. Even spiders.

In September 2009 the BBC interviewed a representative from the insect conservation trust, Buglife (“saving the small things that run the planet”) who lamented that “The last few years have been very bad for British biodiversity, with low numbers of moths, spiders and crane flies.” He went on to say that “If we do have a good year for spiders in general, then it will just slow many years of alarming decline”.

In the same online article, the secretary of the British Arachnological Society (BAS) called autumn “the silly season for spiders” because garden spiders were fattening up for egg laying and tiny spiders were hatching. He then encouraged people who like spiders to “… get up close and have a look at how beautifully coloured they are.”

I tried to remember anything nice that I’d heard recently here in Canada about spiders.

My friend Bob kills them on sight and he tells me that I’m the only one who has ever protested. Bob is a guy who gets things done. He retired at 55 from being a nickel mine manager and then he and his wife proceeded to build a house and then a 3000-tap maple syrup business. He had a spider bite once, at least that’s what the doctor figured it was. His leg swelled up and he was in so much pain he ended up at Emergency. He told me this story to justify his stance on killing any spider, even the one unlucky enough to wander past as we sat eating our lunch along the Groundhog River in northern Ontario.

Coincidentally, my dad was bitten by a cat once and suffered an infection that engulfed much of his arm. He now has a disfiguring lump on his wrist and permanent damage that impedes his golf swing. Not once has he tried to kill a cat.

My sister is afraid of spiders. I asked her why and she said “Just the way their legs move freaks me out.” She’s not afraid of being bitten, it’s the thought of a spider crawling on her. Even watching TV, seeing a tarantula walking gives her the “heebie jeebies.” This is a woman who thinks it’s fun to ride up and down mountains on a bicycle and was fine with being dropped by helicopter to survey fish in northern BC grizzly country. When she was bluff charged by a black bear it didn’t panic her like a spider could. She admits, “It’s irrational, who’s kidding who.”

Despite her fear, she’s a live and let live kind of gal, as long as someone else takes the spider outside. And really, a creature that prefers no human contact and that can be safely contained with a glass jar and a piece of paper can’t seriously be classified as threatening.

I will clarify here that in Canada we have somewhere between 1400 and 1500 species of spiders and only one is troublesomely poisonous. One. The black widow ranges into the southernmost parts of BC to Ontario. Black widows like it dark and damp and outside the home, which may be why I’ve never seen one, and no one I know has ever seen one. Bites are so rare and so rarely life-threatening that most health care facilities don’t stock ant-venom.

I really don’t know any spider lovers. Most of my friends and family are what I’d call “spider agnostic” or even “spider oblivious” or maybe “when-it’s-in-the-house spider killers.”

To be fair to my people and my country, I did an internet search for “CBC” and “spider.” Top of the search was an article about a spider mass-ballooning event in a Cape Breton field that left behind acres of shimmering dew-covered webs, a sight that Allen McCormick of Scotchtown called “breathtaking.”

No one knows why a field of spiders suddenly decides to leave, but when they do each one lays a silk drag-line behind them as they zigzag up the tall stalks of grass. When they get to the top they cast a silk parachute and fly away with the wind. Their abandoned drag-lines catch the dew, leaving a field sparkling with gossamer threads. The spider expert in this story made a point of saying that “people shouldn’t be worried about running into millions of ballooning spiders, as they pose no risk to humans and should be considered friends.”

Number two was about a fossilized spider ancestor recently discovered in the Burgess shale in BC. The article featured an illustration that looked like a cross between a crab, a shrimp and trilobite. The type of animal you might see in a sci-fi movie. Cool.

Three was a report on a recent paper published by Simon Fraser University researchers on the “twerking” mating behaviour of male black widow spiders. Kudos to these arachnologists for getting images of their boy AND Miley Cyrus on the same spread. They know what they’re up against.

Number four was an article about pest exterminators in Calgary, who reported most of their calls dealt with daddy long legs, cellar spiders with fangs so short they can’t even bite a person.

What I conclude from this unscientific survey is that if it’s an outdoor spectacle, we’ll notice it and like it. If it’s Canadian science, we’ll notice it and try to make it like-able. If it’s in our house, we’ll notice it. And we don’t like it.

Even the federal government is complicit. After explaining on their special spider page that it’s almost 100% certain that any spider you find your house is harmless, that spiders are excellent natural pest controllers and that they don’t transmit disease, they say that “If needed, spiders can be killed by using a fly swatter, rolled-up paper, or magazine.” If we extrapolate on that logic it should be OK to hit a neighbour’s annoying chihuahua with a 2x4.

The British have moved beyond this silliness. Their intellectual relationship with wild things appears to be more developed than ours. Maybe because they don’t have our abundance of animals to squander, disrespect, and exterminate. They can’t afford to be indifferent. In Britain, ignorance can quickly kill a species.

I’ve got to admire their approach. No hedging, no kowtowing to irrational fears, pest controllers or pesticide companies. They just lay it all out and try to sell it.

“Why should I love spiders?” asks the BBC. They write that spiders have evolved to live among us and that the average house has 100 spiders. Most house spiders stumble into our homes but would actually prefer to live outside in sheds or garages, but sometimes a spider really would like to become part of the family.

“Left alone, a house spider could happily live for up to five years behind the furniture, clearing your room of flies and other insects.”

I imagine my little army of 100 happy spiders purging aphids from my plants or fruit flies from under the stairs or setting up a fly trap in that crack between the ceiling fan and the knotty pine.

Yesterday I was excited to see a spider crawling across the hallway. It was small, including its legs it was maybe the size of a nickel. Brown and hairy, with tapered striped legs. A chunky thing. I took a photo to help identify it and then went on an internet search. I still don’t know what it was. Apparently, spiders of the same species can look very different. Males are smaller than females and colouring can vary. I think it might have been a fishing spider, or some related non web-building hunter. This morning it (or something that looked like it) crawled under the table while we were eating blueberry waffles.

I realize that it’s really hard to become attached to an animal you can’t even identify. I’ll continue my spider education, a la the British way, and keep the corner of my kitchen free for the next tenant. But I’m not feeling the love with this latest house pet. It’s not particularly beautiful and if it is a hunting spider, it will continue wandering through the house looking for prey. The next time we see it at breakfast it could be sauntering across the toast.

When I see my brown hairy friend again, I will catch it and take it outside.