September 2009 – Is there some strange link between spiders and fungi? Both emerge in force in early Autumn…
Many innate fears are instinctive. Take for example, a child’s need of a nightlight. This is probably genetically programmed, plugged into a distant African past when leopards and lions lurked in the shadows to seize the unwary. Or there are entirely rational worries about heights – after all, one slip could mean death.
The widespread terror of spiders is entirely acquired, however. Slightly more than half the British population claims to be at least mildly arachnophobic, but this fear is largely absent in many other cultures. Indeed, in some places, such as the Amazon, where venomous spiders can be potentially lethal they are even considered a delicacy. (As a particularly unpleasant thought, the average person is thought to consume eight spiders a year on average – each swallowed in our sleep as they run across our beds.)
There is, of course, no good reason to be scared of British spiders. Although all are venomous, the amount of poison is minimal to be a risk and anyway, their fangs are too weak to piece human skin. Actually, to be precise there are a few British species which are theoretically capable of biting, but this is extremely rare and the effects are no worse than a wasp or bee sting.
All this is of little consolation to the majority of us who have a fear of the eight-legged monsters that seem to come out of the woodwork at this time of year. The annual autumn invasion is, of course, entirely natural: the result of this year’s young dispersing to find warm crannies where they can safely over-winter. In the process many fall into baths and shower trays and are unable to escape from the perfect pitfall trap.
Dealing with them is, of course, the difficulty. Any that are washed down the plughole will almost meet a watery death, so the humane solution is to gently remove them and release outside – something which for many people is easier said than done.
Tackling our fears is awkward. A good first step is to remember that spiders act as unpaid, organic, pest operatives. Forgetting about house spiders for a moment, an average late-summer hay meadow can contain five million spiders per hectare. Whether the world would really be two foot deep in flies within a year if all spiders were to be wiped out may be an old wives’ tale, but the British Arachnological Society estimates our spiders eat more than the weight of the human population in insects every year. Many of these creepy crawlies are serious pest, capable of carrying bacteria which can genuinely be fatal.
Although most people who are scared of spiders are only mildly frightened, serious arachnophobia may need to be tackled professionally. London and Bristol Zoos run courses which promise to overcome fears within a day and many hypnotherapists can offer help.