The sight of a 12cm-long spider sat poised in the bathtub is enough to extract a gasp, or at least a little nervous giggle, from most of us – especially in the “spider season” which generally begins with the falling of the first autumn leaves and peaks in October.
And for those of us with a deep-seated phobia, it’s a season which seems to arrive earlier and earlier each year, as greater numbers of bigger and badder spiders migrate into our cosy, dry homes as the weather starts to turn outside.
For one arachnophobe, it is the worst time of the year. “It was the size of my hand,” she recalls of one recent eight-legged encounter. “Well, maybe not my hand, but definitely my palm. And it was just sitting there, as if winking at me from the skirting board in the kitchen. Naturally I did what all sane, capable, 40-something women do when faced with a giant house spider – and a house devoid of a husband. I stared at it for five minutes then went to bed, sleeping fitfully through the night, should it crawl upstairs and plant itself on my face. In the morning, of course, it had disappeared. That was last week and I haven’t been quite comfortable at home since.”
She may not be alone in her fear, but much of what we think about spider season is nevertheless untrue. The spiders of 2023 are not larger or more numerous than in previous years, and most of the time the oversized specimens we find perched nonchalantly on the stairs haven’t even tramped in from outside. “It is nonsense,” summarises Dr Geoff Oxford, honorary secretary of the British Arachnological Society. “Every year – and I mean every year – there is the claim that spiders are getting bigger. If it were true, spiders would, by now, be the size of dogs.”
Secondly, house spiders do not appear in British homes from September to October as is widely believed, but from mid-August. This misconception means those who expect spiders in September are always surprised when they emerge “early” in August to hunt for a breeding mate, having typically lived quietly in the house all year.
“This is when males mature and leave their webs – concealed in nooks and crannies in houses – to search for females and therefore they become much more apparent,” Oxford explains. “It is a total myth that they are rushing in from outside. The rest of the year, both males and females live in webs behind skirting boards, behind furniture and so on, and are just unseen. Then suddenly the males go on the rampage looking for females and all of a sudden people think, ‘Oh my gosh, they’ve appeared! We’re being invaded from outside.’”
What makes our homes attractive to house spiders, moreover, is not 20-degree temperatures and dry, carpeted corners but that they offer insects to hunt, places to hide and safety from insecticide, according to Sara Goodacre, professor of evolutionary biology and Genetics at the University of Nottingham. “Evolution has favoured them in occupying ecological niches where they can eat other creepie-crawlies,” she says. “Our homes, although we don’t like to admit it, do contain insects and that’s the reason house spiders like them. For them, the nice thing about a house is that it hasn’t been sprayed with insecticide, which spiders are much more sensitive to than other creatures.”
Contrary to widespread fears, spiders are also not very interested in humans, and certainly not in man-made distinctions between our treasured domestic spaces and, say, the garden. “To them, the house is just part of the environment,” Goodacre says. “We might think of inside and outside, but for them there is no barrier so they just go everywhere they can get.” Asked if spiders think about humans as much as we think about them, Oxford adds: “No, not at all. There’s this idea that people swallow spiders when they are asleep, or they might attack us. It is just total nonsense.”
Nevertheless, it’s still a shock for the more arachnophobic among us to stumble across a large house spider, with our minds soon turning to how to get rid of it.
A multitude of non-fatal solutions are available online, from repellent sprays to vacuum “spider catcher” gadgets, while old wives’ tales like placing conkers around a room are also still widely used, although proven to be made-up bunkum. The most effective deterrent is spraying insecticide in your home, to which spiders are especially vulnerable. But this kills the spider and delivers ever more chemicals into the ecosystem. Not to be recommended.
The simplest and most eco-friendly option, says Goodacre, is to keep your home tidy. “If you want to make your home as unfriendly to spiders as possible, declutter. They are trying to find a place to hide away,” she explains. “If you do want to get rid of one, pick it up using your hands or a glass and a piece of paper and release it outside. If you do squish them, put them out and they will become part of the natural food chain, like a high-protein tablet for a bird.”
But if the prospect of even getting that close to a spider is too much for you to bear, perhaps a more radical solution is in order, as Oxford explains: “For people with very severe arachnophobia, certain zoological societies like London Zoo run special one-day courses. They start off talking about spiders, they look at pictures, they look at tiny spiders in tubes and then larger spiders in tubes, and at the end of the day, many attendees can have a tarantula on their hands. Most people who go on those courses come away at least more comfortable with having spiders around.”
After all, the spiders don’t mind us. So maybe we should all stop minding them.