Wednesday, 8 December 2010

We are not alone

I watch her some mornings as she moves across the wall; her eight, stiletto-tipped legs find unseen purchase on the plaster, gravity-defying and assured in their hold on this world that exists in a vertical plane. Her body is just a few millimetres in length, darkly patterned and with an arc of tiny glistening eyes on the top of her head. I have not worked out which of our many spider species she is, in part because I do not wish to disturb her daily routine.

She is not alone, as other spiders lurk in the corners of this old house. Some are rarely seen and I suspect that they indulge in nocturnal scurryings long after we have turned in for the night. Others are chance encounters, seen briefly as they race across the carpet and dash under the sofa; big hairy beasts that spook our rather feeble hounds. Then there are the daddy-long-legs spiders, Pholcus phalangioides, that hang in untidy webs where wall meets ceiling. These fragile looking spiders gyrate their bodies if disturbed, the motion so fast that the spider becomes little more than a pale blur, an effective and surprising defence for something so small.

Despite the ungainly appearance Pholcus will tackle other spiders, including those from outside that have ventured into the house in late autumn. Any that touch her web are approached and it is then that the long legs come into play. They give her greater reach, allowing silk drawn from the spinnerets to be flung over another spider with minimal risk. As well as other spiders, Pholcus will tackle small moths and mosquitoes, both unwelcome visitors to many homes, and I sometimes spot the body of a White-shouldered House Moth, partly wrapped in her silk.

One of the reasons why this house is so popular with these spiders is its age, lacking the dry warmth of modern houses, with their central heating and double-glazing. Like other house spiders, Pholcus can survive long periods without water but even she must descend to find it from time to time. Her eggs are thought to be prone to desiccation and presumably cannot cope in a modern house.

I do not mind sharing our house in this way. Most of these other residents are innocuous enough and have little or no impact on our lives. The occasional visitor may go away with the impression that we are a little untidy, perhaps, but the scatter of webs and their delicate residents provides a sense of connection during these bleak winter months. We are sheltering together from the elements outside, a community of lives whose daily routines sometimes bring us into contact with one another.

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