NOTE: If you’re a journalist and you’ve come across this article researching false widow spiders, there’s a useful fact box at the bottom of the page that will give you all the necessary information you need.
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Five years ago I made mockery of the tabloid media for descending into the realms of garbled fantasy and blinkered ignorance. Schools were being closed because of infestations of false widow spiders and journalists the length of the country were sharpening their ill-honed wits to sell more ill-informed guff to an unwitting public hungry for sensationalist claptrap.
It’s happening again. Despite 5 years of ever-improving scientific knowledge and a resurgent interest in the natural world amongst their teachers and pupils, schools are still being closed because of fears over spiders. Urgh.
It started in London.
But whose fears are being pandered to? I doubt it’s the pupils. It seems the disconnect between humans and nature is not just a case of children no longer playing in the countryside, it is that adults (in this case some teachers, school governors, education department executives, parents too maybe) are falling victim to ancient prejudices and silly stereotypes, and these are being reinforced by the failings of the usual clamorous tabloid inanity. The sooner Mary Colwell manages to get a GCSE in Natural History established, the better.
This is my response, and to help get the message across I recruited the willing helpers of Ivydale Primary School in south-east London.
Not all spiders are dark and sinister bundles of threat and danger. What if they were are prettily coloured as butterflies?
Next up — produce powerpoint presentations on why spiders are our friends. It wasn’t long before they were googling ‘cute spider pictures’ or ‘how many flies does a spider eat in a year?’ or ‘how many species of spider are there?’
The head teacher Helen Ingham came in to see how we were getting on. I think she was pleased that none of her pupils had been traumatized, or bitten.
So now the serious part. What did the pupils of Ivydale learn? Here are some important facts:
- No spiders are poisonous — they are venomous, that is how they catch their insect prey. Expansion note: Stinging nettles are not poisonous, cook them and they are delicious (taste like spinach), but they are venomous and sting by injecting venom through tiny hollow hairs on the leaves and stems.
- Humans are covered in an amazing substance called skin, even in children it is too thick and tough and leathery for most spiders to get their fangs into; spiders have small mouths and just cannot get their jaws open wide enough to give a nip. Expansion note: Imagine you are a spider trying to bite a human finger — it’s like you trying to take a bite out of a big leather football. Skin is also waterproof — try cleaning it with soap in the bath.
- Of roughly 670 different species of spider in the British Isles, only about 6 species have fangs long and strong enough to get the venom through. It feels a bit like a bee sting. Expansion note: Imagine you are a school teacher and see bees visiting flowers in the playground; do you close the school because of a dangerous threat? No, obviously not, that would be silly.
- Spiders are small, solitary and non-aggressive, they have soft delicate bodies and do not want to get into stand-offs or fights with humans. Expansion note: If you pick up a spider between finger and thumb it might try and fight back by biting. If you pick up a bee or wasp between finger and thumb it will sting you. If you pick me up between finger and thumb I will bite and kick. Children are more likely to be bitten by each other than by spiders.
- No school, office, home or indeed any building should be closed because of an ‘infestation’ of spiders. Expansion note: If you are worried about spiders ask to speak to one of Ivydale School’s pupil arachno-ambassadors, they’ll put you straight.