Category: Other fauna
Village Voices Nature Note: Web Sights
When you see a spider do you go Oh, Ugh or Aaaaaaaaarh? Wherever you are on that ladder of reaction, let me try and talk you down to a rung where you might just say Hi oreven Wow! Fear of spiders (arachnophobia) is quite common. It could be a primitive instinct evolved when our distant ancestors lived in caves in Africa and might have trodden on seriously poisonous spiders. Or maybe we learn it as children from nursery rhymes like the one about Little Miss Muffet, who was put her off her curds and whey by an abseiling spider. But relax. None of the common spiders in the UK are dangerous to humans. Certainly not those big house spiders that can appear overnight in the bath or dash across the living room floor at an impressive top speed of half a metre a second; nor the Daddy Longlegs that get into odd corners of rooms and twizzle rapidly in their untidy webs; nor all those tiny spiders that balloon around on invisible filiaments of silk – on the contrary, these are the ‘money spiders’ that are supposed to bring you good luck.
Most of the UK’s 650 species of spider – bet you didn’t realise there were so many – live outside anyway. Among the wonders of autumn are those soft , misty mornings when you go out into the garden and see a perfect spider’s web outlined with beads of dew. The architecture of these silvery webs is breath-takingly beautiful. The spider first puts in the spokes to establish the structure and tether it securely to its moorings, then adds the complex spiral strands with a special sticky kind of silk that will trap unwary insects. The spider herself has anti-stick feet – all eight of them – to navigate the web. As a construction material the silk has extraordinary properties. It’s five times stronger than steel, weight for weight, but so light in density that a strand of spider’s silk stretched right round the earth would still only weigh the same as a bag of sugar. You can make bullet-proof vests from spider’s silk. It has medical uses, too, as a gentle anti-septic for binding wounds. Miss Muffet may in real life have been the daughter of the famous sixteenth-century naturalist, Dr Thomas Muffet, who discovered this property. Shakespeare knew about it anyway. In his Midsummer Night’s Dream he refers to the curative powers of one of Titania’s attendant fairies called Cobweb (‘Cob’ is the old name for spider). And we honour spiders, at least metaphorically, by naming one of the most important modern inventions after their magical creations – the World Wide Web.
7 October 022
Village Voices Nature Note: the Humbler Creation
All the great naturalists in history have praised worms. Aristotle called them the intestines of the soil, while Charles Darwin studied them for over 40 years and observed, It may be doubted whether there are any other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world. My favourite worm quote, however, comes from the peerless Gilbert White, curate of a small village in Hampshire, whose Natural History of Selborne (1789) is said to be the fourth most published book in the English language (after the Bible, Shakespeare and John Bunyan). White is the spiritual father of all today’s nature diarists (including me) and Selborne is the record of his daily observations in his tiny parish, which he rarely ever left. Here he is extolling the worm and making a very modern point about the interconnectedness of all life:
The most insignificant insects and reptiles are of much more consequence, and have more influence in the economy of Nature, than the incurious are aware of; and are mighty in their effect... Earthworms, though in appearance a small and despicable link in the chain of nature, yet, if lost, would make a lamentable chasm. For, to say nothing of half the birds, and some quadrupeds, which are almost entirely supported by them, worms seem to be the great promoters of vegetation, which would proceed but lamely without them.
In some cultures we become part of this chain too by eating worms – the Maori traditionally regarded them as a great delicacy; and in most others we willingly submit to the reverse process on death ...
Village Voices Nature Note: far away and long ago
I couldn’t help comparing that sum, though, with the current UK budget of £258 million for nature conservation and the protection of biodiversity. There is life on earth, right here and now, and it needs some help. Some of our own ancient inhabitants are in real trouble. Bees evolved sometime in the Cretaceous period, some 120 million years ago, at about the same time as flowers, with which they have ever since formed a mutual support system. The bees pollinated the flowers, which competed for their attention with the huge variety of different colours, shapes and fragrances they evolved to lure them in. In turn, the flowers offered the bees pollen and nectar and the bees themselves diversified to take advantage of this bounty. We come into this biological equation too, since we depend on crops the bees have fertilised – in fact it has been estimated that the value of pollination for human food is more than £110 billion a year.
But bees are declining fast. They have lost important habitats of flower-rich meadows and suffered terrible collateral damage from pesticides, herbicides and parasites. We’ve all read the headlines about this, but how much do we really know about them? Most people can recognise a bumble bee and a honey bee, but did you realise we have 24 different kinds of bumble bee in Britain and 270 other kinds of bee, 250 of which are called ‘solitary bees’ that don’t live in hives or big colonies. These have a huge range of life-styles, indicated by such intriguing names as miner, mason, leaf-cutter, wool-carder and sweat bees. Worldwide, there are 20,000 kinds of bees, more than all birds and mammals put together.
Well, you can see where my Easter parable is heading. Are we at risk of learning more about 3 billion-year old microbes on a dead and uninhabitable planet 140 million miles away than about the buzzing and blooming life that sustains our own live one and that lifts our hearts again every spring?
Village Voices Nature Note: Sounds of Summer
Grasshoppers have inspired some human music, too. Benjamin Britten composed Two Insect Pieces for piano and oboe, where the bounding gait of the grasshopper is contrasted with the angry buzzing of the wasp. And John Keats celebrated the cricket chorus in a lovely poem that begins, ‘The poetry of earth is never dead’, making the point that you could hear crickets through winter as well as summer. Or you could then, when the cricket on the hearth, immortalised in Charles Dickens Christmas Story, was a cheerful presence in many households. It is said that you can use the house cricket’s chirps as a thermometer. The formula for a centigrade reading is: count the number of chirps in 14 seconds, add 25, divide by three, then add four. So, if your cricket chirps 112 times a minute it should be about 20°C outside. Check it out though you may have to listen for your house cricket in a boiler room nowadays.
Crickets and grasshoppers are all members of the large family called the orthoptera (meaning ‘straight-winged’), which also includes the grasshoppers of folklore we now call locusts. Despite their destructive reputation, the Bible calls them one of the four ‘little things’ regarded as ‘exceeding wise’, along with ants, spiders and rabbits. ‘Why?’ is another story.
Spider records for Shingle Street received from Suffolk Biological Records Centre.
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