Do you feel spiders are underappreciated by the general public?
Very much so, yes. I’m the press officer for the British Arachnological Society, and the general opinion of spiders—even when you’re talking with people who know you work with spiders—is, ‘Oh, I can’t stand them.’ And then they tell you lots of stories. With many people there is a real fear, or at least apprehension.
It is fueled by the press. They like to sensationalise things, particularly when there are reports of people being bitten by spiders and all the resulting health problems that might occur. It’s all very erroneous. There’s no evidence—well, very little evidence—to back up what the press are saying, in a lot of instances.
That is then combined, I suspect, with a feeling about spiders that has been transferred from generation to generation. Even in mediaeval times, spiders were seen as being nasty and not very nice to have around—compared with the way people viewed, say, bumblebees or honeybees. The old mediaeval name for a spider was ‘attercop’ which means poison head. There’s many times where young people in conversation say, ‘Oh, I’m scared of spiders. My brother put one in my bed when I was a child.’ Or, ‘Mum said not to touch that.’
The fear is passed down the generations and the result is a certain feeling, amongst the general public, that spiders are not nice things.
On the cover of your book you have a very cute picture of a spider, with lovely little eyes. Do you feel that studying spiders—and finding out more about them and how they differ—is a good way out of this bad press?
That’s my interest. And it’s something that Bristowe does brilliantly in The World of Spiders (1958), which is such a readable book. He manages to highlight these fascinating aspects of spiders’ lives. We have 670 species in the UK, or thereabouts. Around 280 of those are the really tiny, mini-spiders. The rest have very different ways of living. Some spin webs and some don’t. Some—like the jumping spider on the cover of the book—actually leap onto their prey to capture it.
There’s a particular spider called a nursery web spider, which spins a tent-like web as a nursery for its young. The egg sac is placed in the top of that; the young hatch and they stay in there for a few days. The male, when he’s courting the female, actually presents what’s called a nuptial gift. He captures a fly and wraps it up in silk and presents it to her to keep her occupied while he then goes about the business of mating. That’s the only species in the UK that does that, and I think there are only two or three other spiders in the whole planet that do the same thing.
“The old mediaeval name for a spider was ‘attercop’ which means poison head.”
So we have these fascinating little insights into particular species. There are 40,000 or so species of spider that have been recorded worldwide. The 670 species we have in the UK represent about a third of the families that are recorded. We have about 30-odd families. So we have variety, even though we’ve got such a small number. You’re always learning more as you go along.
So the UK is a good place to be an arachnologist?
Yes, it’s pretty good. If you want to see the really spectacular things, you go to the tropics or to Australia. There are amazing YouTube videos of colourful Australian jumping spiders, and the way the male does a courting dance to attract the female. He’s waving his legs and sticking his abdomen up in the air. They set them to music superbly well.
If you’re into really attractive looking things, then you can go worldwide, but there’s still enough in the UK to keep people interested.
What exactly is a spider? It has eight legs. Does it also have to spin silk and have venom?
Every spider has the ability to spin silk, yes. Not all of them use silk for catching prey. In evolutionary terms, the first use of silk was probably as a protection for the eggs. Many spiders today lay their eggs and enclose them in an egg sac, which is a type of silk that they produce. (They actually produce six or seven different types of silk).
At least in the UK, they all use venom to paralyse prey. There are some records of vegetarian spiders in other parts of the world, but we certainly don’t have any here.
Spiders are part of the arachnid order, and they are joined in that by harvestmen, which also have eight legs, but only one part to their body. The harvestmen are the ones with the extremely long legs that you see at this time of year just sitting on a wall. They’re represented by about 30-odd species in the UK.
“There are some records of vegetarian spiders in other parts of the world, but we certainly don’t have any here”
Then there’s a small group of what are called pseudo-scorpions. Again, they are eight-legged. They don’t have the sting in the tail as the true scorpions do. Most of them are really quite small. I suppose the largest is about 6 millimetres in body length. Again, there are a small number of those, about 30-odd species in the UK.
Scorpions themselves are arachnids, but we don’t have any that are native to the UK. There are some that have set up colonies by the London docks. They’ve been imported and found reasonable conditions to survive there. Then there are the ticks and the mites, which again are eight legged. They’re an entirely different group.
The spiders themselves have two parts to their body, and, generally, eight eyes. Some species in the UK have just six.
They have an interesting method of mating in that the male spins a tiny little web and deposits a drop of sperm on it, and then he absorbs the sperm into what are called pedipalps. Those are like short arms at the front of the body. These absorb the sperm, they swell up, and then the mating takes place with the male’s palp being inserted into the opening on the underside of the female, called the epigyne. The transfer of the sperm takes place there. So, for the male, it’s a two-stage affair.
In some species—for instance one of the house spiders—the male, once he’s mated with the female, will stand guard over her to prevent other males coming in. There are all sorts of different strategies to ensure that one male mates with one female.
Different families work in different ways. The way spiders catch their prey, for instance. There’s a tiny little spider—which you find in the house sometimes—that’s called the spitting spider. It actually squirts out lines of sticky glue by moving its jaws rapidly from side to side. It fixes its prey onto whatever it might be with zigzag lines of glue, so that it can’t move at all. That’s just one way in which a spider can catch prey without trapping it in a web.
Jumping spiders leap after their prey. Wolf spiders chase their prey down, as their name suggests. They’re called wolf spiders because you often see quite a number at one time, but they’re not hunting in a pack. They’re all doing their own individual thing.
Yes, around my house, I normally see spiders on their own.
They’re not communal.
So after they mate and the babies are born, they all go their separate ways?
They would do, although the female may well form a meal for the young, once the young are born and are starting to look around for food. They don’t often live long enough to produce more than one generation.
Oh dear. That puts my own motherhood in perspective.
But some will. The nursery web spider that I was speaking about, we think that they now have two generations a year. That might well be something to do with climate change. It’s warmer and milder this time of the year, and so they’re able to produce another generation.
But generally spiders, if they’re out in the field, won’t live more than a year, although some do. Quite robust, larger spiders might take a couple of years to reach maturity. But once they reach maturity and mate that’s their job done. It’s unlikely that they’re going to live much longer.
What happens to the male?
He’ll mate and he might, on very few occasions, be eaten by the female. But not very often. That’s an old wives’ tale about the males always being eaten. It happens with the black widow spider, and that gives it the name. In general, the males will just die off or be a meal for a passing bird. There’s not a huge amount of longevity in the lives of these things. Although if you keep them in captivity—where it hasn’t got the threat of being preyed on or being exposed to the elements—a house spider will live three or four years.
Where do you normally go to observe them?
The garden’s pretty good. You don’t have to go far. They live everywhere. Some live in the home, and they’re adapted for that—like the house spiders, the spitting spider or Pholcus, the one with the long legs you find up in the corner of the ceiling. Then you get spiders like the common jumping spider or zebra spider, which you find quite regularly out in the garden. You can find spiders up on mountaintops, cliff faces, on the shore, in caves, in woodland and in grasslands. Any sort of habitat you come across, there’s likely to be a spider.
Let’s talk about these books you’ve chosen. First on your list you’ve got Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne, written back in the 18th century. It’s a very nice introduction to nature watching in general, isn’t it?
It is. He’s sitting in his house down in Selborne and observing what’s around him. He doesn’t travel far. He just observes and by doing that, you can see lots of wonderful things. That’s what attracted me with Gilbert White.
Even on a new estate, like I live in here, I can be out looking at the things happening in the garden. Say the false widow spider—which is one that has a bad press at the moment, because of the various sensationalist things that have been written. I’ve got them in the garden and they don’t cause me any harm at all. I can go out at night with a torch and see them just sitting and waiting for insects to come into their vision or their web.
Gilbert White talks about just watching spiders spinning silk.
He’s writing in the century before Charles Darwin, who was also was very good at observing. That’s what his theory of evolution by natural selection comes out of, in a way, this tradition of observing the natural world…
It’s a particularly British thing, I think. Some of the early people who were into spiders were, like Gilbert White, vicars. The Reverend Octavius Pickard-Cambridge was the vicar of Bloxworth down in Devon. When you’re looking at the scientific names of species, they often have the name of the person who first described them—and a number of them are Pickard-Cambridge.
There are a number of others as well, around the 1700s and 1800s—these country parsons obviously weren’t busy enough, because they had the time to go out and observe and record.
It’s a tradition that has been maintained in the UK. A lot of the biodiversity we have records of is provided by amateurs. It’s people who have taken on that tradition and carried it through to the present day. The problem, these days, is that they’re all my age or older. We are getting some younger people coming through. But there is a danger, I think, that we will lose this reputation that we have built up—right from Victorian times and earlier—of observation of the natural world, particularly in terms of invertebrates. We’re going to lose that because there aren’t the people coming through to carry on with it, which is a shame. How can we interest younger people? We do all sorts of things to try and do that and we’re successful, to a degree.
But Gilbert White was one of the first who did this. Darwin was into earthworms in a big way, and barnacles. And, in The Voyage of the Beagle, he describes observing spiders ballooning from the rigging of the boat off the coast of Argentina. He was a bit puzzled about what was happening. They were just spinning silk to drift on the breeze and disperse and find landfall somewhere or other. That’s principally how spiders move around. He observed this and writes about it, as Gilbert White does.
What is ballooning?
With the larger spiders, it happens when they’re young. What they tend to do is climb up to a high point, wherever that might be. In a field of grassland, they would climb to the top of a grass stalk. The weather conditions need to be just right, and it appears that there might be some electrostatic influence as well from the ground, which causes them to move up. Then they stick their bottoms in the air and they spin silk.
The breeze—and it only needs to be a very slight breeze, if it’s any stronger it’s not going to work—carries the silk and eventually lifts them up, and they will drift on the breeze for quite a decent distance. I suspect that one or two species of spiders we occasionally find on the south coast of the UK have drifted across from France, because the same species is found very commonly in northern France.
There’s a phenomenon called ‘gossamer,’ where you get lots of spiders spinning silk at the same time in the same location, and you get a whole field covered in silk. The word is supposed to derive from ‘goose summer,’ a festival which celebrates the eating of geese sometime in November. This is a feature that you occasionally see, but the weather conditions have got to be just right for it to happen.
Even though the book is quite old, it’s still a nice read?
Yes. The book is a collection of letters. He’s writing to his friends around the country saying what he’s been observing. He’s got a number of correspondents he writes to. Let me read you a bit:
Selborne, March 15th, 1773
By my journal for last autumn it appears that the house martins bred very late, and stayed very late in these parts; for, on the 1st October, I saw young martins in their nest nearly fledged; and again, on the 21st October, we had at the next house a nest full of young martins just ready to fly; and the old ones were hawking for insects with great alertness. The next morning the brood forsook their nest, and were flying round the village. From this day I never saw one of the swallow kind till November 3rd, when twenty, or perhaps thirty, house martins were playing all day long by the side of the hanging wood, and over my field. Did these small weak birds, some of which were nestling twelve days ago, shift their quarters at this late season of the year to the other side of the northern tropic? Or rather, is it not more probable that the next church, ruin, chalk-cliff, steep covert, or perhaps sandbank, lake, or pool (as a more northern naturalist would say), may become their hybernaculum, and afford them a ready and obvious retreat?”
So he’s observing, but he’s also trying to work out what’s happening. He’s not just making notes. He’s thinking about why house martins are flying around on the 21st of October and into November, which is, these days, quite unusual. He’s using his observations to then process what is happening in the natural world. The book is full of this.
Now you’ve already alluded to one of the books by W S Bristowe. Is his book the one that got you really excited about spiders?
He produced two books, and the first one is this lovely little King Penguin, which was given to me by my mentor when I started working on spiders in Sherwood Forest about 40 years ago.
This is A Book of Spiders (1947). Tell me why you like it.
Part of the attraction is the colour plates, which—I found out only recently—were produced for what is regarded as probably the first work on British spiders, which was by John Blackwall. They were produced for a supplement for that volume, but were never used and Bristowe managed to get hold of them.
What is really remarkable is that they’re so accurate, these colour illustrations, that you can even identify things today from them—even though the names might have changed, as happens not only with spiders but other invertebrates.
“I still remember October 2013. The papers were full of reports about false widow spiders. The Daily Star said 50 million of them were invading Britain. All this rubbish! ”
In the body of this small book Bristowe also produces one or two nice little drawings. Here he’s talking about a little jumping spider called ‘bolas.’ It’s not known as bolas these days, but that was the name it had then. He talks about how “bolas adopts a nautical roll in order to display his magnificent calves. Or perhaps it would be more descriptive to say he lurches drunkenly from side to side.” And there is a nice little drawing which is subtitled “bolas indulging in a nautical roll.”
From the description, you have a picture in your mind that he creates.
In general, he’s introducing spiders and what they do. Is that right?
Yes. He was one of the first people to actually describe how spiders lived, rather than just giving you a description of what they looked like. He developed that idea and spoke about what they got up to which, again, creates that interest, because there’s such a variety. Not all spiders work in the same way in the UK at all. Both A Book of Spiders and The World of Spiders, which came out in 1958 in the New Naturalist series, do that supremely well.
Were you always excited by spiders, since you were little?
No. I grew up in Lancashire. I moved down to Nottingham to go to college. I worked in a bookshop for a while and then started volunteering up at Sherwood Forest. It’s about 20 miles from Nottingham, but I used to go up there at weekends during the summer.
I found out that they were looking for permanent staff. I asked the other staff what sort of questions they asked in the interview and was told that I needed to have a specialist interest in some aspect of natural history. I was already interested in birds and woodland, but I realised that nobody was doing anything on invertebrates. Particularly in an area of ancient oak woodland—with lots of dead wood lying around—nobody was doing anything on deadwood invertebrates at all.
I went along to the interview, having had a quick look at a library book on deadwood insects and spiders, and got the job. The week after I started we read in the local paper that the Council had received a grant from the World Wildlife Fund of £100—which was quite a bit of money in those days—to carry out an arachnid survey at Sherwood Forest, and that ranger Lawrence Bee was going to be coordinating the survey on the ground.
I was thrown in at the deep end. I spent the next few months just going out and collecting material and sending it off to be identified. I didn’t really know—apart from the fact that they were spiders—what I was collecting.
Then the guy who was mentoring me from the [British Arachnological] Society recommended that I go away on a Field Studies Council course down at Flatford Mill for a week, which I did. By the end of that week, though it might take me all night to identify a spider, I knew the processes to go through. That started me off, and I’ve carried on doing it on my own, as a personal interest, ever since.
Do you feel any affection for spiders?
I just find them fascinating. Under a microscope, they’re incredibly interesting to look at. You’ve got to have really quite high magnification. Even then, it’s sometimes difficult to pick out. There’s the complexity of the male palps, which is what you’ve got to look at to identify them. The picture we have on the front of our book is magnified 40 times through a microscope and it’s unbelievable. It just opens up a whole new world.
That’s part of the interest, and then there’s the satisfaction of being able to identify something and say ‘That’s what it is.’ It’s something which has just grown with me over 40 years or so, I suppose.
So tell me a bit more about book no. 3 on your list, Bristowe’s World of Spiders (1958), and how that fits in.
Bristowe’s Spiders is very short but quite a nice little gem. It encourages you to go deeper. The World of Spiders is a development from that. He covers all the British families.
Let me quote you from the book. We spoke about the daddy long legs spider, which you find indoors, Pholcus. For a long, long time, people assumed that you only found it in the southern part of the country, but Bristowe hunts around for it:
The daddy longlegs spider, Pholcus phalangioides, must be well known to people who live in the south of England and Wales. She sits unobtrusively in corners of rooms, between ceilings and walls, hanging motionless from a scaffolding of fine, invisible threads. Her presence is not resented, because she seldom moves and is regarded as an innocuous creature, which may be useful at catching mosquitoes or clothes moths.
Pholcus did not live in my childhood home at Stoke D’Abernon in Surrey, although she thrived elsewhere only about 10 miles further south. So the quest of an explanation inspired me to trace her distribution. This had to await the acquisition of a motor bicycle, and then, with the impudence of youth, I zigzagged across England, ostensibly seeking rooms in hotels or lodgings, whose ceilings I viewed with nonchalant interest.
“You can capture the spiders—and I do it in my garden when I want to get false widow spiders—by just touching the silk. They dash out, they grab hold of it, and they don’t let go”
My apologies are no doubt due to a host of hoteliers for gaining entry under false pretences. In the result, their unwitting cooperation enabled me to draw a map which showed that Pholcus inhabited houses coinciding with a narrow southern strip where the average temperature throughout the year exceeds 50 degrees Fahrenheit. North of this strip, she is normally confined to cellars, where temperature varies little with the seasons, and is usually about 50 to 52 degrees. Probably it is the absence of certain extremes of cold over a period which determines whether Pholcus can survive.
This idea of going across the country and getting into rooms is typical of him, and you get these instances all the way through the book.
The thing about Pholcus is, it’s now spread much further north than Bristowe talked about, probably with climate change—certainly up into Lincolnshire and beyond. I would say that looking at a distribution map, it’s probably covering most of the country now. It’s a species you find in houses, and people are moving around more. So it’s able to hitch a lift when people move. What’s even more interesting is that it has been found to be a species that has one of the strongest venoms of any spider in the UK. It doesn’t harm us, because it can’t break human skin, but it can certainly deal with house spiders very easily.
Bristowe also talks about hunting for a spider on the south coast—a large tube web spider called Segestria florentina. I was actually inspired by him to go and look for it myself.
She’s only established in southern towns with near access to the sea—I failed to find her in Bath, from which she was wrongly recorded—Dorchester, Weymouth, Folkestone, and Dover. So it would seem likely that the colonies are derived from chance importations which can establish themselves only in the warmest southern ports.
Once the tube entrance has been seen, it cannot be confused with that of another spider, “On account of the long, straight fishing lines. To catch one of these spiders, it should be necessary only to brush one of these lines very gently with a fine tip of grass and then to block the spider’s retreat with a blunt instrument. But the theory has to be put into practice.” Then he goes on. “When tried on a full-grown Segestria florentina on a warm summer’s day when she’s active, it is unusual for the beginner’s nerves to stand the strain of this huge spider with her flashing green jaws darting out with the speed of lightning, biting fiercely and then backing into the tube once more, all in the space of about two seconds….She’s very fierce and will bite violently to a pencil blocking her retreat.”
He then goes on somewhere else to talk about going down into Exeter and catching these things in holes in the old walls of the port, where the mortar has started to break up. The spider spins a tubular web back into the wall, and at the entrance to the web, there are these fishing lines, radiating lines of silk.
Now, having read that, I was keen on going to see it for myself. My wife’s sister lived in Exeter. We were down there one weekend, and I was determined find this thing. He recommends using a tuning fork to vibrate the fishing lines. There was me on a Saturday morning in the old port area of Exeter, finding these webs, seeing them, and attempting to catch a Segestria with a sweep net and touching the radiating lines of silk with a vibrating tuning fork. Sure enough, the Segestria florentina came out and, as he describes, they do have green flashing jaws, and they are quite large.
I was quite pleased with myself but what the people doing their Saturday morning shopping on the other side of the road thought I was up to, heaven only knows.
What’s interesting now is that florentina is found in Oxford. It’s another one that is spreading. Rather than using a tuning fork, these days people use an electric toothbrush—because it seems to provide a better, more effective vibration. You touch the silk with an electric toothbrush and the vibrating head attracts them out.
You can capture the spiders—and I do it in my garden when I want to get false widow spiders—by just touching the silk. They dash out, they grab hold of it, and they don’t let go.
Then what do you do with them once you’ve caught them?
We like to take large specimens to some of the shows we do, so we just pop them in a glass tube. Then people can actually see them and not be harmed by the spider—as they assume will happen. But I’ve had no experience of that. They’re only aggressive when they’re protecting their environment. That is when people might be bitten occasionally.
My children are terrified of spiders. They were telling me how dangerous daddy long legs are the other day. Are any spiders in the UK a danger to human beings?
Some people would say that they are, yes. It’s rather like being stung by a bee or a wasp. In the vast majority of cases, it’s no problem, but some people are sensitive and react. As with insect bites, there might be a secondary infection and that can be really quite serious.
But I still remember October 2013. The papers were full of reports about false widow spiders. The Daily Star said 50 million of them were invading Britain. All this rubbish! That spider has been living here for over 100 years. It was originally imported—probably with bananas from Madeira—into Torquay. It then gradually spread across the southern part of the country and is living quite happily in people’s gardens. It’s related to the black widow—but it’s a huge family, so it’s not closely related.
“There’s a phenomenon called ‘gossamer,’ where you get lots of spiders spinning silk at the same time in the same location, and you get a whole of a field covered in silk.”
But it was given the name of false widow spider. That immediately gave the press something to grab hold of. It does have a very potent venom, certainly, and it can break human skin. If people are bitten, if they are sensitive, they may well react, but not in the way that the papers would have you believe.
So no worse than a wasp, say?
No worse than a wasp or a bee sting. If you’re particularly sensitive, you may have to go for medical assistance, as you do with bee or wasp stings. Some doctors or hospitals may not know much about what to do.
I was rung up by a radio station in Suffolk. The man on the phone said he’d just been contacted by a woman, and she said that she’d been chased by 50 of these spiders. My response was, ‘Why would they do that? There’s no earthly reason why spiders would expend energy chasing somebody!’ These were the sort of stories we were getting all the time. It was getting crazy.
The only reason a false widow spider might bite is when it’s feeling threatened, so the advice is don’t bother it. Keep clear of them. I’ve got them in the garden and I go out and catch them. I’ve had no problems at all.
Have you ever been bitten?
Once—by a large orb web spider. I just happened to grab it out of a web to show somebody, and it was somewhat annoyed and sunk its jaws into me. There were a couple of red spots and then, within five minutes, those were completely gone. No reaction, no after-effects at all.
So they can break human skin, but only half a dozen species in the UK will do that. There have been no recorded or reported fatalities of people being bitten by a spider.
So I should tell my kids not to worry.
Not to worry, no, not at all.
Is he your model arachnologist, W S Bristowe? You talk about doing some of the things he did…
He gives you lots of encouragement to go out and do that, simply by the way he writes the book. If people are at all interested, I always recommend they try and get hold of a copy, because it is so readable and there’s some lovely stories in there. But he wasn’t a professional arachnologist. You don’t need to be a professional to be able to learn about spiders, and he’s a prime example of how you go about doing it. He’s very much in the tradition of what we were talking about earlier, the amateur enthusiast.
Have you got a microscope at home, then? Is it an essential part of the kit?
It is if you want to be seriously studying spiders, yes. When we wrote Britain’s Spiders, the idea was to enable people to get an idea of what they were seeing out in the field with digital photographs and illustrations. If you’re seeing webs, for example, giving you a clue which spider they might belong to. But it doesn’t cover everything, because there are lots of tiny ones—the linyphiids—where photographs wouldn’t be of any use.
The books we’re going to talk about now rely on the fact that you can use a microscope.
Ok so let’s talk about the Locket and Millidge next. This is a multi-volume work called British Spiders, from 1951.
Locket and Millidge is a very comprehensive identification guide for all the families of British spiders, and it covers the linyphiids as well. As a guide to using a microscope, this book is all we had until the 1990s.
First of all, you’ve got to get it down to family. There’s a family key in it, but it takes a little while to become familiar with. Then you’ve got to get it down to the genus. In some cases, if you get to the family, you can get to the genus fairly easily because there’s only one genus in that particular family.
For some spiders—like the jumping spiders—it’s dead easy to get to family, because of their eyes. They have a large pair of eyes at the front of their head, one on either side, and then four smaller eyes on the top of the head.
“Any sort of habitat you come across, there’s likely to be a spider…They live everywhere”
You’re looking at the arrangement of eyes, at the general shape of the animal under the microscope, the length of the legs and how the legs are positioned and so on and so forth. Over time, you gradually become familiar, and can say whether it’s a crab spider or a wolf spider (or whatever) just by the jizz of it.
Then you’ve got to go and look at the smaller features like the male palps and the female epigyne. The opening on the underside of the female is sometimes quite obscure, even from the drawings. You can see that there are changes and differences between them.
So one would be peering down the microscope trying to match what you were seeing with the line drawings in the book of the particular palps or the epigyne, which should take you to the species.
So you’ve spent a lot of time with this book?
Yes. Before I went on my course to Flatford, I managed to get hold of a copy, but I couldn’t make head or tail of it because it’s very, very difficult to go straight in. You’re presented with these pictures, but how do you get to that point? That was the difficulty. Going on a course helps you with those earlier stages, how to get to the stage where you’re looking at a palp in the book, and it’s matching or closely matching what you’re seeing under the microscope. It was quite a journey between picking a spider up to being able to say, ‘Well, that’s a particular type of wolf spider, and it’s that genus and that particular species.’
What is good about the book is that there’s a lot of descriptive information about the different parts of the spider. Not only the palps and the epigyne, but the colouring of it, particularly in large specimens and the shape of different parts of the body. There’s also quite a bit of information on the habitat and where you might find them.
The third volume includes lots of distribution maps. I’ve got that one as well, but it was volumes one and two which were the most useful, getting the key to the families. People use keys in different ways. Once you become familiar with the families, then you often don’t need to bother with them. You can go straight in and say, ‘Okay, that’s a whatever.’ But even after all this time—after all these years of experience that I’ve had—I occasionally come across a spider and wonder what family it belongs to. Then you’ve got to go back to basics again and go through the process.
You’ll use this book?
This one or the following one, which is the M J Roberts.
Yes, tell me about your final book, The Spiders of Great Britain and Ireland (1985) by M J Roberts.
When I was working at Sherwood, members of the [British Arachnological] Society came up to do some survey work. They found some interesting things and came back again a couple years later. Mike was secretary of the Society at the time, and he was producing this book.
He lived in Sheffield, so not all that far away and we would set up field visits. We spent time within the woods and also an area of heathland to the north of us. Then we went back to Mike’s place in Sheffield to identify what we’d found.
He was actually doing work on these plates at the time and I saw him working on some of the originals. He was there with a specimen, painting it as he was saw it through the microscope. So I have a certain affinity with Mike. Some of the illustrations are fantastic.
“There is a great fellowship amongst not only British but also European arachnologists.”
Eventually, the three volumes were produced. It has, again, detailed illustrations of all the genitalia, which is what we look at with the microscope. His descriptions are not always as full as they would be in Locket and Millidge, because he’s referring to the plates all the time—you can actually see the things, so you don’t need to describe them. That does mean you’re swapping between the books all the time, which can be a little bit time consuming.
The illustrations show what you see under the microscope, but you’ve got to remember that you’ve got to get it in exactly the right position. If you’re out by a couple of degrees, you’ll be looking at a different thing altogether. It’s not easy.
Is there an app you can use to identify spiders?
Not really. It’s been suggested a number of times but it would be a huge task. One problem is that there’s such a variety, even with the garden spider, which people come across all the time. You know it is a garden spider because of the white markings on the abdomen, but it comes in such a range of sizes and colours—you can get very pale, yellowy green ones, you can get dark, chocolate brown ones, and everything in between.
While you can recognize a spider fairly easily, even if you take out all the linyphiids, you’re still talking about around 400 different species. Trying to work out an app to key those down so you can recognise them is not going to be easy.
One issue we’re experiencing with iSpot and iRecord—where people send in photographs—is that they say, ‘I found this, and it’s so-and-so.’ And we know that it isn’t. They just haven’t been able to use the ID process sufficiently well to be able to do that. It would be hard to make an app where you’d be sure you were getting correct information at the end of the process.
Whereas if you use these books, you’d be on track?
Yes. But you’ve got to be careful. You can still make mistakes. If you’ve got a rare one and say, ‘Oh yes, it’s that.’ I’ve done that once or twice. I haven’t been entirely certain, so it’s gone off to an expert. Then they say, ‘Well, no, it actually isn’t that. It’s something else.’
A classic example of that is something called Meta bourneti. This was found up at Sherwood when I was working there. It was a male I found and I didn’t know what it was. I just found a big, dark, glossy brown spider sitting in a web on the eaves of one of the buildings of the visitor centre. I rung up John—who was the guy who was mentoring me and doing all the ID work. I told him I had found something interesting and described it. He said, ‘Oh, it sounds like Meta menardi. Let me have a look at it.’
So I put it in a tube and I sent it off to him, and he came back to me and said, ‘Yes, it’s menardi. Nice record. First one that we’ve had for the site.’ Meanwhile Mike, who was still working on these books, wanted menardi to do an illustration. So John sent it up to him, and the response we heard back from Mike was, ‘It’s not menardi, it’s bourneti.’
We then got really quite excited, because bourneti was known as a cave dwelling spider. It was about the sixth or seventh time it had been found in the UK. What on earth was it doing at the visitor centre at Sherwood Forest? We surmised that it might be living in some ancient oak trees, these hollow trees which are dark and damp, with a bit of space where it could spin a big web.
Then, after I moved to Oxfordshire—sometime in the last 10 years or so—they did some work on the visitor centre, with underground cables and drainage. They lifted one of the manhole covers and found a colony of Meta bourneti sitting in its correct habitat in a dark, damp underground situation. That’s obviously where it had come from, but because we didn’t have that information, we were making all sorts of assumptions.
So that’s what happens. The book shows you how you can tell the difference between the two, but you’ve still got to have the experience.
I was reading an article recently saying it’s a bit of a golden age for arachnology right now, with the genome revealing lots of information about spiders’ evolution.
It is becoming a golden age, not only from that point of view, but from the point of view of people using social media. There are a couple of excellent photographers who know what they’re doing and some of the images that are coming up on Twitter are absolutely amazing.
We were very fortunate, with our book, in getting lots of images from members of the Society in the UK. Then I came to a point where I wasn’t getting images of some of the spiders that are quite rare in the UK, so I was going to the Continent where those species are commoner. I had the same response from photographers in Germany, France, Hungary, Denmark and all over the place. The generosity of people in providing us with lots of images in some cases—and all they got in response was a copy of the book. There is a great fellowship amongst not only British but also European arachnologists.
I was at a European arachnology congress in Nottingham, which is a two-yearly affair with people from all over the place. What was interesting is that there are far more people doing postgraduate research in Europe than there are in the UK. There used to be more, but there is less and less happening at that level of academia than there used to be—simply because there’s no money in it. It’s a shame.
One of the only things that does happen—or at least one of the main things—is DNA research into spiders. It does, usually, have to have some sort of practical use at the end of it to get funding. This is the big problem. It’ll be interesting to see how things proceed and develop.
Is the British Arachnological Society flourishing? Does it have lots of members or is it the problem you alluded to earlier—that it tends to attract people your age rather than teenagers?
Certainly not the teenagers. There are some younger people coming in. We’ve got about three or 400 members and a couple of hundred foreign members. It’s remained fairly static ever since I’ve been involved. As a Society, we are represented at the Birdfair, for instance. That’s a fairly new thing for us—the past five years. We’re one of the busiest stands on the show for three days. It is crazy. We don’t stop, basically. We do get members there.
I also usually go down, with a few people, to the Amateur Entomologists’ Society exhibition every year at Kempton Park. Again, it’s getting our face out to the public. We’d like to do more of those, but we don’t have enough people to spend the time doing it, which is a big issue. It’s something we’re continuing trying to push.
Interview by Sophie Roell
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