Column One: Along came the spiders and sat down ... all over

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The Independent Online
It has been a tremendous autumn for the garden spider. The backyards, patios and shrubberies of Britain have been festooned with hundreds of millions of their big webs, up to a yard across.

The large female spiders, with bodies up to an inch long, wait fearlessly in the middle of these, confident that their sheer size and sticky silk will discourage any birds from eating them. They seem quite unperturbed by humans, too, unless you actually give them a poke.

``There are a lot more around this year than there are normally,'' said David Clarke, keeper of invertebrates at London Zoo. ``That's due to the very sunny, still weather we've been having. They've done extremely well.''

For most of the summer the spider, Araneus diadematus, (below) scuttles around the gardens of Britain barely noticed. That is because until the autumn both it and its webs are fairly small. But, come September and October, the spider has undergone its final moult, and, if it catches plenty of insect prey in its webs, reaches its full size. The females' abdomen becomes swollen with more than a hundred eggs. The males, as is often the way with spiders, are much smaller.

The females spin big webs, up to a yard across, hanging them between shrubs and fences. They wait, fearlessly, in the middle of these.

In the next few weeks they will lay their eggs, wrapped up in a package of silk, and then most will die - although a few can overwinter. The eggs will hatch out in the warm spring weather.

Far from being alarmed by the spectacular spider boom, people ought to welcome the big webs for trapping the vast numbers of insect pests still on the wing.

The species is also known as the holy cross spider, because of the cross- like white markings on its abdomen. Its legs carry black and white bands and its colour is grey brown, sometimes with orange markings. The spider is found throughout the British Isles and is one of the most common.

None the less, the zoo has had many inquiries from people convinced the big spider is an exotic, and possibly deadly, import from the tropics. In fact it is harmless to humans.

Mr Clarke rejects any suggestion that the spidery autumn is a sign of global warming. ``There are usually loads of them when we get these warm autumns,'' he said. In any case, this year's display is probably over now, with the rain and wind of the last couple of days washing and blasting away their webs.