What would be the most romantic Valentine’s Day that you can imagine?
Would it include the South African version of tarantulas?
Nonetheless, that is what our Valentine’s evening included, for tonight my beloved took me out to listen to a talk titled “Spiders – Not as scary as you think!”
This was one of the lectures offered as part of the Continuing Education Programme at the Pinelands High School. The presenter was Esther van der Westhuizen, proprietress of the innocuously named Butterfly World out near Klapmuts. In addition to these pretty, delicate, fluttery representatives of the insect world, though, you should know that the complex also houses a vast range of spiders, scorpions and iguanas.
Before we walked into the classroom, I nervously said to Richard, “I have this frightening image that she is going to have boxes and boxes of big spiders in there, and that she is going to make them crawl all over us…. Can’t I just go home rather?”
You can imagine how my heart sank when, indeed, she did. I must be psychic.
She was busy unpacking between 20-30 transparent tupperware boxes, and piling these onto a couple of desks. After catching a glimpse of a few twitching hairy legs, I almost did a U-turn out of there. But she had already spotted us and welcomed us cheerfully, airily waving a tupperware box with another big black hairy thing squirming about in it, as she pointed to two empty desks in the second row.
Sigh…. I clearly wasn’t getting out of this one easily……
We were all given a manual with a green cover, depicting the huge fangs and big eyes of some sort of spider. Oh great… I quickly turned to the first page, which was a classification of the various kinds of beings belonging to the subphylum chelicerata. I immersed myself in reading the names, trying consciously to slow down my breathing, while my eyes kept twitching involuntarily across to the desk with the pile of squirmy tupperware boxes.
In this way, I learned that insects in this subphylum have 6 pairs of appendages – i.e. 4 pairs of walking legs, 1 pair of chelicerae (the so-called ‘fangs’) and 1 pair of pedipalps (which resemble ‘feelers’, but aren’t). They have no mandibles (i.e. chewing parts – well, that’s a comfort! Wouldn’t want them CHEWING me, now would we?!), and no antennae (I’m not sure how these differ from ‘feelers’ or ‘pedipalps’). They also consist of 2 body sections – a prosoma and an opisthosoma.
Esther did a fantastic job in making everything biological and zoological sound fascinating. She drew on a wealth of practical experience and amusing (and scary) anecdotes, which not only entertained us, but also settled my nerves and distracted me from all those languidly squirming legs….
For instance, she told us that arachnids belonging to the subclass Solifugae (she mentioned the Afrikaans names of haarskeerder, baardskeerder – as in hairshaver, beardshaver – based on the truly terrifying old wives’ tale that they will eat your hair or beard when you are asleep) are very hairy and very fast, and look like a piece of fluff being blown around by the wind. They are neither spiders nor scorpions; although they are aggressive and have strong jaws (so they can bite), they do not have venom glands, and are found mostly in arid regions, like the Karoo and in Iraq. (Well, Iraq is an easy place to avoid, but the Karoo is just up the road…. I’m going to have to re-think that fantasy of retiring to a little dorp on the vlakte…) Apparently, they can’t see that well, but they do chase shadows, because they are quite vulnerable to birds (?!), so when you move, they will follow you – which I would think feels as though they are chasing you! But – her advice (!): Just stand still, and they will hide between your feet, and they won’t climb up you. OH REALLY?!!
She also told us about tailless whip scorpions who live in the lowveld and highveld (not in Cape Town? Yaaaayy!), whose first pair of legs is extremely long and slender and is used as a ‘tactile appendage’ – a ‘feeling organ’, but NOT a ‘feeler’ (?). The long legs have thorny prickles on them and are used to catch prey, and because they can manipulate them so well, it looks really scary. The males have a really weird ritual of fertilising the female: the male will deposit his sperm in a cup on the ground, and dance around the female (keeping out of range of her vicious appendages) until her abdomen touches the little spermcup and she is fertilised. Tricky buggers, hey?!
Esther also reassured us that there are only three species of scorpions in South Africa that are dangerous – but they don’t have to be deadly. If you live in Cape Town, you should immediately rush out to the Tygerberg Hospital, where there is a brilliant poison unit, which has done extensive research on animal venom. The venom is (I think) a large protein molecule that triggers your glands to release a whole lot of transmitters, which can cause some serious sh1t.
On the positive side, however, she said that a scorpion needs a lot of energy to make venom, and they don’t want to waste it on humans, who are not their natural prey – and whom they most likely can’t haul back to the den to feed to the kids. They do make lots of acid, though, and apparently the purpose of this is to sensitise the nerve endings in mammalian predators, so when you step on them (which is usually the way to get stung), your whole body will feel like it’s on fire. Apparently this won’t kill you. (Now isn’t that nice to know…?!)
Esther also waxed lyrical about baboon spiders (which are those large hairy-legged TERRIFYING ones that look like tarantulas in the movies). She said that there is a common misconception that all of these are dangerous and deadly. Well, I suppose they could be kind of nice and comforting to cuddle if you didn’t have a CAT or a DOG… and apparently some (really straaaange) people do in fact keep them as pets. I am guessing, though, they aren’t likely to take them for walks through the neighbourhood, or enrol them in obedience training, or get a young one as a birthday presie for little Cathy who has just turned 4 and desperately wants a puppy! The possible scenarios are making my head spin…
Anyhow, back to the world of science. Esther explained that baboon spiders tend to live in a tunnel chamber, and that they dislike being disturbed in there and rarely venture outside. They will only grab prey that is right outside their nest or that has haplessly ambled inside the web… They have squat bodies, that make them look rather like gorillas, and like to eat dung beetles or crickets.
She mentioned a couple of species of these and pointed out that there are strict regulations (CITES etc.) that make them protected species – the “beautiful” Mexican Red Knee, the Mexican Red Leg, the Chilean Roses/Blacks/Greys… The latter are apparently the most frightening looking spiders (which is why they tend to feature in the movies), but they are in fact very tame (err…). When she saw hundreds of them being used in programmes like Fear Factor, she said that she felt awful for the spiders, because she knows that most of them will in fact die of fright by the end of the show… the spiders, that is, not the human beings… Isn’t that awful? Apparently there is a huge underground industry of illegal imports and exports with all kinds of spiders; when these are rescued by the South African Customs Office, they bring them to Esther to look after, because they don’t know what else to do with them. She thus has a huge collection, which she uses not for breeding, but for educational purposes and to study their behaviour and habits.
We finally found out that the spiders we have in our garden are RAIN SPIDERS, not baboon spiders. They climb up walls and are extremely fast, but their bite is not deadly. They also make those large odd-looking egg sacks of ‘silk’ (or whatever that white sticky fluff is) and leaves all intermixed, of which Richard has already relocated quite a number to a large open traffic island in the road behind us! In case you don’t know what they look like, this is a particularly long-limbed specimen we encountered in an otherwise quaint rural veld-toilet on a trip to the mountain village of Ceres:
She also taught us that there are three main button spiders. All of these hang upside down – they cannot in fact walk around on their legs. The first (and most famous) of these is the Black Widow Spider, but this only lives in North America and not here (yayyyy!). It has a clearly recognisable red hourglass on its stomach, and a shiny, very black body; its bite does kill people…. just not us!! (Yaaaay!) … (I shouldn’t be so smug, hey?)
The second is the House Button Spider, also known as the Brown, Red or Orange Button Spider (Latrodectus geometricus), whose body can be beige, brown, black, green, coloured or patterned, and also has a reddish kind of hourglass shape on the tummy. The females are the ones that make the nest (hmm… why doesn’t that surprise me? Sexism clearly also exists among the arthropods…. ), crawling up to wherever there is an overhang and making a nest underneath it. She says that they cause burning pain at the bite site, and some of the symptoms of the Black Widow Spider, although far less severe. (Another nice-to-know fact, right?)
The third is the Black Button Spider (Latrodectus indistinctus), which has a very black body, with little reddish spots on the rear end. This one can cause very severe pain and up to 50 years ago, there were lots of fatalities and serious nerve damage from bites, but nowadays doctors know how to treat it (if you get to them on time, I guess). On the positive side, these spiders live in colonies in the Swartland, especially in large tracts of undisturbed fynbos – which is why the farmworkers who cleared the land often got bitten.
During the last half hour of the class, Esther opened up all the tupperware boxes, one by one, either taking out the scorpion or the spider and holding it on her hand, or placing the box on our desks so that we could have a closer look. When she deliberately placed the first box on my desk and slowly lifted the lid up, I almost fell off my chair trying to scramble away. (Unfortunately, the eager beaver students behind me were pushing forward, so I was stuck!) By the third box, though, I was no longer panicking, as I had realised that these creatures were NOT going to jump out of the box and onto my face! Esther said lovingly, that she knew each of these spiders, and they all had a unique personality… some of them were very shy and cringed away, others gently touched the pencil she held close to them, whereas others walked slowly around their box. She also said that they really preferred small spaces, and didn’t feel claustrophobic at all.
I started to feel an odd, entirely unfamiliar sense of curiosity… and even a rather surprising sense of affection for the beautiful one with the red-and-black banded legs, which was sitting contentedly on her palm. By the end of the class, I was peering more closely at these weird creatures with their languidly waving legs and their odd-looking pedipalps (fangs!). But I wasn’t quite ready to have the beautiful one walking over my hand… one day maybe… Some of the other students took turns to put their hands down on the desk, while Beauty gently, slowly, carefully, moved one long leg at a time, walking gracefully across their hands.
What an unusual Valentine’s Day this had been!
— A day or two after we had attended this class, Richard opened up the electric motor of the car gate to check the wiring, when he spotted a small black spider and a shiny white ball like a little marble… which appears to be the egg sack of the Black Button Spider. So clearly these critters ain’t confined to their geographical homeland anymore. Richard wisely worked around both the spider and the egg sack, and completed the job unharmed. Phew!