My first serious encounter with spiders was many years ago when my son, then aged eight, became the youngest member of the local spider club and mom had to traipse along on outings.
His interest did not stay with spiders, but widened to all things weird and wonderful, including mythical creatures. Even now, visiting guests have to sleep with Cthulhu* watching over them from the top of the bedroom wardrobe.
South Africa is home to over 3 000 known species of spiders. Though feared and maligned by many, they’re an integral part of natural ecosystems and play an invaluable role in controlling pests. Unfortunately for arachnophobes, many species can be found indoors, as some areas around the home make ideal habitats. But try not to worry – of all the spiders commonly found in South Africa, only a few are harmful to humans.
Huntsman spiders, locally known as rain spiders (Palystes superciliosus), are some of the largest spiders in South Africa.
These nomadic, nocturnal arachnids are called rain spiders because of their tendency to seek shelter in human structures right before a rainstorm. They’re also found feeding on insects attracted to lights around homes. The size of these spiders, combined with the yellow and black banding on the underside of the legs exposed when the spider is in threat mode, give them a fearsome appearance. They do not spin webs; however, they do spin ‘nests’.
After mating in the early summer, the female constructs a round egg sac about 60 –100 mm in size made of silk, with twigs and leaves woven into it. These egg sacs are commonly seen from about November to April. The female constructs the sac over 3 – 5 hours, then aggressively guards it until the spiderlings, which hatch inside the protective sac, chew their way out approximately three weeks later. Females will construct about three of these egg sacs over their two-year lives.
Many gardeners are bitten by protective Palystes mothers during this period. In humans the bite is no more dangerous than a bee sting. It causes a burning sensation, and swelling which lasts for a few days.
My most interesting encounter with a rain spider was finding one that appeared paralysed. It had been hunted by a spider wasp (Pompilid sp.) that paralysed it by stinging it. The (female) wasp commonly drags the spider back to her nest where she lays an egg on the spider, then seals the spider and the egg in. When the egg hatches, the larva eats the paralysed spider, keeping the spider alive as long as possible by eating peripheral flesh first, and saving the vital organs till last. By doing this, the spider stays fresh long enough for the wasp larva to mature and pupate.
The paralysed rain spider I spotted had, for some reason, been abandoned by the wasp. Finding this treasure was most fortuitous as Whale Coast Conservation was about to present a series of expos on ‘Fynbos Creatures’ at ten schools in the Overstrand. Spiders were certainly some of the creatures we wanted to show.
Together with a rain spider egg sac, the comatose spider added a lot of drama to the spider exhibit. I’m pleased to say that the spiderlings had already hatched and we did not spread baby rain spiders all over the local schools. I was interested to see how long the spider would remain paralysed and whether it would ever recover from the wasp sting. The spider never regained consciousness, although it could move its legs when disturbed. It stayed alive for the five weeks of schools expos and then died, almost on cue.
I have to confess that after this experience I developed a soft spot for rain spiders – but the spot was severely tested when, on a chameleon survey, we observed a rain spider hunt and kill a baby chameleon. Such is nature – eat and be eaten.
*Cthulhu is a fictional cosmic entity created by writer H P Lovecraft and first introduced in the short story The Call of Cthulhu, published in 1928. Cthulhu’s appearance is described as looking like an octopus, a dragon, and a caricature of human form.