Did you know that some house spiders can live up to seven years?
I didn’t know.
Whenever I’ve seen a spider crawl across my wall, move the tips of its spindled legs out of my shower drain or scuttle beneath a cabinet I’ve….well, I’ve killed it. I mean, when my creature-loving daughter is in the room, I carefully catch them and put them outside. But when I am alone? When there are no witnesses? I am moved to murder.
I kill spiders, generally speaking, with one of two methods. The first is catch and kill. Best deployed in kitchens and bathrooms — really anywhere tissues, toilet paper or paper towels are within reach. A quick handful of paper, followed by a darted gathering of the spider in its folds and then pinch, once. I don’t care for this method. There is something about the pop of the cephalothorax, the aftermath of a smear attended by legs that feels too intimate. Much better to kill a spider with the quick, hard tap of an old, rolled up Economist. There have been more creative solutions born of urgency, of course. A lone shoe can kill a spider, as can a sudden gush of water from the bath faucet, so can, in one especially shameful moment, your child’s favorite blanket. Spider guts and legs wash off of everything! This is convenient since pretty much everything can kill a spider.
I suppose I thought spiders lived for a few months. A quick life gave me permission to dispatch a quick death. Why does it seem more ethical to kill a short-lived thing and less ethical to kill a long-lived thing? I didn’t hesitate to take a month off an assumed six month spider life. Such a share of spider existence taken by tissue! But seven years? I’m hard pressed to justify removing a day from that span. I know this shift makes no sense! But the vague convictions that direct most of our actions rarely do. I just can’t kill something that’s lived in my home longer than my youngest child.
House spiders don’t hurt us, you know. Even black widows haven’t caused a death in America since 1983. Funny, since I spent my childhood terrified of black widows and quicksand. Brown recluses have a fierce reputation but there’s not one confirmed death from a recluse bite in America. As to other house spiders, they mostly don’t bite and when they do we’re left with a slightly itchy or sore spot for up to twenty-four hours. If you think you have a spider bite? You probably don’t! Most “spider bites” are really bumps from other sources — little infections, ingrown hairs, the sting of other insects. We blame spiders because we know they’re in our homes and so they must be at fault for our little pains in the home.
I am a woman in the home. Another creature who has been historically blamed for everything from epic war to the fall of mankind simply for being around. I feel a little defensive of the common house spider.
Have you heard of the Barn Funnel Weaver Spider? If you haven’t heard of them, you’ve seen them. They’re some of the most common house spiders in the world. They go by other names, Common House Spider, Drain Spider, Lesser European House Spider. Their Latin name is Tegenaria Domestica. Tegenaria is their Genus and Domestica is their species. Domestica is from domesticus which means “belonging to the house”. This spider does belong to the house, to nearly all houses. According to the British Natural History Museum, the Barn Funnel Weaver is making its final worldwide migratory move. They are “expanding their range in the north of England and Scotland. Before long, few locations where there are houses will remain free of them.” Common House Spider, indeed. I’m moved to ask on behalf of this eight-legged weaver what I’ve often asked on behalf of myself,
I know this creature belongs to the house now, but what did it belong to before the house? And what did we call it then?
I don’t think we know the answers.
They’re called funnel weavers because when they weave a web, they make a funnel in a corner. The spider retreats into these funnels and uses them for protection and predation. Their webs aren’t sticky, but they are sensitive. Each warp and weft vibrates when an insect walks across it. Our Barn Funnel Weaver sits in her respite, waiting. When the vibrations move her, she moves quickly, capturing her prey and dragging it back into the funnel to feast. She eats insects that can really harm us, the ones that actually leave the bites we blame on her.
We know she’s a she because it is the female funnel spider that builds the web and then waits to eat. It’s the female spider that can live for seven years. The male funnel weaver spends much of his time searching for a female who is ready to mate. It is the male spider we see scuttling about our houses. His Penelope is tucked away somewhere at her loom while her Odysseus searches for her. I’m not sure how many male spiders I’ve killed, how many times I’ve been Scylla in an epic journey. One male spider’s demise doesn’t concern the female too much. She can wait. She will live up to seven times longer than him. In her living, she will produce up to nine egg sacks, each containing fifty eggs. When her spiderlings are born, they will look like her. As they grow, they’ll shed their little spider skins. I wonder how many spider skins I’ve swept up.
Barn Funnel Weavers haven’t always been in North America. They were brought over from Europe in the 1600s, along with a wave of imports and immigrants. My ancestors followed them across the sea a couple of hundred years later. The spiders wove webs on ships, then in ports, then cities. They they wove in the countryside until countrysides became cities and suburbs. Now they weave in our homes. Barn Funnel Weavers prefer to make their webs in the nooks of a homestead — the recess of a barn, woodpiles and root cellars. It’s hard to imagine a spider cares where they weave their web. But we know the funnel weaver contemplates its next step, they move in short bursts and will often pause before deciding where to go next. If they consider where they will go, they certainly consider where they will stop. I wonder, despite myself, if there is an ache as she perches in the recess of a suburban two car garage instead of a German Fachhallenhaus.
Spiders live alone. They are not solitary because they are aggressive, they are solitary because solitude helps them survive. They often go weeks in between catching a meal and so cannot share when a hunt is finally successful. They do need water. They will leave their web to drink dew. They imbibe from drips left in a drain, sip at the condensation at the base of a glass of iced water we forgot to finish before bed. Outside of the occasional foray to find water, the females spend most of their life funneled. They wait for the vibration that precedes fullness.
It seems silly, I know to have suddenly gained so much empathy for an arachnid. But there is something in the life of the Tegenaria Domestica that reflects my own; perhaps its commonness, perhaps its littleness. Maybe it’s the species journey to this country. I am perched in a grid-planned American city when my people once made homes in waving moors. I am not a woman with a loom, but I know the feeling of waiting for something to move across the warp and weft of my life. And then when something does and its vibration moves beneath my feet? I know the feeling of springing forth to grab it and drain it of its juices so that I can live until movement moves me again. Meg Domestica.
The other day, I saw a barn funnel weaver in a corner where our bedroom wall meets the ceiling. I had a broom in my hand and I could have knocked him down. I didn’t. I took him as a sign instead. He was there and so she is here — somewhere.
And so am I.
I don’t mind weaving and waiting together.
This essay was originally published in Stay at Home Meg, a free newsletter about home culture.