As you may have guessed already, I’m a self-confessed arachnophobe; however, for me, the size of the spider does count – the smaller the better! So, I’d say I can definitely cope with what we affectionately term “money spiders” – some of the tiniest of their kind that seem to have a penchant for landing in your hair, on your arms, or just generally dropping in on you to say hi!
But is just wanting to be friendly what they’re really up to? (quite literally!) well no! They are, in fact, indulging in a spot of what is charmingly named “ballooning’ (also sometimes called kiting).
Whilst the knowledgeable nature lovers amongst you will doubtless have heard of this phenomenon already, it was news to me and I found myself fascinated to learn more – so thought I would put fingers to keyboard to share it with you.
So, firstly, what do we know about money spiders? Why are they called that? Well, they’re not actually just one kind of spider – they belong to an arachnoidian family known as Linyphinnae (aka sheet weavers, due to their creation of sheets of webs). They are usually a (mercifully) small 3mm (0.1 inch) or less.
The money part comes from a long-held belief that if a spider visits you, it has come to spin you new clothes ie to bring you good fortune (mmm OK that’s kind of it, but think I might stick to my old t-shirt instead thanks all the same!!) As far back as Roman times, many citizens carried coins with images of spiders on, to help bring them prosperity. Whilst in China, seeing a spider descending from its web is considered to be especially lucky, bringing the observer wealth.
If you were ever to consider bringing harm upon these little ones –shame on you! – you’d better watch out, because killing an arachnoidian visitor is believed to bring considerable misfortune!
Back to the ballooning – what is it and why do money spiders do it? It’s a behaviour that sees these minute critters take to the air, suspended by way of their deftly spun silken threads that they throw out to launch themselves into the blue yonder to travel faster and farther than they could accomplish by staying on terra firma – but is it really that simple?
Scientists have recently looked into this intriguing behaviour and have uncovered some astounding details.
Firstly, do spiders simply launch themselves up into the air without a care? No, they’re far more sensible than that of course!
To begin with, they calculate optimal flying conditions by the strength of the wind (too strong is just wrong for a tiny spider) and by tuning into the earth’s electrical fields – if the spider senses the electrical field is strong enough for flight, then it positions itself on a launch point ie on top of a leaf tip or grass blade (connected to earth naturally).
Next, it points its rear end into the prevailing wind (shake that booty in the air!) sends out a line and it’s take off! The spiders create lines of silk as they travel, which might account for why you sometimes feel a whisp of sticky gossamer as you walk around your garden. It is in fact the electrical charge on the spider’s thread that gives them the necessary lift, together with a gentle drag from the wind, if it’s available; although interestingly, it has been found that they don’t even need the wind to gain lift – it can be achieved purely by that electrical field!
How can they sense the electricity in the air? Further investigation found that the spiders have tiny hairs on their bodies that sense the earth’s electrical currents (a bit like static electricity can make your hair stand on end) and they use these to detect the electrical fields necessary for their aeronautical excursions.
How far can they travel? An incredibly long way – up to 2 ½ miles into the air and up to an unbelievable 1,000 miles distance – they even travel out to sea – something that was a puzzle to the famous naturalist, Charles Darwin, who suddenly found a host of tiny spiders had arrived on his ship, the Beagle, when it was over 50 miles off the South American coast.
So, why do these tiny pilots like to take to the skies? It can be a good way to move away from competition, or to more favourable habitats; it can even enable them to colonise new territories – but maybe there’s another explanation?
I like to think so – I reckon these minute aeronauts just love soaring up, up and away – I know I would if only I could balloon too!!