The secret love lives of spiders: SFU researcher looks at what goes on behind the web

Ghosts and monsters might jump to mind as the scariest creatures on Halloween but, for some, it’s more earthly, creepy-crawly creatures that give fright.

‘There are some romantic aspects with the spiders but also some scary aspects’

Simon Fraser University graduate student Andreas Fischer collected some of the spiders from the hallways of the school. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

Ghosts and monsters might jump to mind as the scariest creatures on Halloween but, for some, it's more earthly, creepy-crawly creatures that give fright.

Andreas Fischer, a Simon Fraser University graduate student studying spiders' pheromones and how they attract each other, agrees spiders can be scary — but says they also have a romantic side.

"There are some spiders where the male brings a gift to the female — for example, a wrapped up fly, a mating gift," he said. "If she accepts that, she eats that while he mates with her."

Andreas Fischer is studying spiders’ pheromones at SFU. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

Fischer started out studying spiders because so many people fear them, he explained, and says his research on how spiders communicate is useful for pest control management.

"We are here investigating the chemicals the females produce to attract the males because most spiders are basically blind and the males cannot see the females," he said.

"The only way to find them is by smelling them."

Andreas Fischer has collected hundreds of spiders — some of which come from the hallways of SFU. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

Partner ... or dinner 

Physically, there are obvious differences between the male and female spiders that points to their roles in courtship.  

"She is quite big compared to him: she has a very big belly and he has a very slim body stature and comparatively longer legs," Fischer said.

"He has to walk a lot. He's walking around and looking for females basically all his life."

The female spiders have larger bellies and shorter legs. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

The females, on the other hand, spend more time sitting on a web producing egg sacks.

"There are some romantic aspects with the spiders but also some scary aspects," Fischer said.

The male spiders have smaller bodies and longer legs. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

"Mating is quite risky for a male — in many spider species, he runs into the real risk of getting eaten either before sex or after."

Andreas Fischer is an SFU graduate student studying how spiders communicate 2:59

'No good reason to be afraid'

In Fischer's lab, he has about 600 spiders in cups and petri dishes.

He collected false black widow spiders from the hallways of SFU and real black widow spiders from around the province.

"For my spider species here, females are very tolerant to other females on their web but not to other males," he said.

"Usually, they scare away other males if they don't want to mate or even walk away themselves if he harasses her too much," he said.

Some of the takeaways of Andreas Fischer's work can be used for pest management control, he says. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

Fischer said he disliked spiders until he started researching them and learned more about them.

"If we could make a T-shirt out of spider silk, it would be bulletproof," he said about the silk which is tougher than steel and tighter than Kevlar.

"The more I read about spiders, the more I realized that there is no good reason to be afraid of them."

Ghosts and monsters might jump to mind as the scariest creatures on Halloween but, for some, it's more earthly, creepy-crawly creatures that gives fright: spiders. 5:07

With files from Caroline Chan.