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Spiders scare me, but I also find them fascinating – and they help with my art

Eight schools in London have closed this month because of an infestation of spiders. The schools reported that they were concerned for the children’s well-being so they sent their pupils home – in one case for a whole month. It’s spider season again, when males are looking for females, spiders are at their largest and their webs seem to fill every corner and crisscross every path.

Each year, just as predictably, comes the panic. This is a busy, and frustrating, time for arachnologists – who try to calm people’s fears with logic. These spiders will not kill you, they say, the most they will do is give you a bite if you touch them, which will be no more painful than a bee sting. Yet in spite of these facts, the fear remains. Some animals, it seems, are simply born bad. The only logical response is to run away or kill them before they kill you.

As an artist, I became interested in spiders because, like me, they make things. I have collected their silk, watched their courtship rituals and even invited one to join me in a duet – I serenaded a garden spider and recorded the vibrations of its web as it plucked the threads in response. Yet I still feel a lurch of panic when I hold one. My palms sweat and I can feel my heart rate increase.

But if we want to take environmental conservation seriously, we cannot pick only the animals that we find attractive. We have to find ways of living with animals that make us feel uncomfortable. Instead of running away or destroying them, we can choose a third option: get curious. Where do these animals live? How do they communicate? What do they make?

I started collecting spider webs when I was living in a dusty basement as a student 15 years ago. I teased apart the individual strands of silk and wove them into drawings and sculptures – a very time-consuming activity. Orb weaving spiders, such as garden spiders, are able to produce seven different types of silk, each with different properties. Some are dry, strong and famously tougher than steel, while others form the sticky capture spiral of a web.

Surfing the web

The versatility of spider silk has made it an attractive and useful material to humans for hundreds of years. The oldest use of spider webs is as a wound dressing. Spider webs are close to hand on the battlefield and they also have antibacterial properties that help us to heal and resist infection. Recent research into artificial spider silk is expanding this medical potential by using silk to heal damaged tendons. It seems that our cells get on particularly well with spider silk proteins, not only do we not reject them, we actually stick to them. In the future we might all be part Spider Man or Woman.

Pholcidae – or Daddy Long-legs spider: the cannibal in the room. nelic via Shutterstock

Spiders have also played a central role in mapping the skies, measuring time and even fighting wars. From the early 19th century to the 1950s, spider silk was used to create reticules and cross-hairs in telescopes, optical instruments and gun sights – during World War II, there was a surge in people collecting spider silk to sell to gun makers. One of the most successful was a Californian woman, Nan Songer, who filled her sun room with black widow spiders. She described them as “docile as old milk cows”.

One of the most beautiful sights at this time of year is the glint of autumn light on spider webs. It is this magical appearance that has inspired people to attempt to weave clothes from spider webs. The problem is you need a lot of dry silk to make anything substantial, and spiders are resistant to commercial farming – they have a tendency to eat each other.

Perhaps an easier approach is used by the people of Malakula, an island in the South Pacific archipelago of Vanuatu. Early in the morning, the men of the villages collect spider webs from trees using a bamboo frame. The webs stick together like felt fabric, and they use this to create masks, spiritual headdresses and even entire tunics. In Malakula, spiders are venerated rather than feared or destroyed. They reflect the cycle of life; every night many species of spider eat their webs and reuse this energy to weave a new web in the morning.

Spider spotting

Halloween is coming up, a celebration of all things fearful and I’d like to propose an activity. As evening falls and trick-or-treating begins, take a torch and go spider spotting. There are around 600 species of spider in the UK, and 35,000 in the world, so you can’t go far without spotting one – but here are a few of my favourites.

Tegenaria domestica or the common household spider. John A. Anderson via Shutterstock

Starting in the bathroom is Tegenaria domestica, the house spider. At this time of year, these hairy brown creatures are probably males pausing for a drink of water while they search for females. On your way out of the house, look up to the corners of the ceiling where the Pholcidae – or Daddy Long-legs – live. These are the ones to encourage if you want to keep flies and other spiders at bay: they are keen cannibals.

Outside, head to any railings or fences. Here you will find two types of orb web: a classic Halloween symbol. If there’s a pizza slice cut out from the web, then it has been made by a Zygiella spider. But if it’s a complete web then it’s probably made my favourite of all spiders: Araneus diadematus, the garden spider and the species whose silk was most often used in optical instruments. It is largely thanks to this animal that we have accurate measurements of time and the land.

Finding out about spiders, and other unwelcome creatures, helps to lessen our fear. But it also enriches our world, by revealing our dependency on the extraordinary lives of others.

The Conversation

Eleanor Morgan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Slavery was never abolished – it affects millions, and you may be funding it

Nail bars are havens for modern slavery. shutterstock

When we think of slavery, many of us think of historical or so-called “traditional forms” of slavery – and of the 12m people ripped from their West African homes and shipped across the Atlantic for a lifetime in the plantations of the Americas.

But slavery is not just something that happened in the past –- the modern day estimate for the number of men, women and children forced into labour worldwide exceeds 40m. Today’s global slave trade is so lucrative that it nets traffickers more than US$150 billion each year.

Slavery affects children as well as adults

Debt bondage often ensnares both children and adults. In Haiti, for example, many children are sent to work by their families as domestic servants under what’s known as the Restavek system – the term comes from the French language rester avec, “to stay with”. These children, numbering as many as 300,000, are often denied an education, forced to work up to 14 hours a day and are sometimes victims of sexual abuse.

Slavery is a daily reality for 10m children around the world. Shutterstock

Read more: How trafficked children are being hidden behind a focus on modern slavery


Slavery is not always race based

Then, as now, race is not always the main reason for enslaving someone. In the past, those who were living in poverty, who did not have the protection of kinship networks, those displaced by famine, drought or war were often caught up in slavery.


Read more: What does modern slavery look like?


In the UK, nail salons, restaurants, music festivals and farms have all be found to have people working in slavery. Victims of human trafficking come from all parts of the world and all walks of life. There isn’t just one type of modern day slavery, it takes many forms.

Your gadgets could be to blame

The demand for certain types of goods has propelled slavery’s numbers. In the past, the desire for sugar drove the growth in slavery. Now, the global consumption of electronic goods has exacerbated slavery in the Coltan mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Many slaves or trafficked victims are often exploited in mining for gold, coltan, molybdenum, niobium, tin – which can be used in electronic goods sold around the world.

According to Save the Children, 5,000 to 6,000 young children work in the Coltan mining industry, surrounded by armed guards to prevent their escape. Much of the profit from this trade goes to fund ongoing militia warfare in Central Africa.

Research has found children as young as seven mining cobalt used in smartphones. Shutterstock

Traditional slavery still exists

Chattel slavery (where one person is the property of another) is illegal but still exists especially in the West African country of Mauritania – where abolitionists’ efforts to stamp out the practice have been in vain.

The organisation Fight Slavery Now says that today at least 90,000 Mauritanians are the property of others, while up to 600,000 men, women and children are in a bonded labour situation – up to 20% of the population.

India has most number of slaves globally

India has the highest number of slaves in the world, with estimates ranging from 14m to 18m people. In India many people work as slave labour in the brick kiln industry – this includes women and children.

Now, as in the past, not all slaves are forced into slavery. Historically, some experienced such severe poverty that they had no choice but to sell themselves to be bound to another person. And similar cases still happen around the world today.

Brick kiln workers in India are incredibly vulnerable to slavery. Shutterstock

It involves global movement

Long distance movement is common in slavery of the past and the present. For West Africans in the pre-modern era, the journey across the Atlantic must have been unimaginable.

Today, labourers move around the world freely looking for work, but some end up caught in slavery-like situations. They are promised a good job with decent conditions and wages, but instead are trapped in a cycle of debt and despair, where they are bound to their employer with no chance of escape.


Read more: Qatar has every reason to enforce new workers charter


Many of the workers constructing the stadia for the Qatar World Cup in 2022 come from South Asia. Amnesty International says these workers often have their meagre wages docked unjustly, their passports seized and are forced to work in life-threatening conditions.

Slave soldiers fight in wars

One similarity between historic and modern slavery is the use of enslaved labour, especially children, in armies.

In recent years, at least 30,000 children have been abducted and forced to labour in the Lord’s Resistance Army led by Joseph Kony, in Northern Uganda.

Over four centuries ago, Christian children were valued as soldiers in the army of the Ottoman Empire. The children were taken from their homes, forced to convert to Islam and put to work in the military.

Slavery was never abolished

Today, an active abolition movement still exists. It applies lessons from the earlier abolition movement that ended the transatlantic slave trade – which recognised the importance of victim stories as a powerful tool to raise awareness.

Just as Africans such as Olaudah Equiano became part of the abolition movement in 18th-century London when they talked about their lives as slaves, so today, the benefit of encouraging survivors to share their stories is recognised.

In the 1790s, to persuade the British government to end slavery in the British Empire, female abolitionists organised boycotts of sugar that had been produced using slave labour and instead bought “fair trade” produce. Similarly, today, manufacturers and growers recognise that guaranteeing a product as fair trade – and free from slavery – will help their goods sell.

Slavery still exists in many forms today, and the impacts it has on millions of people are no less devastating than they were in the past. Yet ordinary people can use their power as consumers to combat modern slavery, simply by paying attention to what they buy, and raising awareness among their friends, family and colleagues.

The Conversation

Catherine Armstrong does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

International students on British drinking habits – 'people don't know when to stop'

shutterstock

Of the 2.3m students starting courses at UK universities each autumn, well over 400,000 are international students from non-UK countries.

The scale and importance of international students to the UK higher education sector is now well established. Yet we know very little about how students from non-UK countries experience and interact with the heavy drinking culture that predominates on and near many universities.

Many international students often come from cultures marked by moderation or abstinence around alcohol. And concerns have been raised that activities centred on alcohol may exclude international students.

We’ve conducted new research to reveal the perceptions of British drinking cultures held by international students studying on postgraduate courses at a UK university. In focus groups and interviews, students from countries including Nigeria, the US, China, Turkey, Poland, Germany and Greece told us of their experiences of drinking culture at university.

The British ‘like to drink’

The British Council, and many city and university marketing teams, often promote the British pub as a safe and friendly leisure space in their bid to market studying in the UK to international students. The students we spoke to were aware of the iconic image of the British pub. They spoke of their desire to participate in what they saw as being an important part of British culture. Others spoke with excitement of being able to try British real ale and craft beer as a part of their experience of living and studying in Britain.

Having seen depictions of British pubs in television, film and, increasingly, social media, most international students were aware of alcohol consumption being important to British culture before they came to the UK. This prior perception was confirmed by their initial experiences on arrival. Our interviewees felt that getting drunk was an important part of British cultural life and reported being initially surprised that drinking to excess was an expected part of university life.

Despite these concerns, drinking alcohol was an important part of the social lives of many international students. Many had enjoyed their experiences of socialising in bars and pubs. For others, whose degree programme cohorts were predominantly fellow international students, the pub was a space in which they could view and interact with British culture and British people – such as non-student locals.

Drinking cultures in contrast

International students made ready comparisons with the drinking habits and attitudes of their own cultures. Many told us about how people drink alcohol and get drunk in their own cultures. But they contrasted this with the tendency of “going too far” and of “not knowing when to stop” that was perceived to be a major characteristic of British drinking culture.

That said, many interviewees had enjoyed learning about the practice of buying “rounds” of drinks, using “cheers” before drinking and the lack of table service in Britain. They saw this as a fun and a pleasurable part of getting to know local culture.

International students say they are shocked at the amount of booze consumed by Brits at university. Shutterstock

As identified in other research, gender is an important feature of how students view drinking and drunkenness. Concern was expressed in our study about a perceived lack of control among some British women when drinking alcohol. Words such as embarrassment and shame were used by both male and female interviewees to define the boundary between fun, sociable drinking and excessive drunkenness.

Interviewees expressed surprise that public vomiting and urination or collapsing in the street were so widely tolerated and even in some cases expected and celebrated by British students.

Finding the balance

Most students felt capable of negotiating their involvement with student drinking culture by choosing times, spaces and styles of drinking that suited their own tastes. This involved a clear preference for drinking as part of other events such as eating a meal out with friends or watching televised sport in pubs. At social events where heavy drinking was the main activity, some would try to enjoy “one or two” drinks but leave once other people became noticeably drunk.

But while many students spoke of the pub as a welcoming and relaxed space for socialising with friends, bars and nightclubs were said to be intimidating places where they felt at risk of violence or harassment. Many students witnessed fights.

Female international students had particular concerns – several spoke of their strategies to stay safe when out at night. The avoidance of the streets at night due to a fear of potential violence or aggression was also highlighted in a previous study that looked at levels of racism experienced by international students.

That said, UK drinking culture is changing. More than a quarter of young adults in the UK do not drink alcohol. “Sober campuses” during fresher’s week are becoming more prevalent, as are teetotal university halls. And many students are eager for advice on avoiding or moderating the pressure to drink heavily while at university. But only time will tell whether this is a trend that is set to remain.

The Conversation

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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