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Christmas spiders from heaven

Christmas spiders from heaven

Christmas spiders from heaven

Being a young lad in the late 1980s, life was exciting. During that time my family was residing at a farm owned by a renowned contractor, J J Lowe. The farm was situated on the outskirts of Livingstone along the old Great North Road. The eastern side was bordered by the Maramba River and beyond it was a continuous stretch of land exhibiting two soil types – sandy and stony (gravel) soil and Kalahari sands.

On this land my friends and I would go hunting for hares and francolins with our dogs. It was during these explorations that we came across small red spiders. At the time, not only did I learn that they were nicknamed ‘Christmas spiders’ by my friends but also by a lot of people within the surrounding community. They were associated with Christmas because their red velvety appearance resembled the outfit traditionally depicted as being worn by Santa Claus.

In addition, local people believe their origin is heaven – and that they drop from the sky - because they only appear a for few weeks before Christmas. These creatures have been given many other names in different countries, and are known as modimo (god) and mwambua (the child of the rain) in Botswana and Tanzania respectively.

What I did not know at the time was that these spider-like creatures were actually mites. Mites and spiders are members of a group of eight-legged ‘non-insects’ called Arachnida. Other members of this group are scorpions and ticks. Since the Christmas spiders are mites, we can demystify the belief that they fall from heaven - they actually emerge from the soil soon after a heavy shower.

The ‘red velvet mite’, as it is officially known in southern Africa, belongs to the mite genus Dinothrombium. Mites are found in almost every habitat in the world, including on animals and plants. Red velvet mites, especially Dinothrombium species, are commonly found in sandy areas.

They emerge from the soil once a year at the end of the dry season, soon after the first heavy rains. During this time of year, the mites only have a few hours to look for food and mate before they burrow back into the soil. There they spend their life as parasites, attached to other insects in the larval stage and as predators of insects and non-insects in the adult stage. They can also be cannibalistic – that is feeding on other mites and their eggs. They have few or no predators because their bodies produce antifungal and antibacterial oils which make them unpalatable.

Red velvet mites are very beneficial to our ecosystems. They act as biological control agents by cleaning up the environment of unwanted pests such as grasshoppers, tree hoppers, termites, beetles, spider mites, etc. Red velvet mites also play a major role in the recycling of nutrients in the soil. Extracts from red velvet mites have been used to treat paralysis, boost the immune system and to enhance libido in some countries including India – not recommended for trial by readers.

More from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (December 2013)

More from the Zambezi Traveller:
Livingstone Destination Profile