N.H. has a state tree, flower and fruit – why not a state spider?

  • A female daring jumping spider. Courtesy of David Hill

Monitor staff
Published: 12/6/2020 4:52:28 PM

The daring jumping spider hunts without a web. 

The quarter-sized little arachnid doesn’t need one. He jumps from perch to perch, grabbing prey by surprise. He latches strong webbing to walls and branches to support him as he jumps, not unlike Peter Parker or Miles Morales.

He’s small but fearless, and common to many New England backyards. And he could soon be New Hampshire's official state spider. 

An elementary school in Hollis has chosen the daring jumping spider to be awarded that honor, selecting him from four nominees in an election held this month.

And a local lawmaker, Rep. Kat McGhee, has put forward a bill to make it officially happen. 

For the students and staff, the daring jumping spider is a winning candidate. 

“He’s very brave but he makes very safe choices,” said Tara Happy, the environmental science teacher who taught the spider unit to her third-grade class in October and oversaw the school election. “He can jump super far. (The students) thought that was cool. He doesn’t die in the winter, obviously willing to withstand our New Hampshire winters. He just hangs out and waits for warmer weather. He doesn’t bite people very often, but if he does he’s not harmful to people.”

He’s also adorably small, the size (and shape) of a large button.

The idea sprung from an online teaching workshop from New Hampshire Fish and Game that centered on spiders. The concept was clear: Spiders provoke fear in adults and children alike – what if studying them could help reduce that fear?

Happy wasn’t the biggest fan of spiders, personally. “They’re scary,” she said. “I mean I know they’re important for the environment.”

But by the end of the workshop, she had broadened her views on the creatures and uncovered an unlikely appreciation. It was a liberating feeling, she said, that she wanted to pass on to her students as well.

Happy teaches kindergarten through the third grade, but she figured third graders would be the most receptive to the spider. She drafted up an October-themed spider unit to pass on the experience. “Maybe they would grow up not hating spiders,” she said.

The teaching began as a simple environmental science lesson. Happy covered the basics: what spiders do, how they cast webs, and why they’re important to the ecosystem. Then the class discovered that New Hampshire lacks a state spider of its own. The uproar was immediate.

“That instantly turned into ‘Well that’s not fair,’” Happy said. “Just because a spider is different and little and different and kind of scary doesn’t mean that it doesn’t deserve to be recognized.”

For Happy, teaching a new unit on spiders required a new level of creativity at a time of coronavirus. With a number of Hollis students opting to learn remotely, she held some classes over Zoom and others in person. Students at home were asked to explore their own backyards for spiders and take pictures; those at school did so as a group.

Soon the lessons began to transcend the topic itself. What began as an exploration of an uncomfortable topic ended as an object lesson in kindness, acceptance and forgiveness.

It didn’t take much from there to nudge the students into a new project: picking a state spider themselves.

After a flurry of research, the class narrowed it down to four candidates.

There was the goldenrod crab spider, a small yellow and white spider that camps out on flours for insects; the woodlouse hunter spider, an orange and yellow spider that hunts woodlice at night; the black and yellow garden spider, which builds and rebuilds an elaborate web every night; and the daring jumping spider.

Happy just had one rule: “We did talk about how you can’t just vote for a spider because you think it’s cute,” she said. There had to be more meaningful reasons.

By early November, the election season in the school began to mirror the one across the country.

Third-grade supporters of each of the spider candidates made speeches to the other classes, tailoring their pitches room by room. Classrooms took their votes as a whole, and Happy colored in a map of the school with room-by-room results as they came in.

There were even “mail-in” ballots, of sorts. Students learning at home had the option to vote via Google form.

And true to 2020, even by late November, not all the ballots from the classrooms had been fully counted. But Happy said there was enough to project a clear winner.

And so, the spider named on the bill heading to the New Hampshire House next year is the daring jumping spider.

For McGhee, a Democrat, the decision to sponsor the bill was an easy one.

“It does kind of stand out, doesn’t it?” she said. “When I sent it in to the Office of Legislative Services, I said ‘Here it is, the (bill) you’ve been waiting for!’”

The representative acknowledges there could be hurdles. Maybe some representatives propose their own favorite spider. Maybe the effort falls short on the House floor, not unlike an infamous red-tailed hawk bill in 2015.

But to Happy, even if there are legislative mishaps, the kids’ experience will be valuable either way. The passion is certainly there. Already, there’s a dedicated subgroup of third graders committed to seeing the effort through: “Team Spider.”

“It’s tough to be a kid right now,” Happy said. “This year hasn’t been exactly all that fun.”

But, she added, “It was just really cute to watch them kind of sticking up for something that was little and scary and that they didn’t know about. And they just gave it a chance and learned that it wasn’t that bad.”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at 369-3307, edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)

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