Now we’re halfway between midsummer and midwinter, change is in the air. September 22 is the day of the autumn equinox when day and night are roughly the same length.
St Matthew’s Day on the 21st is supposed to bring an end to summer with cooler, unsettled weather, and it’s the traditional time for honeybees to retreat to their hives before winter.
On these darker evenings the night sky has an autumnal look, as the three bright stars seen overhead in summer, Altair, Vega and Deneb, sink slowly towards the west. In the north the Plough is approaching the position it occupies during the long nights, when the stars glitter like crystals of ice.
Another reminder of the turning year lies low in the eastern sky. The star Aldeberan, the red eye of Taurus the Bull, rises above the horizon around 10.30pm. Nearby is brilliant Jupiter, which climbs high into the southeast before dawn. But even this great planet cannot outshine Venus, in its role as the Morning Star.
While the weather this summer has been a disappointment to us, it has been idyllic for some insect pests. The wet and humid conditions have suited midges, mosquitoes, ticks and fleas. Sales of bite and sting remedies have soared, while pet owners have fought a constant battle against the leaping tide. Things should improve as daylight decreases and temperatures cool.
At least we have products to help us. In the days when homes had earth floors, the only remedy was to strew them with plants such as fleabane, lousewort and lady’s bedstraw. All of these repel insects, though they do not kill them.
Indoors or out, it’s a trying time for anyone with a dread of spiders. In gardens there are stripy ones whose more modest creations are at least a foot across, supported by invisible lines that easily span a path. In the house their lanky cousins suddenly scuttle across the carpet, or materialise on the ceiling while you’re soaking in the bath.
These uninvited guests have been in your home for a while: we just notice them more in the autumn because this is when they’re more active. Male spiders – they’re the ones with the legs – are rushing about in search of a female.
Fortunately these eight-legged lodgers are harmless. According to folklore, killing a spider brings poverty on the household, while finding one on your clothes means a windfall is on the way. We still call these tiny creatures a money spider, or money-spinner.
Indeed, our forebears admired spiders for their skill, patience and persistence, as in the old legend of Robert de Bruce.
On the run after stabbing a rival for the Scottish throne, de Bruce watched as a spider spinning its web struggled to fix a thread to a roof beam. It took several attempts before the spider succeeded.
Inspired by its example he took up the sword again, became King Robert I and eventually defeated Edward II at Bannockburn in 1314. Not bad for an Essex lad, and great PR for the spider — it’s just a pity that its part in the story dates from the 16th century.