Folklore has it that seeing a spider web in the morning brings good luck for the rest of the day. If that’s truly the case, I am the luckiest man I know, for a short walk to my cabin each morning has had me sidestepping and ducking them for weeks.
At the northwest corner of my little place, between the deck rail and a hanging basket of geraniums, a Hentz’s Orbweaver — not a big spider at all — has been spinning, then deconstructing, her web for the past two months. She is not unlike a housewife who hangs her wash on a line in the morning, only to take it down by afternoon. Typical of her species, the spider is up early — each of her eight, dare I say, hands — tirelessly pulling back the work she started the late afternoon before. At night, and into the sunny mornings, she sits in the web’s center, waiting for the pay-off.
More than once, I have absentmindedly plowed through the web as I’ve headed to the garden or walked to a bird feeder. Once, to my great displeasure, she scurried across the wreckage onto my chest and shoulder before disappearing into the safety of the plant.
That very instance is a good reason why I wear a hat into the woods this time of year, for it is inevitable that I’ll wander into a web that has been strung between limbs and tall weeds, and always at about the height of my face. In those instances, I am happy to be alone, for the unpleasant surprise often leads to a decidedly awkward dervish, with much wiping and spitting and squinting.
In the mornings, I’ve seen webs draped across power lines, hanging from branches high in the trees, and seen the gossamer funnels of grass spiders, wet with dew, sitting in my yard like small tornadoes. Some old-timers have touted that an abundance of webs in late summer and early fall are signs of a tough winter to come; the “Old Farmer’s Almanac” is already calling for that this year, and since we are overdue for a brutal one, I think it may prove true no matter who is doing the prognosticating.
Purdue University entomologist Timothy Gibb doesn’t buy any folklore connection to spiders, but finds arachnoids and their webs fascinating. “We find more wannabe weather predictors using the colors of wooly bear caterpillars than spider webs,” Gibb says. “In either case, I don’t put much stock into them other than to say, if you see a wooly bear or a spider web, we will likely have a winter.”
According to Gibb, web-making spiders come in all shapes, sizes and colors. Some appear to us to be “large enough to capture big birds, medium-size mammals and even small children, while others are very tiny, as small as 1/20th of an inch in length.”
He adds: “Each group of spiders has a unique life history and behavior, and of the most unusual and colorful spiders, common in yards near homes at this time of year, are the orb-weaving spiders. Orb-weavers, often called garden spiders, weave an elaborate web to ensnare their prey. Such webs are perfect displays of biological architecture.”
Spider silk has been held in fascination for ages. It is remarkable stuff. Five times stronger in the same weight as steel, it can stretch up to four times in length without breaking, and is two to three times tougher than the fibers that make up “kevlar.” Scientists toil at trying to synthesize artificial spider silk for all sorts of medical and engineering applications.
Gibb says, “Spider webbing (silk) is one of the most amazing materials known to man. Different silks are made for different spider purposes, but in general they all begin as a liquid composed primarily of proteins produced in the silk glands within the spider’s abdomen. The liquid silk is drawn out of the spinnerets at the rear-end of the abdomen and then hardens to form the silken thread upon which the web is formed. This process then allows for small liquid globules to be strategically placed by the spider in the web. These droplets are not stretched into strands, thus remaining liquid and therefore sticky. The hardened webbing, together with the sticky droplets, is what catches the insect prey and are also what elicits the web-face dance in humans.”
The spider I see near my cabin is not terribly shy. If I approach slowly, she (males are rarely at home) will sit still, keep knitting, or perhaps, rappel herself down a hastily spent line a safe distance from my reach. Like others of her ilk, she has a faint cross pattern in mid-abdomen, thus her scientific name, “Neoscona crucifera,” the cross-bearer.
What may most fascinate me — besides her web-making skills — yet give me the shivers at the same time, is her ability to produce offspring. A female orb-weaving spider usually lays about a thousand eggs, hides them in a nest (probably in my plant), and by spring, when they hatch, they are wind-blown to various places and on their own to survive.
Years ago, I read Walt Whitman’s “A Noiseless, Patient Spider.” In it, the poet is fascinated by the quiet mark left on the world by the spinning of a single web, something we all should consider when spraying poisons or knocking a spider aside. But, more recently, I encountered Emily Dickinson, and she wrote about a spider’s “continent of light,” which dangled from a housewife’s broom.
Spiders may create the inconvenience of webs spun in our doorways or startle us as we flip a switch in a darkened room, but their “continents of light” are among the natural world’s most wondrous gifts to us.