September 19, 2011

Black and yellow garden spider weaves a web on a farm
Photo by Sue Weaver
A garden spider on our farm weaves a web.

Yesterday morning, Mom went in the feed room to fetch our yummy breakfast. Uzzi and I licked our lips. But then she shrieked and rushed out of the feed house, frantically brushing her face with her hands. She’d walked into a spider web again.

Mom does that a lot because she doesn’t wear her glasses and there are spider webs galore this time of year. And we have lots of spiders in Arkansas. There are big, hairy, scary ground-dwelling spiders, like tarantulas and wolf spiders, and small, deadly ones, like brown recluses and black widows, but most Arkansas spiders are harmless. They all weave cool webs.

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There are spider webs and cobwebs. Spider webs are still in use by spiders, and cobwebs have been abandoned by them. Cobweb is from the Middle English word coppeweb, and it is from the Old English word coppe, meaning “spider.” Different kinds of spiders weave different kinds of webs.

When people think of spider webs, they usually think about the big, sticky webs that orb weavers build. Most orb weavers hide out by day and weave their big, round, spiral-shaped webs in the evening. Then they hang suspended in their webs overnight. They eat their webs in the morning and reuse the protein to spin another web the following night. Charlotte, the heroine of Charlotte’s Web, was an orb-weaver spider; she wove words like “some pig” in her webs.

One orb weaver that doesn’t hide by day is the black-and-yellow garden spider. She hangs in her web upside down all day and waits for prey to land in her web. We have a garden spider living on the Boers’ goat-yard fence. Mom calls her Uttu, and she’s huge!

There are other kinds of spider webs, too, like tangle webs, funnel webs, sheet webs, tubular webs and tent webs. Tarantulas build funnel webs in holes in the ground, like abandoned fox den, empty fence post holes or down low between big rocks. Mom keeps her eye out for those webs.

All types of spiders weave their webs using silken strands ejected from glands called spinnerets. Spinnerets are located on their abdomens. Most spiders have six spinnerets, but a few species have two, four or eight. Each pair of spinnerets produces a different kind of silk used for a unique purpose, like sticky capture silk for trapping prey or fine, soft silk for wrapping it up in. Spiders don’t get stuck to their own webs because they use both sticky and nonsticky silks to weave it. Then they’re careful to stay on the nonsticky strands.

Sometimes spiders weave communal webs. In 2007, long-jawed orb-weaver spiders at Lake Tawakoni State Park in Texas got together and wove a web 200 feet across. Mom would really scream if she walked into that one!

Some spider silk is amazingly strong. Darwin’s bark spider of Madagascar weaves enormous webs using silk more than 10 times tougher than Kevlar. Polynesian fishermen use silk from golden orb weavers as fishing line. Spider silk has also been used for making crosshairs in scientific instruments, periscopes and guns. In olden times, people used cobwebs to staunch bleeding; that’s why 17th century poet and playwright Ben Jonson said about a person in one of his plays that he “sweeps down no cobwebs here but sells ’em for cut fingers.”

Pretty neat stuff, spider webs!

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