Thinner Than a Human Hair and Stronger Than Steel
By Susan Rothrock Deo
“Eeewww,” you say, frantically wiping the sticky strands off your face, your arms, your legs. On a nature trail or in your own backyard, you just ran into a spider web.
Fall seems to be spider time, not because there are more spiders, but because the tiny little spiderlings hatched in spring are grown adults now. Unlike us mammals with internal skeletons, spiders have exoskeletons and must shed them in order to grow. Garden spiderlings molt four to six times before reaching mature size. By the end of the summer or early fall they are fully grown adults: casting webs, catching insects, and laying their eggs before winter so there will be a new round of spiderlings next spring.
One of my favorite spiders is the garden spider. They are one of the orb weavers, building intricate, vertical webs, often with a thicker, white zigzag strip near the center. These webs look beautiful sparkling with droplets of morning dew. Spiders’ webs are made of liquid protein that hardens when exposed to air. The web strands of some spiders are stronger than steel of the same diameter.
How does a spider get that strand from here to way over there? She (yes, it’s usually the bigger females that make the elaborate webs) excretes the liquid protein from her abdomen spinnerets and the breeze blows it along until it attaches to a branch, a flower, or the corner of your house. The spider strengthens it with several more strands and uses this as a highway to build the sticky silk framework. Then she begins constructing the spirals. For each spiral, she touches the previous one with one leg, making them equidistant.
Spiders use their webs to catch food, helping you rid your garden of pests. They also use them for protection, to hide themselves or their eggs. Most orb weavers build a new web every day. Towards evening the spider consumes the old web, rests for a bit, and spins a new one in the same area.
The next time you come across a spider web, study its pattern; see if you can find the architect. Spiders are venomous, but only the rare bite of a shy brown or black widow needs medical attention. It is better to leave spiders alone. Besides, they are more likely to do interesting things if you stay still, and at a distance.
If you’d like to learn more about California spiders, check out one of these web pages—or visit the Spider Pavilion at the Natural History Museum in September!
Spiders of California: http://www.spiders.us/species/filter/california/
From the Natural History Museum: https://nhm.org/site/activities-programs/citizen-science/spider-survey/identifying-spiders
Susan Deo (author) has taught life science and environmental education from preschool through college. A docent with Los Serenos de Point Vicente, she has published short stories and essays and is working on several picture books and middle grade novels.
Emile Fiesler (photographer of theYellow Argiope / garden spider) is a research scientist, passionate about nature. Professionally he performs minimally-invasive biological assessments and surveys, creating an inventory of the animal and plant species in a given area.