In Appreciation of Spiders

E. B. White immortalized the ingenious spider in his classic “Charlotte’s Web.” Have you taken time lately to appreciate what Charlotte’s descendants and neighbors can do? It’s not that I’m in love with spiders and, no, I do not have one for a pet. But they are very interesting and deserve more attention than just squashing and sweeping out the door.

I was sitting alone recently in Stone Gables, the big stone house where I grew up, just enjoying the scents and quiet conversation of the house itself. It was late afternoon so the sunshine was filtering through tall windows creating leaf shadows on wide window seat and slate floor, shadows that gracefully and quietly shifted. The stairs let out a comforting creak, just a house-breathing sound, and an acorn hit the roof far above.

As I sat there at a little card table sipping coffee and remembering all the many, many times this house had put its arms around me, around my family, in joyous and sad occasions, I noticed the spider webs. They graced window corners and draped across the tops of arches up the stairs. There was even a fine zip-line of a spider’s game from a bookcase to a nearby lamp. I immediately smiled at the picture in my mind of my sister Pat, broom in hand, swiping down cobwebs right and left.

Our house always attracted spiders and our mother was loath to kill them. She said they were our friends, that they kept the fly population down, loved mosquitoes, and didn’t hurt anyone. We knew a black widow spider was to be killed, but other than that very poisonous arachnid, we were urged to leave them all alone. (At that time we didn’t know about the mean little brown recluse which, I believe, does not make a web, just hangs around in dark closets.) That meant, of course, that someone was regularly dusting down webs, both elaborate and mundane. Because Mamma’s kindness toward the spider did not go as far as leaving their webs hanging.

Speaking of elaborate, have you ever really paid attention to the wonderful patterns in spiders’ webs? Of course we never see any like Charlotte’s. But you can see some wonderful beauties. I read that spiders, most of them, have three spinnerets from which to spin. They have the ability to spin three different kinds of “rope.” They can build, they can span, and they can kill. It isn’t true that all webs are created as prisons. Some are for taking care of egg sacs and some, it seems to me, are just works of art to inspire and encourage and, perhaps, irritate.

There are circular webs, triangular webs, flat webs and what I call “picture webs.” If you’re walking in the woods, you may find yourself peeling web from your face. Hopefully, though, you will see it before you would demolish it and, instead, be able to study the infinitely meticulous pattern, almost like a picture suspended between trees. The web patterns are as varied as tatting or lace patterns and the spiders have no copies of crochet designs to follow, or maybe they do have patterns hidden in their bodies. Anyway, if you think the webs are beautiful on a clear afternoon, try viewing one after a shower when tiny droplets are catching the light like prisms along each tiny vein.

An example of the flat webs are those you may see stretched like tiny filmy sheets on blades of grass in the morning. Some kind, imaginative adult told me, when I was a child, that those were fairies’ blankets spread out to dry in the sunshine. I wondered if fairies have accidents in their beds.

But to other appreciation points of spiders. Their silk has been greatly envied and admired. I remember reading a story as a teenager about someone’s life being saved by the silk web of a spider. There is vitamin K, a clotting agent, in the silk and, supposedly, laying thick layers of web across a bleeding wound could actually serve as a “plastic surgery” effect, the fiber latching on to the raw flesh.

Aside from medical uses, some have tried to use the silk for creating fabric. One of the largest pieces of cloth, maybe the largest, was 11 x 4 feet made in Madagascar. Another use was to make the crosshairs for guns and microscopes. And, the most astonishing to me, was the attempt in 2012 to make violin strings from spiders’ web strands. I don’t know how successful that was!

Some spiders’ webs are very, very strong. If you run into a web formed across a hiking trail, a web by one of those monster yellow and black spiders, you will experience the strength and the stickiness. But it was a surprise to me to learn that a given weight of spider silk is five times as strong as the same weight of steel.

Spiders are persistent, can build back a web in minutes. They’re fine weavers, designers, and wonderful acrobats. Have you seen one swinging from a single fine thread? They are zealous reproducers and go to great work in protecting their egg sacs. And–they love insects! Their favorite Sunday dinner is a wasp trapped on Saturday or mosquitoes or flies, or even much bigger meals like a dragonfly. They are excellent trappers. They know how to wait with great patience for their prey and they sometimes have back doors where they can exit the scene if it gets too dangerous. Clever critters!

All this being said, I now have a confession to make. I came around a corner that day in Stone Gables heading to the kitchen to wash my cup, only to find a creature dark against the concrete floor, a very fat meaty body with eight legs, the whole thing being at least four inches wide. A spider. I didn’t feel friendship oozing from this thing. I didn’t feel the beginning of a warm and sweet relationship. I shuddered. What would Mamma say about this one? It didn’t take me long to decide. He was soon a dead arachnid headed out the door in a dustpan.

“O, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.”–Sir Walter Scott

“The spider taketh hold with her hands, and is in kings’ palaces.” — Proverbs 30:28

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