As I walk from the barn in the morning to the hog pen, I walk through spiderwebs. As I walk out to the compost pile, I walk through spiderwebs. As I walk from my car along the trail to the Nature Center, I walk through spiderwebs. As I walk the trails at Audubon before camp, I walk through spiderwebs.
The spiders are not trying to catch me. The webs I walk through are not the elaborate ones from picture books, but rather single strands, crisscrossed from branch to wood pile and leaf to ground, aerial highways for the eight-legged. Perhaps the grass is greener, or the bugs tastier, on the other side of the trail.
To be completely honest, spiders are one of the few things in the natural world that cause me that instantaneous revulsion. You know the feeling, when the muscles in your neck and back tense and physically try to pull you backward, your jaw muscles tighten, and you inhale sharply. Even though I can quell it quickly, especially when children are with me, it still happens.
Their webs on the other hand, fascinate me. The classic orb spiderweb provides a sense of order in and otherwise chaotic jumble of life. How does such a small creature measure and maintain such discipline while building? And add some morning dew to that creation? A masterpiece!
Spiders produces many different types of webs, one for actually catching the prey, one for the spokes of the web, another for ballooning (those are the ones I walk through), and other types for wrapping prey, protecting egg sacs, or “scaffolding” while they build the main web. The different types act differently – one may absorb energy whereas another vibrates readily. Spiders even use a web laced with pheromones to create a trail for the opposite sex to follow. Talk about not even a subtle hint…
Currently there is a spider living in the driver’s side-view mirror of my car. This is not the first one to take up residence there, but thus far it is the most persistent. And so, her presence has sparked my curiosity: are spiders nocturnal or diurnal? Is this a male or a female and how would I tell? How does she know which strands to walk on? How does she know when prey vibrates the web as opposed to the wind? Did she have to learn to vacate the web when I drive or does that species always hide out of sight? I’ve named her Mirror, and I make sure she is tucked in the mirror casing before I get above 20 miles per hour.
The outer edge of the mirror casing provides her frame, and every night, she removes the old web and weaves a new one. I just decided it was a she, by the way, I actually have no idea. Did you know spiders usually eat their webs? Yep, they are made of protein. And while sitting and waiting for your dinner to come to you doesn’t take a ton of effort, building the trap to catch that dinner takes a ton of energy and resources!
Some mornings the web is completely destroyed, I can only imagine what happened during the night. Other mornings it is relatively intact. That’s what happened the morning I am writing this… a perfect web, stretched across the mirror. Mirror couldn’t have eaten much last night. Just as I reached the end of the driveway, two flies flew right into the web, and Mirror emerged from her hiding spot immediately. I stopped the car so the wind wouldn’t dislodge her or the prey. Efficiently she wrapped it, then, surprisingly to me, dragged it back to her lair behind the mirror. Perhaps she has learned that daylight means the web is not a safe place to lurk, the wind often battering the web as I drive to work. Or maybe that’s just what she does.
I’m sure you’ve heard that spiderwebs are stronger than steel. And adjusting for weight, that’s true. It is also much more elastic, meaning that the micro-structure intrigues humans who think “if we figure this out, just imagine what we could do with it!” It is also what causes the web to flex as I drive and then stick to the mirror – becoming useless to the spider and a dirt collector for me. I’m sure Mirror has a much harder time consuming the dusty web stuck to the glass than regular free strands. Maybe she just throws it out… Anyway, this elasticity is also what allows the spiderwebs that I walk through in the morning to wrap snugly around me before breaking, sometimes adhering well so that I feel them for the next hour but can’t find them…
Mirror builds an orb web, the roundish ones that have the lines in between the spokes. But this time of year is a great time to see the tangle webs low in the grass in the morning. Like little gem-studded galaxies, these webs glisten in the morning and become just whispers by afternoon. I also have a tunnel or funnel web in one of my vacant nest boxes… that’s one of the spiders that really makes my skin crawl – if I wiggle the web with a stick he comes out. The artistry and engineering of the web is breathtakingly intricate, though.
Back to one of the questions rattling around in my brain, are spiders considered nocturnal or diurnal? It turns out that there are some of both, it depends on the species. Even more fascinating, in a study on biopolymers from 2010, scientists discovered the diurnal spiders have webs that are strengthened by UV rays. Now I wonder if Mirror prefers day or night… obviously she works during the night since that’s when she repairs her web, but she clearly snatched a meal in the daylight this morning!
I might never know the answers to my questions, and one day my inspiration Mirror will be gone. I can always stay curious, though, wonder about things, study, observe, and research them. And while I may always pull back at the first glimpse of a spider, the more I learn, the more I know, the closer I get to them, and the more I respect them. I wish that you find a Mirror who inspires your mind and ignites your curiosity. I’m sure there is a spider lurking about that would love to get to know you.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are still open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. Though the Nature Center is currently closed, including restrooms, due to COVID-19 restrictions, drive-thru sales are available from the Blue Heron Gift Shop and Day Camps are open. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.
Sarah Hatfield is the Education Coordinator at ACNC.