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Welcome to the Greenwood.Net Curiosity Corner

Spiders and Webs

Oct 17, 2017

Web Building 101 Oct. 20, 2017

Curiosity Corner
Dr. Jerry D. Wilson
Emeritus Professor of Physics
Lander University

QUESTION: I live in the country, and every fall I notice spider webs strung across the road, tree-to-tree, 10-15 feet off the ground and 10-15 feet apart. Given the height and distance, how do spiders connect these webs from point A to point B? (Asked by an observant column-reader.)

REPLY: Would you believe I answered this question a few years back? But, the statute of limitations has run out, so here we go again.

Web Bridge Building 101: One of the first – and most important – lines or strands in the weaving of a web is a more-or-less horizontal bridge on which the whole web is hung. This can be done in two ways. A thread may be emitted and floated in the air until it catches on some object and then pulled taut. Alternatively, the spider may fix a line, drop or walk down one side of the bridge area, and across and up the other side while holding the line free of entanglements. So, it all starts with a little bridge building.

Here’s more insight on spiders so you’ll appreciate the critters a little more. In Greek mythology, there was once a maiden so skillful at weaving that she challenged the goddess Athene to a contest. The maiden wove such a beautiful tapestry that Athene became furious and destroyed the work. So humiliated was the maiden that she tried to hang herself, but the gods changed the noose into a web and the maiden into a spider, who would spend the rest of her days spinning. The maiden’s name was Arachne, the Greek word for spider – and from that we get Arachnid, which is the technical name for spiders and their relatives.

In the summer, we are aware of spiders and their webs. Quite common is the black and yellow garden spider. The large, mature females begin weaving their wheel-shaped webs, with zig-zag lines at the center, in late summer. The relatively smaller males approach cautiously (lest they become the dinner course) to mate and then make a hasty retreat. The females get larger and larger and, before long, they weave a network of fibers in which they deposit hundreds of eggs. The eggs are covered with layers of silk strands forming a light brown pouch that looks like a tiny paper bag.

Late summer or fall is the time the orb-weavers make their beautiful webs that are visible with the morning dew among trees, bushes or grass stems. Most come out at night and position themselves at the center of the web, eating insects that become trapped in the sticky threads. Orb-weavers stay in the center of their webs because this is where the spoke threads come together. Hence, when an insect touches a thread on one side of the web, the spider goes in that direction to catch it. If two insects strike the web at once, the spider will rush to paralyze one, and then return to the center of the web to locate and take care of the other one.

Then, there is the large group of spiders that live on the ground and hunt their food rather than trapping it. The most familiar to us are wolf spiders – pretty mean looking, but they are only harmful to the insects they hunt. And, they are well equipped for the job, having eight eyes that allow them to see in four directions (so little escapes their notice).

Spiders are insect-eaters and are a key element in the control of insect populations. Only two types of spiders in this area are dangerous to humans: the black widow and the brown recluse. But, if spiders are so beneficial and only two are harmful, why do we fear them and destroy their webs? Perhaps, like the story of Athene and Arachne, it is because their tapestry is more beautiful than ours.

And finally, before someone asks, I’ll tell you why spider webs are called cobwebs. Cob is the old English name for a spider.

C.P.S. (Curious Postscript): “Everyone is entitled to be stupid, but some abuse the privilege.” —Anon

Curious about something? Send your questions to Dr. Jerry D. Wilson, College of Science and Mathematics, Lander University, Greenwood, SC 29649, or email jerry@curiosity-corner.net. Selected questions will appear in the Curiosity Corner. For Curiosity Corner background, go to www.curiosity-corner.net.

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