Category Archives: Araneus (orb weavers)

Kill a Spider, Write a Blog

Sorry Writers Say They’re Sorry — But Not Very

Today’s critique of the “I’m so wussy about spiders” bloggers:

It’s a mixed bag. A multimedia reporter in Visalia takes a weird excursion into his childhood, when he apparently thought black-widow spiders were made up by Disney. Then as a college student he finds a spider in his soda can, probably not a black widow but certainly dead. It was a Cactus Cooler—what do you expect? Was ever a pop more insecticidal? Then as an adult he finds a spider in his bath water and has a full-on Huck Finn moral crisis as he decides whether to kill it or turn into a nasty ol’ abolitionist and go to hell for saving it. He decides to kill it (blaming his wife’s potential reaction . . .  interesting) and then announces he is a man.

That might be a stretch.

I almost kind of wanted to like this column, in which a spider-hating woman writes a businesslike memo to the spider she’s about to slaughter. The interesting part to me is how it reiterates this recurring idea of a “contract.” Lots of anxious bloggers proclaim their tolerance of spiders who know their place: in the yard, OK; in the sink, no; in the upper corner of the window, no objection; ambling along the baby blanket, no way.

Contracts are a specific thing, though. It takes two parties to make one. You gotta wonder about these fantasy-prone writers who think they’re drawing up legal documents with an arachnid. More likely they’re making deals with themselves, or with God.

Seriously. Even maximum arachnophobes seem to feel guilty about killing a small living thing without provocation.

Apparently this sight  casts terror into the hearts of creatures that outweigh the spider a few thousand times over AND have control of the faucet.

Apparently this sight casts terror into the hearts of creatures that outweigh the spider a few thousand times over AND have control of the faucet.

So instead they build this mental scaffolding that absolves them of the killing if they have a good reason, such as a violated contract.

When I’m reborn as a college student I’m going to create an interdisciplinary major in tort law and arachnology. Instead of pro bono I’ll work pro hobo.

Wait till the bloggers get hold of this! A new study reports that a certain kind of orb weaver, Nephila plumipes, gets plumper and presumably more fertile in urban Sydney than it does in the countryside. There’s more to eat (especially around streetlights and other illumination), fewer parasites, and more warmth. But to a blogger all that says is BIG SPIDERS GET BIGGER, REFUSE TO SIGN CONTRACT TO STAY OUT OF MY SINK. Watch for it.







Spiders in the Land of Little Rain

What a long, spiderless season it’s been.

Winter was creepy-weird: 90 degrees in January, brutally dry, sun beaming down on dead annuals, leafless trees, comatose landscaping. The East and Midwest were buried in blizzard after blizzard, so we had no right to complain, but in the West each rainless day was another drip in a sort of waterless water torture.

And then spring lurched into summer with no preamble, except for the plants that (seemingly) miraculously sprang back to life to offer the mask of a normal California year. Since then it’s been months of broken rhythm and mocking sunshine.

Every living thing is still off. Plants bloomed too early or too late. The comforting reserves of water we use to beat back the desert—and it’s all desert, pretty much—no longer wait behind hose or faucet. On a recent road trip passing through the hazy-hot Salinas Valley, the hills were not golden. They were gray.

What you learn from skilled news reporters: historically, droughts in California have been known to last for long years, sometimes decades. Though not since modern recordkeeping began, which is why we’re all so gobsmacked by the seriousness of it. But in archaeological records, sure, plenty of evidence of drought wiping the shine off the Golden State. A state now so foolishly full of grass, golf courses, recreational lakes, orchards, and other thirsty things.

You also learn that ocean temperatures thousands of miles away, far off in the Pacific, are shuffling the cards you’ll be holding in fall, when the rains might or might not return. The view from my dead lawn is too small, in both time and distance, to take it in.

What it means for spiders is that I’ve seen very few. Insects, too, other than bees and mosquitoes. The county is fogging for West Nile virus vectors, which means the mosquitoes will diminish as well—something I’d normally applaud, but this year we all seem acutely aware of how missing bugs mean fewer birds, fewer green and growing things, fewer signs of life.

You get a better sense of who the survivors are. The cellar spiders, they never seem to go away; perhaps they’re generalist enough and skinny enough to survive on whatever blunders along. In our micro-ecosystem they probably benefit from the earthworm bin, which breeds tiny flies, and the mealworm boxes (kept for the geckos), where the flour moths roam. Flying fodder eventually comes their way.

And the widows: they’re stationed along the fence posts and in the downspouts just as they always have been. Maybe a tad smaller, but the summer is young and there’s still time to grow round. I go out at night and assess them by flashlight. Drought is nothing to them. Widows like it hot and dry; the females keep cool in their all-black outfits by the simple trick of being nocturnal. The small, loitering males await their moment.

Otherwise the spider places seem oddly empty. I haven’t spotted even a young orb weaver yet, much less one of the large females knitting her radial web. The wolf spiders you find by following their eye shine: where are they? Almost absent from the lush leaf litter where they usually live. Lumbering Zoropsis, the big Mediterranean hitchhiker, also has been lying low.

I met a tiny bronze jumping spider last week, let it hop around a few minutes, then freed it and wished it luck.

The_Land_of_Little_Rain_title_pageThe most notable absence in our domain is of false widows (Steatoda grossa). We’ve always had lots of them hanging around the flowerpots and crevices. This year I’m concluding they could be a sort of indicator species in our microclimate, a signal of what being less wet, less buggy, might mean. They’re pert, glossy spiders that have never caused us a bit of harm, and I would miss them. But they’re a worldwide species and could easily take a California habitat retreat in stride. More easily than we could.

We have short memories here. It’s part of our charm—that disappointment never chases you too far. There’s always going to be summer, and always going to be the rains. Or so we think. Me, I’m going to take down my old copy of a tiny book called The Land of Little Rain. Mary Austin tramped around desert California—lands people admire and fear, lands that change (if at all) only over thousands of years. She found it beautiful, and aloof, and surpassingly skillful at teaching humans their place. It might be time to build longer memories.



This Spider’s Got It Made (But There’s No Shade)

Make me one . . . with everything

The Maker Faire is coming back to the Bay Area, presumably bigger and better than ever, and stickier (from all those glue guns). I love the idea but I’ve never been. You know why? There are too many crafty people around here, and they snag all the parking and crowd the tofu-dog stands and get in the way so I can’t see the robots doing yoga! Or the self-washing dogs, or the bamboo cars. Um, I’m not exactly sure what they have on tap this year.

Spiders are makers, too, to be faire (heh). Not just takers, although they do have to take life to exist. A blog posting today from the esteemed biologist Jerry Coyne points out a spider that makes what looks like art but has some deep, and still undiscovered, purpose.

You already know about the spider that makes piñatas.

Coyne singled out a Namibian spider that lives in the ground and arranges rocks around the entrance of its burrow. It’s been noted that it usually chooses seven rocks, but as Coyne explains, that could just be due to the size of the spider and of the typical local rock. The pattern the rocks make is a purty flower (below).

Daisy, daisy, give me your answer, do. The flower bower of a Namibian spider in the family Segestriidae. (Photo by G. Costa et al., Journal of Arid Environments, 1995)

Cute, of course. But why? As usual with spiders, they’ve had 400 million years’ practice at keeping secrets. They’re masters at “no comment.”

Coyne’s possibilities include: the rocks help keep wind-blown sand out of the burrow, they disguise the spider’s hideout from predators, they somehow attract prey, or they serve as landmarks for the very nearsighted spider. No experiments have been performed to make these anything other than guesses, he notes.

The most tantalizing part of the whole setup—it’s a little eerie—is how the spider arranges its daisy. The narrow part of the rock points in, the broad part outward; that’s what makes the flower shape so lovely, so natural-looking. There has to be a well-engineered reason for that. But now we’re talking about how a mason would think. This spider, mysteriously, has enough brainpower to comprehend how the rocks fit. And they’re not even touching.

Radial symmetry is the heart of what web-spinning spiders do; we’ve all seen those marvelous mandalas in the garden. The orb weaver’s talent for engineering is well studied. But the Namibian spider is a reminder that every small animal has its bag of tricks, tools honed for its environment and often entirely unseen by us.

The yellow sac spiders that bivouac in the cracks spin a silk sleeping bag that would be the envy of any mountain climber. The black widows in the fence (yes, they came back from wherever they went during construction) maintain a tangled, most haphazard capture web, but look close and you see that it couldn’t be more perfect for catching prey, slowing down intruders, and giving the clumsy widow a fighting chance at escape.

If I can make it here, I'll make it anywhere! (Maratus volans photo by Dr. Jurgen Otto)

If I can make it here, I’ll make it anywhere! (Maratus volans photo by Dr. Jurgen Otto)

And the jumping spiders—they’re a little more obvious, I guess. Anybody could figure out the survival value of a rainbow afro or really good dance moves. Preferably combined! If the jumping spiders ever discover Namibian flower power, they’ll be unstoppable.








A Spider Looks at Winter

A modest-sized orb weaver has been living outside the workshop door since summer. We noticed her around August when she’d become big enough to alarm the timid (though she is not big by orb weaver standards) and had begun maintaining a pizza-slice-shaped web near one of the security lights. By day, she huddled in a crack with a bit of dirty silk and tried to look like a dead leaf. But at night she would unfold, all legs and confidence, take up station in the center of her oblique net, and sit poised and patient, waiting for the doomed insects who bumble toward the light.

We named her Natasha. We have a habit of naming spiders that pass by, even ones we know just long enough to carry them outside.

“Oh, look at you, Derek. What are you doing in the sink? Again? You scamp.”

“My, my. Danielle has put on a few. Must be that time of year, right? Why don’t you go raise some kids outdoors?”

“Maybelline! That is not a good place for a web. Out you go.”

Natasha reminded me right away of the character played by Natasha Lyonne on “Orange Is the New Black.” Flamboyant, fierce, comfortable in her skin, not to be messed with. You’d be on your guard even if you got on her good side. But she’s good-hearted, if eager to pounce.

Our Natasha suspended herself above eye level; but for the grace of spider discretion, she could have been one of those autumn orb weavers who dangle in front of your forehead at night when you’re taking out the trash, and make you do the spider dance for an hour afterward. An in-your-face kind of spider.

Natasha is dying. The little angel of death is withdrawing toward her own, sure as winter. She held out longer than most—the annual tide of scare stories, the half-thought spider nonsense you read online, abated many weeks ago, even among the tabloid-reading Brits. Late summer and fall is when you read about many such dangling Natashas and their roving male counterparts as they remind inattentive reporters and bloggers that spiders exist. The females dine and wait, growing fat in the warm-weather afterglow. The males dash about in search of their own posterity, carrying out their desperate last steps long before the nights turn long. By mid-December they are gone, save for a lonely few.

That’s what gave me the chance to know Natasha better than the other small creatures taken by winter. She has played her part deep into fall, and played it well. She still rests in her retreat by day, but with nights dipping below freezing I don’t see her venture out onto her web anymore. Clearly there are fewer flies, moths, and other ephemeral food to make it worthwhile. But more: she knows. There was a time to await mates, and a time to cease waiting. A time to harvest, and a time to be harvested.

Winter comes in a few days. Stealing a thought from Frost: Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild/ Should waste them all. . . .

Slow, slow!

For the grapes’ sake, if they were all,

Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,

Whose clustered fruit must else be lost—

For the grapes’ sake along the wall.

E. B. White gave Charlotte her children, or else his spider’s tale would have been too hard to bear. I’ll look for Natasha’s children in spring, along the wall.

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Posted by on December 9, 2013 in Araneus (orb weavers)


A Prayer for Araneus

Wheels within wheels

I’m not a Hindu or a Buddhist and never will be. But I have borrowed something from them and I’m not sorry. It’s a word and a shape:

Mandala (Sanskrit:  Maṇḍala, ‘circle’) is a spiritual and ritual symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism, representing the Universe. (Wikipedia)

With eight legs, is yoga easier or harder? (Photo by Thomas Quine)

With eight legs, is yoga easier or harder? (Photo by Thomas Quine)

It’s also a spiderweb. Not every mandala you see on the Internet looks spidery, but they all suggest the identical cosmic micro-focus—the radial lines and paths, the corners and turning points, the mystery of who waits in the center, the truth that something barely there and supremely beautiful will blow away tomorrow. But endure. Mandalas guide the quest for insight.

Dr. Internet says mandalas are visual signposts in the Christian view too—some people see sacred spirals in rose windows and Celtic crosses. They’re even found in Jung’s overgrown garden of myth.

A spider doesn’t care what psychologists or monks think about circles and spirals. The first principle that leads a spider around her spinning wheel is simple hunger—or even, deeper than hunger, unremembered memories from spiders eons older who were hungry, and who turned within webs, and lived. She doesn’t know beauty or utility. She knows food and unimaginable patience. A week before the Bodhi tree would be less than a wink from her unblinking eyes.

Nice work! (Cool hat, too.) Can you keep doing it for a couple million years now?

Nice work! (Cool hat, too.) Can you keep doing it for a couple million years now?

The remote being at the center—we can never know how she gauges the physical strains, and measures the yawning canyons she has to bridge, and chooses her materials and gates, and pivots and dances to draw that silken mandala—the one that’s more perfect for being imperfect.

A machine could draw a perfect circle. But an orb web unique to its place, unique to its hour, then destroyed and forgotten … that’s art and science, devotion … futility.

So I meditate on the mandala in my yard, and the mute worker who labors over it. I suppose I have to call it meditation, damn the woo. If that’s not enough to dazzle my brain shut, I repeat these words: four hundred million years. Four hundred million years. The lives of this animal, this adept.

Nirvana by porchlight? Araneus marmoreus, seeking enlightenment near Crittendon, Kentucky.

Nirvana by porchlight? Araneus marmoreus, seeking enlightenment near Crittenden, Kentucky. Maybe illustrating that thing about one hand clapping? We’ll never know. (Photo by Barbara Marshman)

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Posted by on October 9, 2013 in Araneus (orb weavers)