A World of Webs

The Essays of Frances Williams ~ October, 1958

Published Jul 9th 2017 in The Essays of Frances Williams, Arachnid, Animal Behavior

In Greece, when the world was very young, Arachne, finest of mortal weavers, challenged Athena, the goddess of female arts and industries, to a weaving contest.  The perfection of Arachne’s tapestry so enraged Athena that the goddess tore the tapestry to shreds, whereupon the unhappy seamstress hanged herself.  The Goddess, smitten by remorse, changed the rope from which the girl hung into a web and the girl she changed into a spider.  Arachne’s descendants, from pre-history until the present, have continued her art and their tapestries have covered the earth.

Foremost of here descendants are the Araneas.  These masters of the weaving art are most noticeable in late summer and early fall, when the mature spiders string their webs in every conceivable location.  Differentiating one species of spider from another is a matter for experts, since the distinguishing characteristics are such minutiae as the number of hairs on the front legs.  However, some species or Aranea can be distinguished by the central parts of their webs, and others by their egg sacs.

Our first Aranea was “Miss Tidy Spidy” (no further identification possible), who built her web between the curtains in the front bedroom.  Miss Tidy was with us for almost two months and her daily ration of flies was three or four.  Since all the flies we gave her were dead, she became rather spoiled and finally became so used to non-resistant flies that she merely checked them when they were thrown into the web and left them un-wrapped and un-stung until she was hungry again.  Miss Tidy never took her web down. Instead she repaired it in the wee hours of every morning.  If part of her web had become dusty, she rolled up the dust-covered lines and threw them away, then built new lines to replace them.  Came the night when Miss Tidy did not repair her web; all day and all night she sat in a fold in the curtain, refusing even the fattest fly.  We believed old age had finally incapacitated her but, on the third night, an old, shed spider skin dropped to the floor and a newly attired Miss Tidy rebuilt her web.  No flies were available to celebrate her restoration, but a moth that had died in the lamp was contributed to the cause.  Unfortunately, the heat must have dehydrated the moth, because he was unceremoniously ejected from the web.  The last retirement has been permanent, and Miss (now Mrs., we believe) Tidy sits in the fold of the curtain, a mere shriveled remnant of her former self.

A neater Tidy Spidy built a web on the back screen door.  This web was completely renovated every night, the spider carefully rolling up every old web line in its hind feet and discarding it before renovating.  This was the only one of our Araneas that we ever saw spin a sheet of silk to wrap up its flies.  All the rest cut out sections of their web lines to wrap with, merely adding a few strands of silk from their spinnerets.  After only a week of residence, this Tidy unaccountably disappeared.  It was probably a male, and left in search of a female.

Meanwhile, four Aranae trifoliums built their webs at the northeast corner of the house.  Two attached their webs from the tree to the house one built outside the window and he fourth built from one part of the tree to another.  The window spider has been the only relatively permanent resident.  For three months, she has hung outside the window every night, repairing her web early in the night, then sitting in the center of the web waiting for any passing morsel of food.  A Praying Mantis blundered into the bottom of the web one evening.  Out rushed the spider, pulled on the lines to decide the weight, and rushed back to her retreat at the top of the window.  We didn’t see her again that night.  She is a most timid spider, though she faces the light in the window, a flashlight shined on her back always causes her to rush back to her retreat.

The largest of our webs were made by the spiders who built from the tree to the house.  One was on the north side; one, on the east, and both webs were at least 2 feet in diameter.  They too were repaired early each evening and by flashlight the spiders could b e watched traveling around and around the lines.  By day both spiders sat in retreats under the roof edge.  On September 2, a male spider appeared, just after dark, at the east side spider’s web, approaching cautiously along one of the main lines from the house.  The resident approached cautiously from the center of the web.  About 3" apart they waited for each other.  A cautious approach by one or the other, then much web-jiggling, then both retreated four or five inches.  This series of maneuvers was repeated over and over for almost forty-five minutes, then there was a sudden clinch.  Two hours later the clinch was still in progress, and the finale was not observed.  After mating the east side spider retired to her retreat for a week and then was gone.  The north side spider mater two days later and the mating procedure was exactly the same, but instead of retiring, she sat in the center of her web day after day, never repairing it until the web lines had all disintegrated, then she too disappeared.

The tree Aranea appeared the same day the north side spider left, but she had only five legs.  Though from appearance she was the same species, her web was never as well constructed, possibly because of the limitations imposed by three less legs.  Her retreat was in he bark of the tree, about eye-level, and she was the best watched spider of them all.  Her back and legs were covered with what appeared to be stiff hairs; her ground cover was almost the color of the tree bark.  On her back were three fairly well marked areas that were darker than her body and the underside of her legs was orange.  A week after she arrived, the male put in his appearance.  For ten days he sat on a branch to which one of her main lines was attached.  Every night he cautiously approached a short way down the line.  On the eleventh night, he disappeared, and two days later she disappeared.  Her main line, from the branch to the tree trunk still hangs – a mute, silken, reminder of her existence.