Friday, February 28, 2014

Henrietta: Part IV …. the last chapter

The story appears to end on Oct 9.  

Be sure to read through to Feb. 8

 As the summer progresses I learn to make a point of catching a fly for Henrietta early in the day.  If I wait until it is beastly hot outside, the flies get scarcer and I just get hot trying. I am still a woose when I hold a fly with the tweezers.  I have to concentrate on holding steady when she rushes down to grab.  I know she is harmless.  I know I am an enormous monster in comparison, yet I still have to focus hard to keep from flinching. When it is over I step back and take a deep breath.

For several days most of my notes are about the challenge of catching flies and Henrietta taking her dear sweet time to come and get them.  She isn’t as quick to grab as she was when she had a lot of growing to do.   I’m beginning to think I have the biggest, fattest European garden spider in the neighborhood.  Maybe Henrietta is getting tired of flies for dinner.
Henrietta is hiding in the tangle of string -- too hard to really see  The plastic bag has stinky fish goo.

Aug 29, 2013: Flies are becoming scarcer I spend more and more time trying to feed Henrietta a fly a day.  I am so tickled when she catches her own prey, usually the prey is a moth, caught during the night.  But recently I notice she has eaten a yellow-jacket (hornet). She left the hard parts in a little ball, all wadded up and dropped beneath her web. I have a stroke of genius.  I hang my plastic bag of fish goo just below where she spins her web.  Yellow-jackets love the stinky goo.  Now Henrietta generally catches one or more yellow-jackets a day – all by herself!

Henrietta hasn’t molted again.  I think she is ready to lay eggs if a male would just come along.  So far no such luck.  Her new webs are not as pristine as when she was younger. Dare I say it?  Her web is a little sloppy.  I wonder if her heavy abdomen is clumsy.  She certainly doesn’t look very athletic any more.  Also she has fewer rays than when she was young and no longer makes as large a web as she used to.

Meanwhile we’ve had lots of company.  Each guest is warned not to splat my spider on the deck. 

Sept 13, 2013  I check Henrietta every day, usually twice a day or more.  Life goes on, but I’m convinced I should have named her Elizabeth I, after The Virgin Queen of England 1533-1603.  No sign of a male visiting, or of an egg sack.

Some days she just goes head first into her hidy-hole and doesn’t even seem to be interested in keeping a leg on the tension line of her web (which tells her if she has just caught something).  But she does keep building new webs, not every day, but most days.  And I know she still munches down a meal every so often.  I’ve given up holding a fly into her web because she doesn’t respond -- very different from when she was young and lean and ever so eager.  In the daytime she usually catches yellow-jackets, thanks to my bag of fish goo.  Mornings I often see little hairs where a moth got caught during the night.  I can only assume she eats those too.

We’ll be leaving soon on a trip.  Will she still be there when we come back?

Oct 9, 2013 .... Home again.  No sign of Henrietta, just a dangle of tattered web.  I assume the end of my story is going to just be left dangling ……

Feb 8, 2014 ….. No!  it is not the end of the story!  I was working on my blog post today and went to to make sure I spelled Henrietta’s Latin name correctly – and there I found a photo of a European garden spider’s egg sack.  In January I photographed one just like it! I hang a chunk of canvas on a post at the other end of her cloths line.  Within its folds I found this bright yellow egg sack.  I’d never seen one like this before and at the time didn’t even think of Henrietta.  Now I’m hoping it is hers.

I wonder how many little Henrys and Henriettas will be on my deck next spring?

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Henrietta: Part III

This is Part III of four parts about a European garden spider.
July 19:  Most days I feed Henrietta a nice fly.  I’ve become quite the expert fly catcher.  I remembered that when we clean fish, flies are a nuisance.  So I saved a ziploc bag that recently held a salmon steak.  I keep it on the deck, zipped shut most of the time.  When I want a fly, I open the bag and set in on the grass.  Whew!  Stinky!  Usually a fly or two is there within a couple of minutes.  I just pop my net over the bag and presto, I’ve got another fly.  Sometimes I catch one that is too large and it breaks free when I put it into the web. I try hard to catch one not too big, and not too small.  Fruit flies are hardly worth my effort; small ‘houseflies’ are about right. 

I think if it wasn’t for my services Henrietta would have moved to a better location to keep herself fed.  I hardly ever see prey she has snagged.  Sometimes I feel I should feed her more often than ‘most days,’ but she seems to be doing just fine.  She has grown significantly. I noticed her web was quite small after her last shedding; then each day a little bigger until is reached about 10 x14 inches.  If her web stays in good shape she doesn’t spin a new one every day, but more often than not my flies make a big hole in her web. I’m such a klutz, even with the tweezers.  When I go to bed, her tattered web is still there; when I get up in the morning, a pristine web hangs in its place.
Henrietta doesn’t seem to mind my being just inches away when she is at work.  I always thought a spider wraps prey immediately, injects it, and then sucks the insides out.    Often she does that, but that isn’t what I’m seeing today,  at least not with this rather small house fly.  She kills it first.  Once the fly is dead, she quickly twirls it round and round with her hind feet while she encases it in silk; then she drenches the silky wrap with some kind of moisture.  Once drenched, she slowly turns the fly, eating it. The blob gets smaller.  Part way through dinner Henrietta goes back to her hidy-hole with her fly. More slow turning and munching.  About forty minutes after capturing the fly, the fly is reduced to a tiny speck.  I think Henrietta ate every scrap.

I know Henrietta is done feeding when I see her get back into monitoring position.  Sometimes she waits in the center of her orb, but often she waits in her hidy-hole with one or two legs touching a special line which stretches from the hidy-hole to a spot near the center of the web.  Vibrations along the line tell her when a fly is caught.  She runs down this line to the web center and from there goes to the fly. 

July 23:  Henrietta has cleaned up her web and guy lines and sits about three inches from her hidey-hole.  I told Dale she looks very plump.  She probably ate the whole thing (the net). 

July 28, 2013  5 PM:  Henrietta has been in her hidy-hole since July 24.  Today she is still there, but her abdomen looks significantly smaller and her legs longer.  She has shed again!

July 30, 2013  7 AM: Henrietta has a new web.  It is small by her standards, but I expected that.  Her first one after her last shed was also small-- 5 1/2  x 7inches.

PM .... Henrietta is getting me into trouble.  We were gone all day.  Too cool to catch a fly when we left this morning and too late to catch one this evening.  But I feel sorry for her.  I put a pot on to boil for our pasta and then go outside to see what I can catch.  I catch a fruit fly on my compost bucket and put it in her web --- but the wind is blowing so hard she didn’t seem to know it is there.  Maybe he thinks such a tiny morsel isn’t worth bothering about. 

Multiple net swings and I came up with a bigger insect .... looks a little like a small caddis.  I am torn between figuring out just what kind of insect it is and feeding Henrietta.  Henrietta wins.  By now Dale has found my pot of water madly boiling away.  Gads!  It is hard to multi-task between my own tummy and Henrietta’s.  I pop the fly into her web and attend to my own cooking. My treat is alive but not very active.  It takes Henrietta a few minutes to attack, but I get to eat my own supper knowing Henrietta has hers. 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Henrietta: Part II

Henrietta's hidy-hole -- just a scrap of string.  She is finishing off a fly in this photo.

This is a continuation of my last post

When I return at 2 PM all is just as we left: a perfect web, Henrietta waits in the center, and no sign of her having caught any prey. 

It a cool, dreary day.  Not a good one for little bugs to be flying about.  I read up on spiders a little and find that the center platform is not sticky and that a little space between the center platform and the rest of the web is usual.  Some species of spiders spin a new web every day.  Some like to build in the early morning, and some in the evening. Spider silk is made of protein and far stronger than steel of the same size.  It was used for the cross hairs in gun sights in World War II and for many years afterwards.  Many species of spiders can build a web in an hour ... but often an orb has 12 - 20 rays whereas Henrietta’s has about 40. 

6 PM:  I can’t resist.  My little friend doesn’t appear to have had anything to eat.  I know my compost pile has fruit flies so I go catch one.  I try to carefully place just the fly in the web, but get my finger caught in the process.  At first she runs away from this monster in her web, but as soon as I unstick myself, she hurries over to the little fruit fly.  Wow!  I think she uses 4 hind legs as she blasts a sheet of silk from her spinnerets, not just one thread.  She rolls the fly over and over into a silky bundle, then bites. It is my understanding is she’ll inject a digestive solution into the fly and soon will be able to suck out the contents.

Ms. Spider takes her bundle to the center of her web. 

Tuesday, June 25: Even though her web could have been easily repaired, Henrietta begins a new web about 8 AM.  Maybe the coolness of the morning caused a late start.  I think she saved the outer rim, but all new spokes and new circles of silk.

Wednesday -- oops!  I can’t remember if she rebuilt or not.

Thursday:  Holes in her web, but she didn’t bother to rebuild.  I fed her late in the day.
Friday:  No sign of a web this morning.  It is all cleaned up.  She is hiding in the cluster of string that hangs near her web site. 

Saturday:  Still no new web and she is still in hiding.  Does she need to molt?  Lay eggs?  .... or just baffle me. 
Tuesday July 2, 2013:  Henrietta has been hiding in the string since Friday.  I’ve checked her a couple of times of day .... wondered if she had died, been parasitized by a wasp ???  Tonight she has finally emerged, i.e. moved about two inches and is just hanging there with her legs spread.  She looks bigger to me.  Yes!  Those legs are definitely longer.  All this waiting has been because it was time for her to shed.  Spiders have an exoskeleton rather than bones.  In order to grow they shed their old exoskeleton, revealing a new, tender one underneath.  Her medley of creams and browns look fresh and bright. 

July 4, 2013:  Ms. Spider had a new web all ready when I check about 8 AM.  It is smaller than last week’s webs -- maybe she needs a few good dinners before she can build a bigger one.  So, of course, I feed her.  The ironic thing is that when I want a fly, they are the hardest dang things to find.  My yard has a wonderful variety of ichneumon wasps, mason bees, honey bees, sweat bees and itty bitty flies that I can’t get a grip on.  I’ve been swinging my net and coming up with everything but what I want.  Finally I get a fly.  It is hard to offer her a fly without getting myself stuck, so I use tweezers. 

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Henrietta: Part I

This blog post is probably more than you ever thought you wanted to know about spiders.  I wrote reams of notes last summer about my spider friend, Henrietta.  Henrietta is a European garden spider, Araneus diadematus. I’ll be the first to admit I’d rather pick up a snake, or even put a baby bat in my bra, than hold a spider – but they are fascinating.

Here are my condensed notes.

The European garden spider is also known as a cross spider because of the distinctive markings on her back.  They are native to western Europe, but have become quite common in western and northern United States.

Part I

Monday, June 24, 2013:  Dale will tell anyone who is interested that I can just fall into bed and I’m asleep.  I can sleep most anywhere else too.  But that isn’t exactly correct.  Sometimes I can’t.  And when I can’t, I usually get disgusted with trying to stay still.  Early this morning insomnia struck.   I awoke a little before 5AM – that’s  an insane hour to get up unless I really have to.  I tried to lay still, to convince myself I was sleeping.  I heard the first robin, then gentle rain.  ... and then my brain kicked in.  Had the spider spun her web?  I was awake.  Now it is time to back up and start at the beginning. 

We have a big, covered deck.  I’ve strung a long and a short cloth line on the deck.  Yesterday, when I went out to hang laundry I noticed a small spider had helped herself to the handy supports offered by my short line, two of the posts, and the kindling down below.  I decided to leave her in peace and only used my long line.  Dale meant to avoid her too, but he miss-judged and crashed her beautiful orb when he went to the recycle bin.  The guy line he snagged must have been ten feet long. 

Dale called me and we watched her quickly eating dangling lines of her web.  I was surprised as how quickly she ingested the thin filaments that were waving in the breeze.  By eating her own silk she can recycle important ingredients.

After cleaning up the disaster she hurried to the near post and hid amongst a bit of string that hangs from an antler on the post.  Lets not discuss my housekeeping, or why the string is there.  I must have known someday a spider friend would like it for a bit of cover.  Since this spider has become a ‘friend,’ I decide to name her – Henrietta.
When I went to bed sometime after 11 PM Henrietta was still hiding under the string and no work on a new web.
So now it’s a little after 5 AM and I’m wondering if she built her new web during the night.  I slip out of bed and head to our deck.  Because of the rain, it is quite dark.  I can just see a spider silhouette where I expect the orb to be.  I get a little flashlight.  Ms. spider is hard at work!  I’ve always wanted to watch a spider spin an orb web – one of those traditional round and round webs.  Now one has almost fallen into my lap ... and only 15 feet from my computer so I can easily take notes.
Laid in 5 rows between 1 &2, rested 15 minutes, then 5 rows between 2 & 3.  Now starting rows between 1 & 3.

The spider has already finished her main framework for her new web -- long guy lines to anchor her orb are in place; the outer circle of her orb is done; and she has built a spider sized platform in the center of the orb.  About half the rays are finished and she is busy making more.  She doesn’t just work around her wheel.  She had already placed rays in three areas and now shifts from one to another -- several new rays here, several there, keeping her orb balanced. 
It dawns on me this is pretty amazing.  I know she can eat old web material so she can manufacture new, but I can’t help but be surprised at how much line she needs to put out to make a new web.  From head to tail this spider is about one third of an inch long.  She is working on an orb that is about 8 inches tall and 6 and a half inches wide and has at least 20 feet of guy lines to anchor it   When she is done putting rays in I count about 40.
The first time she rested I thought I had spooked her, but as I watch I see she goes and sits on her platform in the center of the orb for a few minutes every so often.  Maybe she needs time to think.  More likely she needs time to stew up more of that magic silk material. 
Finally the rays are all in place.  Before Henrietta starts laying in the circles of her orb, she enlargers her platform in the center just a tad, to dime sized.  Then she works on a portion of the outer circle.  Why doesn’t she go all the way around?  She is laying lines on the outer edge of about a third of her circles.  When she has five rows in place she works on the next third ... and the next.  Her count isn’t exact and not all ends of each section touch each other exactly, but overall it is quite tidy.  When she has an inch of outer rim in place, she finally goes round and round in a spiral.  When the unfinished center is about the size of a grapefruit, I time her -- just over three minutes to make one round.

Henrietta lets me get just inches away so I can see how she lays each section of line.  Her silk is ever so thin and very stretchable. The motion involved in attaching a bit of line to each ray reminds me of an old treadle sewing machine.  All eight legs are in action.  Six are busy reaching from one ray to another making sure her body in the correct position.  The back two are busy positioning the line of silk that is emerging from her spinneret at the tip of her abdomen.  One quick tap with the tip of her abdomen and the next section of line is in place.  After attaching a section of silk, she swings her abdomen off to the side.  That motion pulls out a length of line.  Her two hind legs tend the line, positioning it in place while she swings back for the next tap down.  Round and round she goes, each time swinging out to pull out the next length of line and then tapping down. 
I’ve been watching for over two hours.  She quits just shy of filling in all the space between her center platform and the main body of her orb.  She still has about a one half inch space around her platform that doesn’t have circular threads.  Later I learn that is standard procedure.
We have a 9 o’clock meeting so I reluctantly leave my spider and start breakfast.  I can just peek out my kitchen window and see that she waits quietly, head down, in the center of her web.  I’ve tried to lend a helping hand by hanging three sorry looking cherries over her web.  They might bring in some fruit flies. 

Little did I know at this point that Henrietta was going to fill many hours over the summer…..