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.
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.
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…..