Spider Engineers 10/8/21

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

The spiders are taking over.  I don’t mind.  In fact, I like spiders.  They eat other bugs.  But there does seem to be an outbreak of late.  It beats the locusts, though.  This year was so heavy in locusts that I wondered if it was a plague. 

I’m told the spiders are “Orb Weaver” spiders.  Apparently, they tend to appear in late summer or early spring and are famous for weaving webs with shapes similar to wheels.  They’re really quite tame, sleeping during the day and their venom is not toxic to humans.  But what fascinates me the most is their incredible engineering skills.

Currently, I have two vehicles (one more than I ever thought I would have).  One is a hybrid which I use to bop around town.  In my local errands, the electrical motor is enough for me to complete my chores, but I don’t like taking it on long distance trips.  I went hybrid instead of pure electric so the gas motor could kick in when the batteries run out and I don’t have to worry about running out of power a hundred miles from a charging station, but the mileage is not as good as I would like.  The reality is that in a hybrid vehicle there is always one motor that is nothing but dead weight.  So for longer drives (and added cargo space if I’m picking up something large I have an SUV. 

The other day, I went out to run some errands and noticed that an orb weaver had built a beautiful web utilizing my car port and my SUV.  I was delighted to take out my hybrid so I could leave her in peace, and yet was feeling a little bit bad because my snow-blower was scheduled to arrive at the store the next day.  I knew I would have to take the SUV and destroy her home in the process.

I’m surprised where she built it.  The bottom support of my carport is only eight feet from the ground, which seems short to you and me, and yet to a spider, this seems like an amazing distance.  But she built the web from the carport support beam, the cement driveway, and the SUV off to the side.  It was a beautiful web and I tried to get a picture of it but, alas, my little camera focused on my car instead. 

These spiders are brilliant engineers.  I remember seeing a web at my aunt’s house off of a light on her back patio.  The light had a bar for hanging plants or flags or whatnot, but the spider that chose that as a location for her home didn’t like the distance to the ground.  She built her web from the bar to the light pole, but not to the ground.  Instead, for the tension on the bottom of the web, there was a single piece of decorative wood that my aunt put around the bushes and light hanging, from a single strand of web, from the bottom of her home to about halfway down to the ground.  It just hung there, slowly rotating in the breeze.  That spider knew she needed tension on the bottom, that the weight of that piece of wood would do it and figured out how to get it up to the web.  Simply astounding.

This innate engineering knowledge is simply astounding.  I’m not sure I ever would have thought to use a hanging weight for the tension on the bottom, yet this little beauty figured it out.  A single spider web is stronger than steel of a comparable diameter.  The protein structure of web is so complex that it’s still not well understood by scientists.  Of course, I’m certain that the spider is unaware of how it makes that web as we of as to how we grow our fingernails.  It’s just inherent, but still very cool.

Here’s something that blows my mind, though.  A spider can easily get stuck in its own webbing, which begs the question of how they stand and walk on it if they’re just as susceptible as any other insect.  The answer is that the spider actually puts out two types of webbing.  Some of it is covered in the sticky protein that captures insects, and the other does not have the sticky component.  As the spider weaves the web, it creates pathways for itself to walk, and a save zone in the middle to rest and watch. 

As for getting my snowblower, as it turns out the night before there was a rather violent thunderstorm.  When I went out to grab the SUV, the web was already down.  I hope my little buddy is okay.

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