Spider! Spider!

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Published on: Jul. 2, 2000

Last revision: Nov. 5, 2010

Writer E.B. White was the best press agent spiders ever had. A couple of generations of children and adults have fallen in love with Charlotte, the gentle spider of Zuckerman's barn, and mourned her death at the end of White's book, Charlotte's Web.

But White, a graceful naturalist, pulled no punches. His spider biology was impeccable. Charlotte's final weaving job was to create an egg sac with 514 eggs in it.

"I'm done for," Charlotte tells Wilbur, her pig friend. "In a day or two I'll be dead." And she was, but with hope for the future of spiders in her egg sac.

Charlotte was a typical spider in that she had a one-year life span. Most spiders overwinter as eggs, then hatch in the spring, develop through the summer, mate and lay eggs in the fall then, like Charlotte, die.

Spiders give most people the creeps, but they're a mixed bag, like human beings and most other creatures.

Most spiders are venomous, but only a couple of Missouri spiders have a venom dangerous to humans-the black widow and brown recluse. Some spiders will bite if threatened, but most are harmless to humans and are beneficial (even the venomous ones) because they eat harmful insects.

Jumping spiders, for example, prey on flies, while other spiders kill cockroaches and various mites. I like jumping spiders, pert and compact little fellows with personality.

If a human could jump proportionally to a jumping spider, he or she would be weighted down with Olympic gold medals.

Most spiders have eight eyes, and the jumping spiders have the best eyesight of all. A closeup look at one reveals a bright-eyed face. They're cute, if any spider can be called cute.

I also like wolf spiders, gray and ominous. They are predators, stalking and killing other insects, and I like to believe that some of the insects they kill are ones I don't want around, maybe even brown recluses.

I won't molest a wolf spider in our house. If there is too much unease (Oh! Get rid of that awful thing!), I'll scoop it up and dump it out the door, but I'd rather it was silently stalking unseen pests, like a tiny soldier of fortune.

Everyone knows (or should) that spiders are not insects, but are arachnids, having eight legs instead of the common six of insects. The legs are in four sets and a spider can grow a new leg if it loses one.

Missouri has many species of spiders. People see them all the time, sometimes with panic.

Their fear is unwarranted.

There probably aren't a half-dozen children in Missouri who haven't heard about the itsy-bitsy spider that climbed up the water spout. Some may climb downspouts, but spiders often slip into bathtubs and can't get back up the slick sides. In Missouri those spiders are sometimes brown recluses.

Both the recluse and the black widow are web-builders, but brown recluse webs are mostly an outdoor phenomenon. If you meet the spider indoors, it generally will be outside a web. The bite of either can be dangerous and painful.

The recluse venom has long-lasting effects, sometimes creating a nasty deep wound that takes a long time to heal and may require plastic surgery. In some people, the bite may cause only swelling. Widows are largely outdoor spiders, while recluses seek out little-used places in houses (like among the folds of the favorite shirt that has been sitting in the closet for months.).

If you think you've been bitten by either, it's time to see a doctor. Early treatment can help you avoid the worst effects of the bite.

August is spider time. The woods are filled with spider webs, assembled by orb weavers to trap a final few food items (insects) before the long winter. This is the time of the year that you might want to carry a walking stick to wave in front of you, knocking down the webs before they sprawl across your face.

The spiny bellied orb weaver is common and perhaps the most disconcerting to find on your body because the ten sharp projections on its abdomen poke at you and fool you into thinking you're being bitten.

Each fall for the past several we have had an arboreal orb weaver, which we invariably call Charlotte, building a web across the walkway of our deck. A new web appears every night (she destroys the old one if something else doesn't) and it takes several hours to construct.

Daily webs are typical of this orb weaver. The old ones tatter and are blown away by the wind or destroyed by large creatures walking through them. Vance family members go to great lengths to find support strands and duck under them, but sometimes we forget.

In White's book, Wilbur, Charlotte's pig friend, told her she had "awful hairy legs." Charlotte explained that it was for a good reason, to help her spin her web and capture food. "Furthermore," she said, "each leg of mine has seven sections-the coxa, the trochanter, the femur, the patella, the tibia, the metatarsus and the tarsus."

We watch our Charlotte patiently weaving her intricate net, never faltering, always moving. She pays out thin strands of web material from her inexhaustible inner rope locker, anchoring each junction with a quick jab of a leg.

There are several silk glands beneath her abdomen, and she extrudes her silk through two spinnerets at the back of her body. The liquid dries instantly into a strand. She is deft and quick at tacking the many web connections.

When she finishes the web, she retreats to a corner to wait. We turn the porch light on to attract all manner of insects near her web. I wonder if she crouches there thanking us.

Our Charlotte has poor eyesight, unlike the jumping spider, and waits for the vibration of a trapped insect before making her move. Sometimes we tickle the web to see her start toward the movement. Whether she realizes she's fooled or not, she quickly backtracks to her resting spot to wait for real food.

We have coffee on the deck and watch her old web become tattered. Just at dusk, she will begin a new one and we will watch her in the glow of the porch light. Eventually we will have a cold night, and she won't be there anymore. We feel a moment of sadness, even though it's a natural progression.

She has become a friend of a sort, not to mention a fellow resident around our house. No one likes to lose friends, even little ones with eight hairy legs.

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