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Admiring artists in silk

Admiring artists in silk

Posted By Sunny Lockwood

European Garden Spiders spin giant webs that shimmer and shine in the early morning sun, and can sometimes ensnare us if we aren’t paying attention as we walk through our rose garden.

Perhaps you have Garden Spiders in your area. They’re pretty common – about 100 species are found throughout Europe, North America and the UK. These arachnids range from yellow to light brown or gray and all have mottled markings across their backs.

Although I haven’t seen them in California’s Gold Rush foothills, there are plenty in Sonoma County where Sweetheart and I spend considerable time.

During the summer we watch these spiders grow big and round as their webs fill with silk wrapped morsels. We’re grateful to them for eating so many flies, grasshoppers and bugs that would otherwise damage our plants.

While the spiders themselves seem somewhat passive, it’s their webs that fascinate Sweetheart and me.

"What engineering!" he always says -- admiration from a retired engineer.

Sometimes their webs stretch six or eight feet between trees or bushes.

And should a fly or grasshopper touch a sticky strand, the spider immediately wraps the insect in a casket of silk.

Interestingly, Garden Spiders produce different textures of silk: non-stick for the radial web lines and sticky silk for the spiraling strands. The sticky silk works well in capturing food. Spider silk, a super protein that hardens as it is stretched from spinnerets, is said to be stronger than steel.

Garden Spiders’ eyesight is poor, but their sense of touch is acute. When the male of the species wishes to mate a particular female (hanging comfortably in the middle of her web), he taps out a message on the silk strands. A message that she accepts or doesn’t.

Although neither Sweetheart nor I is a spider-fan, we’re awed at the artistic and engineering genius of these creatures.

And if I ever assumed that this "lower form of life" lacks the ability to think or reason, I have changed my mind. Here’s why.

One night last summer, we were coming home from a concert, and noticed a big Garden Spider web furled out from a lamppost. In the dark, that lamppost was an insect magnet, and the web a perfect catchall for the night bugs.

"That one found the best real estate in the whole neighborhood," Sweetheart said with a laugh.

Two nights later, walking home from a late movie, we noticed that there were now half a dozen such webs stretched out ingeniously around that light post, with orb spinners in them all. Obviously word had spread. Or the other spiders had observed the nighttime benefits of a light post and decided to take advantage of that.

So now I think that in addition to providing their victims with silk caskets, these Orb weavers also reason and react in their universe, just as we humans do in ours. And that thought pleases me.



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