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Spider Time: Charlotte and other marvels of nature 

click to enlarge natural-world_charlotte.jpg

Sometimes I get calls from folks all in a dither: "Oh, Jim. There's a huge spider in a web above the horse's stall... and there's another behind the barn door... and my son just came in and told me there's another one near the porch light... are they dangerous?"

The answer is a flat, "no." For there, in the flesh, so to speak, in all her egg-laden glory - is our dear old friend from E.B. White's beautiful classic, Charlotte, of Charlotte's Web. And to make you feel even better, I don't believe Charlotte could bite you even if she wanted to. However, if you're a fly, she'll wrap you up in her silken cloak of death and you're toast.

If you have even a tiny bit of the imagination of a child, you will see her message written in her web some morning, "Some pig!" Alternatively, if you don't happen to have swine, and keep horses instead, it may be "Some horse," or "Some lama," or lacking lamas perhaps she'll write, "Thank you for all the delicious flies!"

Charlotte's other name is barn spider, or if you want to get scientific about it, spiny-bellied orb weaver, araneas cavaticus, of the family, aranidae. In fact, most spiders are orb weavers, and belong to the family, aranidae, which can be pronounced: "a rainy day."

There are so many species, sub-species and races within this group, it would take all day to list just a few of them, and would drive the spell-checker up the wall. On top of that, throughout the world there are about 22,000 different species of spiders - many of which are beautiful orb weavers.

Hey, let me tell you, I saw some whoppers in Australia. Back in the mid-'70s I went to the bush with an Aborigine family near Darwin, and had the time of my life photographing and studying spider fauna in the land down under. I found one with an orb web so big and strong that it captured small birds, and her egg sacks were the size of cigars.

Anyway, "rainy day" spiders make a real orb web that looks like a wheel, complete with spokes. It's a very complex assemblage of silken engineering, with sticky spokes and non-sticky spokes and radials. When an insect becomes tangled in the web, Charlotte rushes to the prey and wraps it up with special silk before injecting venom. With the insect safely packaged up and hanging in her pantry, she can take her time and capture a few more tasty tidbits before she starts her meal.

As it is with most animals in nature, it takes male and female to create viable eggs and/or young. Male spiders, however, really got the short end of the stick. They're tiny things when seen alongside their respective mates. In spite of their diminutive size, they still spin an orb web and catch insects, albeit, tiny ones.

The actual mating part is the most dangerous time of the male spider's life. In order to insert his "pedipalps" - the two organs resembling boxing gloves that carry the sperm - into the female's epigynum, he has to sneak across the snare and make physical contact with the female (who is only interested in eating). In black widows, it is usually curtains for the male - he's often eaten directly after mating. I fear there may be a lesson in that.

Want to know how spiders eat? The venom digests the prey's innards into a thick soup and then the spider sucks in the liquid. "Sluuuurrrp! Yummmmie."

Suffice it to say, barn spiders are orb-weavers par excellence and the most beneficial animal to have on your barn or around your house in the fall. They snare and devour thousands of pestiferous flies and moths. Here's a little Greek mythology to brighten your day and perhaps give you a better sense of appreciation for spiders.

An ancient Greek legend has it that a woman named Archne was famous for her skill in weaving. However, her adeptness at her art made her very conceited and left her with the opinion that there was no one better than she was. In her self-admiration, she challenged the goddess Athene to a weaving contest.

Arachne's product was beautiful and it aroused jealousy in Athena, who felt threatened by Arachne. In a fit of rage, Athena tore Arachne's weaving to pieces, which resulted in Arachne becoming upset and hanging herself, whereupon Athena changed her into a spider and condemned her to go on weaving forever. Hence the name Arachnida, which means "children of Arachne."

My early years on a farm didn't start too well when it came to spiders. I was always walking smack-dab into the orb, and sometimes ended up scared witless with spiders crawling down my back or in my hair.

I could have gone on with my fright of spiders and suffered serious problems with arachnophobia, but thanks to my grandfather, I chose to learn about them instead. That's when I noticed the accumulation of dead fly-filled spider webs in the milk parlor, and realized that there weren't all that many live flies around - and eventually made the spider-to-dead fly connection. With that I gained more appreciation of nature's wisdom and began to understand what happens in what we know today as an "ecosystem" in which spiders play a major role.


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