Two Itsy-Bitsy Spiders Dissolve a Web of Fear

Black spiders, brown spiders, big spiders, small spiders: It made no difference. I did not like spiders, and that was that -- until my son, Ralph, introduced me to his spiders, Brown Betty and Black Bertha.

His spiders? Well, it was Ralph who found their webs under the eaves of our house and took to observing and naming the insects. It's a wonder I hadn't noticed Black Bertha myself. Her web was right outside our kitchen window over the sink, where I stood to do the dishes.

''It's a shame spiders get such a bum rap,'' Ralph lamented. I suppose he sensed my aversion. ''If people knew how many harmful insects they ate, I bet they'd welcome spiders under their roofs,'' he went on. ''And of all the hundreds of species, only two -- the black widow and the brown recluse -- have a dangerous bite.''

Ralph's lecture about spiders piqued my interest. From then on, I, too, began watching them closely: Black Bertha, directly outside the kitchen window, and Brown Betty, just a few feet away at the corner of the house, easily observed from that same window if I bent my head.

The behavior of our two denizens was remarkably similar. Both spent part of the day clearly visible at the centers of their webs, and another part under the eaves, making themselves as inconspicuous as possible by drawing in their legs and assuming the shape of a ball. Were they keeping out of sight to mislead their prey? ''Playing possum'' to make others think they were dead?

So still did they hang as they lay in wait that they fooled me. But not Ralph!

''Wait here by the window,'' he told me when I expressed concern that Brown Betty was dead. After leaving the house for a minute or two, Ralph walked up to the web and inserted a big grasshopper. Within seconds, Betty swung down on a thread, stung the insect (which was more than twice her size), and shrouded it in white filament.

''This isn't the first time I've fed spiders,'' he divulged, informing me as much about himself as about Betty. Nor was this the last time Ralph went on hunting expeditions for our residents, providing them daily with crickets, daddy longlegs, and once, a dead bumblebee. I never ceased to marvel at the weaving skills of our spiders.

A trapped grasshopper wreaks havoc on a web, but every night Bertha and Betty rewove theirs anew. Little wonder that the mythical Minerva, the weaver among the Olympians, grew jealous of the peasant maiden Arachne, whose skills rivaled her own; in a fit of rage, Minerva turned her into a spider.

And an awed Emily Dickinson observed: ''A Spider sewed at Night/ Without a Light/ Upon an Arc of White.''

Ralph had made a convert. My new interest in spiders sent me back to the words of E.B. White, whose extraordinary Charlotte (in ''Charlotte's Web'') had brought me pleasure.

Charlotte is fictional. No spider, of course, has ever spoken, let alone spun words in her web. But she is patterned on an actual gray spider, whom White came to know ''one cold October evening,'' when he ''was lucky enough to see Aranea Cavatica spin her egg sac and deposit her eggs.''

White's affection for his model is apparent in his manner of distinguishing a spider from a person: ''One has eight legs and has been around an unbelievably long time; the other has two legs and has been around just long enough to bring the planet to the verge of extinction.''

Unlike Brown Betty or Black Bertha, White's Charlotte was gray, but she still may have undone some of the damage wrought by fraidy-cat Little Miss Muffet, frightened by a spider that ''sat down beside her.''

But it was Ralph's introduction to the ways of our own Black Bertha and Brown Betty that transformed me into a friend of spiders.

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