Along came a spider

Karan Davis Cutler
Black-and-yellow garden spider, Argiope aurantia.
Karan Davis Cutler
Spider webs in the fields surrounding Karan Davis Cutler's home in Vermont.

On a few wondrous days in late summer, the fields around my Vermont house are blanketed by thousands and thousands of spider webs, each sticky strand made visible by its coat of dew. The authors of this morning magic are mostly banded argiopes, also known as black-and-yellow garden spiders, but the webs are so numerous and varied in size that other spiders must be lending a hand. More accurately, lending a spinneret, the organ that extrudes the silk.

The family name for all spiders is Araneidae, which refers to the classical myth of Arachne, a vain woman who challenged the goddess Athena to a weaving contest. When Arachne came in second, she was turned into a spider and condemned to weave forever.

Also weaving forever around here are daddy longlegs, but they prefer houses to fields. Indoors, their architecture is called a cobweb, a term that comes from “coppe,” an archaic word for spider. These webs are sloppy tangles rather the more precise spirals that cover the fields.

Whether inside or out, sloppy or precise, spider webs are designed to capture food. I knew from elementary school science class that spider silk was astonishingly strong. Supposedly it has greater tensile strength than an equal weight of steel and far better elasticity, although only Spider-Man seems to be using this information. But I didn’t realize that web making requires so much protein and energy that the spinners often eat their own webs each day in order to recoup some of their investment. That explains the webs disappearing as suddenly as they appear, a phenomenon that mystified me until I did a bit of web browsing.

Most gardeners have stopped spraying and stamping on spiders, realizing that they are helpful. After all, they quietly eat the pests that eat our plants. And, truth be told, they snag a few beneficial bugs, too. But they trap so many baby mosquitoes in the webs on our outdoor stairs and deck railings that I forgive them for snagging the occasional ladybug and praying mantis. You can encourage their presence in the garden by mulching.

While I appreciate spiders dining on pests, what I love is the sheer number of webs I find on those special early mornings, and the beauty of each construction. Spiders are a practical lot, but they also are artists as well.

The difference between “utility and utility plus beauty,“ the American naturalist Edward Way Teale wrote, “is the difference between telephone wires and a spider web.” I have both in my field, and the latter is far nicer than the former.

Click here to view a simple depiction of how an orb spider weaves its web.

Karan Davis Cutler, a former magazine editor and newspaper columnist, is the author of scores of garden articles and more than a dozen books, including “Burpee - The Complete Flower Gardener” and “Herb Gardening for Dummies.” She now struggles to garden in the unyieldingly dense clay of Addison County, Vermont, on the shore of Lake Champlain, where she is working on a book about gardening to attract birds and other wildlife. She will be blogging regularly for Diggin’ It.

Editor’s note: For more on gardening, see the Monitor’s main gardening page, which offers articles on many gardening topics. Also, our blog archive and our RSS feed. You may want to visit Gardening With the Monitor on Flickr. Take part in the discussions and get answers to your gardening questions. If you join the group (it’s free), you can upload your garden photos and enter our next contest. We’ll be looking for photographs of fruits. So find your best shots of summer’s blueberries, peaches, plums, etc., and get out your camera to take some stunning shots of early fall apples. Post them before Sept. 30, 2009, and you could be the next winner.

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