Non-Profit Internet Source for News, Events, History, & Culture of Northern Frederick & Carroll County Md./Southern Adams County Pa.


Sunrise on a tangled web

Bill Meredith

My wife’s interest in animals historically has been based on the number of legs involved. Two seems to be the preferred number; she enjoys meeting people, and will talk even to strangers on the telephone, cheerfully exchanging family anecdotes and shopping tips with telemarketers. The leg rule has been extended to four in a few cases; for example, she tolerated my daughter’s cat several years ago, even when it became senile in its old age and developed the habit of going to sleep in the kitchen window and falling into the dishwater in the sink. But the limit is set there; if more than four legs are present, her only interest has been in extermination… until recently.

She is an early riser, and habitually sits in a rocking chair facing the kitchen window to savor her morning coffee. By a happy coincidence of geography and celestial mechanics, the house is situated at an angle that allows the first rays of the rising sun to come in through that window and strike the leg of the china closet where, early this summer, a very small spider decided to build its web. It was not the elaborate sort known as an orb web, whose geometric symmetry traditionally captures the admiration of arachnophiles; instead, it was the kind usually called a "cobweb," a random network of threads that suggests the builder either had lost the plans or was drunk, or maybe both. Hence you can imagine my surprise (or, probably you can’t) a month or so ago when I got up earlier than usual one morning and came into the kitchen to find my wife staring at the web in utter fascination.

When she urged me to sit down and gaze at it with her, my first thought was that she had undergone an epiphany of some sort. Maybe, like St. Augustine, she had suddenly perceived the divine in animal life… or perhaps after knowing me for over 50 years she had suddenly absorbed some of my interest in the variety of the living world. Then, in a more cynical vein, I thought perhaps the structure of the web appealed to her sense of order. As it turned out, neither was the case; it was a symptom that her cataracts were getting worse.

It seems that the silk strands in the web were acting as prisms; the morning sunlight, already reddened by passing through the curved atmosphere of the earth at a low angle, was diffracted into a rainbow of colors by every fiber. The effect this display had on my wife was enhanced by her cataracts; they made the colors blur and merge with each other, so that looking at the web while rocking back and forth produced the same mesmerizing effect as peering into a kaleidoscope. So despite having twice the maximum permissible number of legs, the spider was allowed to remain in the kitchen.

Our spider proved to be a remarkably tidy housekeeper. The web is made of silk which is secreted by a series of six tiny nozzles or spinnerets at the back end of the body. The silk is not sticky itself; the stickiness comes from tiny globules of a glue-like material, which are deposited on each strand. Its function, of course, is to catch small insects, which the spider eats, and it will not work if it gets covered with dust; so the spider keeps it clean it by eating old strands when they get dusty and recycling the silk, or sometimes by abandoning the old web if it gets dirty too fast, and moving to a new site. An active web is kept clean; the stereotypic dusty cobweb is a vacant house, a sign that the occupant has moved on. In our case, our spider seemed to like the location under the china closet; the web was kept in immaculate, dust-free condition, and blazed with color every morning, except when the sky was overcast.

A few weeks ago the time came for my wife to have her cataract removed. She came through the procedure without complications; her vision improved several-fold, and I was concerned for the welfare of the spider over the next few days. There were a few tense moments when she noticed the accumulation of small insect carcasses on the floor under the web, which had not been visible to her before the operation; but apparently the sparkling colors produced by the web in the morning sunlight are still sufficiently entrancing to guarantee its safety for a while. There yet may be hope for biodiversity. However, the leg rule can be stretched only so far, as the centipede that sneaked in through the garage door learned yesterday, to its short-lived dismay.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith