Charlotte's Web: In Other Words

Araneus diadematus, or the European Garden Spider, has settled in to Gander Lodge. This means less flies, which is good for us all. Many years ago I photographed a ball of spiderlings huddled at the base of the gutter by the back door. At the time I thought perhaps they were yellow sac spiders. I didn't think much about them after that and didn't notice many spiders around that hadn't been around already. This year, however, four large female barn or garden spiders, as they are sometimes called, took up residence around the small property: #1, our most inconspicuous female (light cream in color) built her web on the outside, southwest corner of the house off the kitchen; #2, (a tan specimen), webbed off the southeast corner of the house by the tool shed; #3, yet another, (orange), beneath the grape vine above the cast iron bathtub in one of the duck yards; and #4, the last (a brown color), above the big window inside the duck house (a garage converted duck barn).

Araneus diadematus spiderlings, 2011. The babies may
remain in the area where they hatch or "parachute" off to
another location by catching the wind in a thread of web
that carries them away.
This year I'd noticed a significant reduction in the amount of necessary fly control. I'd also thought about ordering filth-breeding fly parasites (tiny wasps that feed on fly larvae), except throughout the summer it became apparent that there were way less flies than in former years and upon close inspection, small wasp-like insects flickered around the straw piles. While I am not certain the fly parasites have colonized the duck grounds, I am going to go with it based on what I'd observed over the summer. The other change, of course, was the appearance of Spiders 1-4, who over time became part of the menagerie of welcome guests. It didn't take long before I caught myself marveling at their existence: their nighttime activity, fantastic webs, different camouflages, and curious habits. I wondered why they'd chosen their respective web locations and I was surprised to find they did not hang out in the center of their webs during the day as I distinctly remember similar orb-weavers occupying webs mid-day back when I was a kid in the countryside. Back then I'd capture grasshoppers from the garden and toss them into the webs. The spider, but a blur of legs, would dart out and wrap the grasshopper in a cocoon before biting it in order to inject liquifying juices. I was afraid of these spiders who built their webs beneath the outdoor eves of our cabin's porch, and so it gave me a chill to see them snatch prey and bite down. I often imagined if they were as large as dogs--how much trouble would we humans be in?

2011, I had no idea what these spiderlings were at the time and it
would be another five years before I'd find out.
Since that time, however, my view of spiders has changed. It used to be that I couldn't look at a photograph of a tarantula in a book without an unpleasant tingling sensation creeping up my arms, which compelled me to snap the book closed and gasp for breath. But over the years I let my fear slip into fascination, and one day after finding a giant house spider in Shoreline, Washington, hours of research led to a journey that has dispelled many of those fears that had plagued my youth. Spiders, I see now, are friends not foes. And most are avoidant of humans, just going about their business searching for prey--the very insects we most often contract disease and are attacked by--or looking for a mate.

Even the hobo spider, a cousin of the giant house spider, and a species reputed to cause necrotic arachnidism, is most often minding its business, the most tantalizing evidence being the number of hobos present within a house at any given time during high mating season (July-October) and the rare instances of actual necrotic arachnidism. In fact, the question often arises these days as to whether the hobo spider (Tegeneria agrestis) is responsible for necrotic arachnidism at all. Combine this with the unavoidable fact that spider fangs are riddled with bacteria in general, which can cause bacteria-induced necrosis on its own, and there is doubt as to the hobo spider's venomous capacity altogether. If we consider doctors are by no means entomologists and most people do not recover the offending spider for proper identification, who knows how many cases of necrotic arachnidism is merely a case of dirty fingernail scratching or fang-induced bacterial infection, the result of unknown insulin resistance, or some other allergic reaction, unspecified? At this point the only species of spider proven to create necrotic arachnidism from its bite is the recluse of the genus Loxosceles, and so the new term Loxoscelism has been coined to describe the effect.

This photo, taken around June of 2016, of a female Araneus who
later relocated her web and could possibly be Spider #3.
But I am not speaking of Loxoscelism here, but a harmless and, in fact, helpful genus of orb-weavers akin to the dear spider featured in the childrens' book Charlotte's Web. Perhaps as children we loved her, but we hated her at the same time and we didn't know why. And hopefully we outgrew our fears and accepted her as a necessary and welcome member of the ecosystem we are so intent on ignorantly damaging. I hope so, even if your first instinct is, Hell no!

The grapevine along the fence where Spider #3 built her web.
Since the Araneus on my property are said to hatch in May, they had time to grow noticeable by June when the photo to the left was taken by the back door below the window that faces west on the southwest corner of the house, adjacent to where Spider #1 would later appear and live for the entire summer. My first thought was why she chose to nest so low to the ground where predators could snatch her up with ease. By estimates her web was four feet off the ground and not yet anything close to an orb. Given this, I wasn't surprised to find Spider #3 missing soon after this photo was taken. And at first I assumed that she had changed color, like a chameleon, and taken up residence higher up, at the adjacent corner that would later be residence to Spider #1, a cream colored, extremely large female who boldly sat in her web at night and not so subtly crouched against the siding by day. Later, however, I concluded that Spider #3 had moved on and found a more suitable refuge beneath the grape vine along the fence where she could hide in shadows and match her surroundings. At night when I put the ducks to bed I would check on her, always happy to see she hadn't fallen into the bathtub or become a snack for Henry or Emily or CoCo. This went on throughout the summer. At one point I trimmed the vines back, careful not to disturb her, so that a man could come and remove the cast iron tub for scrap. When I mentioned to him that she was there, he about came out of his skin--a strong man like that could lift a bathtub, but was afraid of a spider! Now I know how to keep people from climbing my fence. Spider #3 remained here until one day in late summer she was the first of spiders 1-4 to disappear. Later I would learn why.

Spider #2 built her web high up on the southeast corner of the house near the intersection of wall and roof, so high that threads of her web reached across a large gap between her hiding spot and a power line that ran from a pole across the alley to the corner of the house. I still do not know how she managed to get her web from the corner of the house to that power line. Each night I'd take the dogs out, I'd look up and see her there in the dark, which was also the first time I began wondering why these spiders came out at night when all I'd remembered from childhood was their webs full of grasshoppers on hot summer days and their eight legs rolling the grasshoppers up like tight cigars at the center of their webs. Now maybe I get it that these spiders had come out because I'd coaxed them, that they were fiercely wrapping their prey before dragging it into the eves where they lurked in the shadows all day where it was safe. Spider #3 would also disappear early in comparison to Spiders #1 and 4. What happened to her? I thought, perhaps, since she was on that edge the wind had gusted her away or a bird had eaten her. I had a lot more to learn about Araneus diadematus.

Spider #1, having laid her eggs in a protective sac along the side
of the house, curled up over her offspring in the rain as the days grew
wet, windy, and cold. And then one day she disappeared.
Throughout late summer and early fall, Spider #1 received the most attention from my roommate and me. This was partially because of her inconspicuous location at the southwest corner of the house just off the kitchen which also connected to the outdoor awning where my roommate works and I frequently rest at the picnic table. I saw her each night when as I turned off the water and my roommate D. and I discussed her often. She was a lighter shade than Spiders 2-4 and much bigger. In fact, she seemed downright huge. Each night she'd repair her web and she discarded insect carcasses to the ground where they lie, sucked dry and crisp. I have since learned that each night these orb-weavers consume the tattered remnants of their webs for additional protein, re-weaving the internal structures for the next day's trapping. One night I saw a little guy visit her web, a mere shadow of her, and I concluded this must be a male. Finally, I decided to share a photograph of Spider #1 on a creatures forum I belong to on Facebook. Someone commented that she was pregnant and I'd better relocate her pronto before she lays her eggs and the spiderlings infest my yard. Maybe she is a lucky spider, because I do not mind this. There are enough players within our backyard ecosystem to keep the
Spider #4 scrambles along the wall, trying to avoid a fall.
peace. The idea that she was pregnant pleased me, knowing that she would be safe to complete her lifecycle and populate the yard with new pest control next year.

The day came when Spider #1 became slower, not advancing onto her web at night to capture prey. Then one morning I found her atop a camel-colored egg sac. She appeared to be guarding it, albeit passively. She had become a fraction of her pregnant size. I wanted to offer her food. I wanted to bring her inside, hoping that she would survive the winter if the temperature was stable. But I did not do these things, of course. I knew nature would take its course. I knew, instinctively it seems, that she was dying, her energy well spent. Just like that, one day she was gone.

Spider #4's web all summer had been located in the top corner of the window on the far left. She left her web in mid November, weak and ready to lay her eggs, and traveled across the ceiling to the other side of the garage. If you look closely, you can see her--the tiny black dot--at the far right corner, above the three shelves. She would later that day travel back, halfway across the ceiling, and choose to lay her eggs above the right hand corner of the door.

After all of this, Spider #4 remained still in her web, safely above the large window inside the duck garage where it stayed dry and warmer than the conditions Spiders #1-3 had faced. While she took much longer to reach full term pregnancy, perhaps due to the warmth or her indoor location, Spider #4 finally showed signs of change: she grew large, and then became restless. One morning in mid November she left the web and scrambled weakly along the wall about three feet to the right of the window. I hoped I'd get to see more of her activities before she disappeared and so I checked back on her often, suspecting that there would be a lot of change in a short time. About this, I was correct, for after an hour in the house I came back to the garage to find she had traversed the entire ceiling and crept along the opposite side, maybe looking for a place to lay her eggs, I thought. In the midst of
Spider #4, having laid her eggs, now small and withered,
perched near the door.
chores and daily living, I still took time to check on her, expecting that she'd be gone one morning and I would see nothing more to fulfill my curiosity until spring when she'd lay her eggs.

One last time I checked her with the headlamp at night when I put the ducks to bed. She had settled on a spot above the door. Sure enough, when I awoke in the morning she had laid her eggs--a perfectly round cashmere-colored ball--and was halfway down the wall for some reason. I thought, perhaps, she was committing suicide--giving her body to the elements or predators since her job was done.

This morning Spider #4 clung to her egg sac in the same way Spider #1 had done for days before she disappeared. How long will she be there? Where will she finally go? Does she just fall from the ceiling, succumbed to weakness, food for an alert duck? Does her body dry up and find its way into a discarded sack of pine shavings? I doubt I will witness this last detail; however, come May 2017 I will be on the lookout for her hatchlings, and by June I hope to see more than four resident Araneus diadematus on the property.

Cheers to spiders and the hard work they do for the environment!
October 15, 2016 high in the mountains on the trail to Kokanee Lake in Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park, British Columbia, my boyfriend and I came upon this dying female Araneus on the snow. From this summer's experience, I knew she had laid her eggs and was dying. That knowledge made the encounter more meaningful.

Spider #4: The Slow Crawl to a Nest Site

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