Country diary: wrapped up in a spider’s web
In our house we operate a spider-friendly regime that can feel at times too weighted towards the arachnids. Yet I’m a sucker for the beautiful symmetry in the webs of orb-weaver spiders. This individual, possibly one of the widespread species in the genus Metellina, built in our bedroom last summer.
The web was sited between the window frame and its reveal so that it spread at 45 degrees to the glass. By night it caught the incoming breezes and most mornings I awoke to my spider eating its breakfast. In the autumn, as the temperatures and insect numbers fell, the creature lapsed into stillness and in November I noticed that its firm outline had slumped, but the author remained suspended in its own signature of silk.
Occasionally when the house breathes I can see the web billow, suggesting how the structure retains an essential integrity. There is slight embarrassment that it’s now fleshed out with dust, but I’m consoled by William Bryant Logan, who points out in his glorious book Air: The Restless Shaper of the World that the average bed-making operation launches 400,000 skin cells, whose substantial structure supplies the architecture for 200 bacteria species also to take flight.
It is not any attachment to entropy, however, that impels me to retain my cobweb. It’s the pleasure in contemplating its extraordinary sophistication. The full sphere comprises radial threads over which is laid the capture spiral, but these two parts are made from totally different silks. On the capture spiral, the spider also laid a third secretion that is mucus-like and hygroscopic, which kept it moist, sticky and perfect for trapping prey.
It’s often said that spider silk is as strong as high tensile steel. Yet this understates its full properties because the radial threads have 40 times steel’s extensibility, ensuring both strength and high flexibility. When a fly hits the web the impact causes it to give, but the silk converts that energy from recoil into heat, thus minimising the stretch effect. My empty web, with its mummified owner, now captures nothing but the snowy landscape beyond our window, but trapped in it also is some of the exquisite miracle of life.
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