(This Buffalo News column was first published on September 28, 1992.)
My wife and I sat on our porch peering out with binoculars. If they had noticed us, neighbors might well have thought we were staring at them; instead we were intently following the activities of a brightly colored garden spider.
Doris had noticed the spider just as it started constructing its web. She watched it first stretch a bridge from an upright juniper across to a lower mugho pine by slowly extruding a thread and allowing the wind to carry the ever extending line across the two foot gulf between the bushes. As soon as this thread touched and adhered to one of the distant pine needles, it was pulled taught and secured to the juniper.
The spider immediately ran back and forth across this bridge, fixing the end at the pine and adding anchoring draglines at both ends for additional stability. It then carefully made its way around the open space between the shrubs, connecting lines to the tips of branches as well as to the bridge itself.
No wonder spiders need eight legs instead of the six of insects. One or both of these extra legs were employed constantly to guide the web thread past the obstructions over which the spider climbed.
As soon as it completed this outer web circle, the spider lowered itself on the end of its own extending thread from the middle of the bridge down to the bottom of the loop. There it attached this vertical diameter, returned to its midpoint, and started another radius. Twenty more times the spider carried a newly spun thread out the previous radius, moved along the outer circle an inch or two, and attached it at that point.
When I arrived, these radial strands made the still partially completed web look like a bicycle wheel. The spider was climbing methodically around this wheel near its outer rim attaching a continuous spiral of thread from spoke to spoke. The way it performed this activity reminded me of my motherıs crocheting, her hands and needle moving mechanically and untended as she could carry on an intelligent conversation at the same time. I wondered if the spiderıs thoughts were also on other things as it spun out its web.
In a remarkably short time it wound 35 times around the web, bringing its spinning back to the center and completing this spectacular engineering feat. The whole process had taken less than two hours and the intricately symmetrical web shimmered in the late afternoon sunlight.
The spider now stood upside down at web center to wait for visitors. Even though a strong crosswind moved the web irregularly, we were able to focus on the spider with a powerful telescope, enlarging it to the size of those monsters in the film ³Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.²
Not quite that large perhaps, still this was a big spider. With its legs stretched out against the web, it measured move than an inch across. Its body and legs were boldly marked in black and white, the alternating leg colors giving the appearance of separated dashes in a manuscript. One pair of legs had single orange markings as well.
We were surprised to see four insects fly into the web in less than an hour, giving us an idea of the amazing number of them even in our small yard. Three were quickly encased in new webbing and stung into submission. The fourth, a large but delicate lacewing, was released, the spider quickly cutting the lines around it. Why it did so I have no idea, because garden spiders are known to take prey as large as grasshoppers.
Suddenly a thunderstorm roared in from the southwest and the web was severely tested. Strong winds pulled at it and giant raindrops drove against the strands. In proportion to the spider they were at least basketball sized. The garden spider sheltered under a juniper branch while its miraculous web weathered the storm.