Weavers’ World

Though I was sad to send my daughter back to school earlier this month, I was looking forward to one thing:  walking her to the bus stop in the morning and scoping out the spider webs in my garden.

This shot was taken looking down into a patch of daylily leaves.  Look at all of those webs!  Whoever said you're never more than six feet away from a spider wildly underestimated the number of spiders in the world!

This shot was taken looking down into a patch of daylily leaves growing next to my front walk. Look at all of those webs! Whoever said you’re never more than six feet away from a spider wildly underestimated the number of spiders in the world!

The early morning dew glistens on all of the webs and makes them stand out.  They are everywhere.  Webs as small as your palm or wider than a basketball, all made by spiders so tiny that you could fit several on your thumbnail.

This beautiful orb web was made by that tiny glint of green in the center, an orchard spider.  There are many species of orchard spider which share the genus Leucauge.  It's pronounced LOO-COW-GEE (the last G is hard) and is fun to say!

This beautiful orb web was made by that tiny glint of teal green in the center, an orchard spider. There are many species of orchard spider which share the genus Leucauge. It’s pronounced LOO-COW-GEE (the last G is hard) and is fun to say!

My childhood fear of spiders was replaced long ago by fascination.  (No, Dad, I’m not too grown to remember the time I nearly gave you a heart attack by screaming at the top of my lungs in the bathtub.  Still not my fault.  I was seven and naked and the spider jumped at my face.)

One of the very best children's books ever written, Charlotte's Web is a must have!  The author, E.B. White, also wrote wonderful adult non-fiction about nature that I could read over and over.

One of the very best children’s books ever written, Charlotte’s Web is a must have! The author, E.B. White, also wrote wonderful adult non-fiction about nature that I could read over and over.

The more you know about spiders, the more friendly they seem.  In my house, we name any spider we find “Charlotte” to remind us of that wonderful arachnid that saved dear Wilbur the pig with her fabulous web writing.  We’re up to Charlotte XVI, I think, and we have loved them all.

Teaching this summer’s field camps, I got to spend some time with the graduate students at Virginia Tech who are studying the amazing characteristics of spider silk, learning along with the campers about our local orb weavers.   Again, the more I learned, the more awe I felt for these amazing little creatures.  Here are the highlights:

There are four main types of webs we see around here:  cob webs (I call them  messy webs), sheet webs, bowl and doily webs, and orb webs.

These are bowl and doily webs in one of my small holly trees.  It's easy to see how they get their name; there's a bowl shaped web on top, with a flat doily-like web underneath.  Bowl and doily spiders in my garden are tiny (less than half of my pinky nail), black, and have little white marks around the outside of their abdomen.

These are bowl and doily webs in one of my small holly trees. It’s easy to see how they get their name; there’s a bowl shaped web on top, with a flat doily-like web underneath. Bowl and doily spiders in my garden are tiny (less than half of my pinky nail), black, and have little white marks around the outside of their abdomen.

Tucked deep in the foliage and low to the ground I found this excellent example of a sheet (or funnel) web.  This is an averag-sized one; I've seen them covering bushes as large as four feet high, wide and deep.  The weaver of the web sits inside the funnel, waiting for lunch to announce its arrival by vibrating the strands of the web upon impact.

Tucked deep in the foliage and low to the ground I found this excellent example of a sheet (or funnel) web. This is an average-sized one, but I’ve seen them covering bushes as large as four feet high, wide and deep. The weaver of the web sits inside the funnel, waiting for lunch to announce its arrival by vibrating the strands of the web upon impact.

None of the orb weaving spiders here are dangerous. No, really!  They’re not!

Meet Micrathena.  With that large, spiky abdomen, she's enough to scare off even the toughest nature explorers.  Her cousins also come in devil-red and caution-yellow.  Yikes!  But she's completely, thoroughly harmless.  This picture is a bit fuzzy because I was trying to catch the shot while she was trying to get far away from me, and fast.

Meet Micrathena. With that large, spiky abdomen, this little orb weaver is enough to scare off even the toughest nature explorers. Her cousins also come in devil-red and caution-yellow. Yikes! But she’s completely, thoroughly harmless. This picture is a bit fuzzy because I was trying to catch the shot while she was trying to get far away from me, and fast.

The orb weaving spiders are all fairly small, but if you notice them at all, they’re usually female.  The males are tiny.  Girl Power!

Sitting in the center of her web, legs held out in a large X formation, sits the lovely Argiope, also known as a garden spider or writing spider. The extra weaving running vertically at the center of her web is for stability, scientists tell us, but I often wonder if an Argiope might have been the inspiration for Charlotte.

Sitting in the center of her web, legs held out in a large X formation, sits the lovely Argiope, also known as a garden spider or writing spider. The extra weaving running vertically at the center of her web is for stability, scientists tell us, but I often wonder if an Argiope might have been the inspiration for Charlotte.  This is a medium sized Argiope; check out a bib mama Argiope at the end of this post.

The long threads that anchor a web aren’t sticky, only the spiral threads that make up the circular portion of the web are.

The threads that radiate from the center form the frame for the sticky  spiral threads of the orb.  The long threads at the outside anchor the web to surrounding plants.  Neither of these are sticky.  The spider only deposits the sticky glycoprotein glue drops on the spiral threads.

The threads that radiate from the center form the frame for the sticky spiral threads of the orb. The long threads at the outside anchor the web to surrounding plants. Neither of these are sticky. The spider only deposits the sticky glycoprotein glue drops on the spiral threads.

If you walk slowly through the forest, you’re much less likely to run face first into a web.  If you do run into a web, though, you can be sure that the spider has run for cover and is not going to bite you in retaliation.  (Still, if when you walk into a web you feel the irresistible urge to immediately transform into a spider-fighting ninja, please come hiking with me; I’ll make you go first and it will be hilarious!)

This stunning web sat just about at eye-height in a young dogwood tree in my backyard.  I would have hated to destroy such fine work.  Then again, spiders rebuild and/or repair their webs daily, so the little lady that made this would have caught her next meal with no trouble, regardless.

This stunning web sat just about at eye-height in a young dogwood tree in my backyard. I would have hated to accidentally destroy such fine work. Then again, spiders rebuild and/or repair their webs daily, so the little lady that made this would have caught her next meal with no trouble, regardless.  Note the messy cob web behind this orb web – spiders have no trouble living next to one another and you’ll often find groups of webs situated close together.

If you’d like to see a spiderweb more clearly and don’t have the morning dew to help, fill a used sock with corn starch, tie off the end, and pat the sock softly to release fine powder that you can gently blow all over the web.  This works like a charm.  A flashlight also helps for low-light situations and under dense forest canopy.

Okay, here's the big mama Argiope I promised.  You can see she's protecting the egg sack she recently made.  She's a little larger than a half dollar, legs included.  She was gorgeous!

Okay, here’s the big mama Argiope I promised. I photographed her just a few days ago on a sunny afternoon walk.  She’s snacking on a cabbage white butterfly. She’s a little larger than a half dollar, legs included. She was gorgeous!  Don’t be startled if you happen upon a large Argiope in your own garden – they’re incredibly good to have around to eat up insect pests.

One last fun fact/nerd joke for the grown ups (children, avert your delicate eyes):

How do you know if a female spider doesn’t like a male suitor who’s come calling?

She eats him.

How do you know if she does like him?

She mates with him . . . and then eats him.

See?  These creatures are fascinating!

Field (Camp) Notes

This panoramic photograph of the Keffer Oak can't quite capture the massive height and girth of the tree.  Appalachian Trail hikers often use this ancient white oak (Quercus alba) as a waypoint to meet friends who live in the southwest Virginia area.

This panoramic photograph of the Keffer Oak can’t quite capture the massive height and girth of the tree. Appalachian Trail hikers often use this ancient white oak (Quercus alba) as a way point at which to meet friends who live in the southwest Virginia area.

For the past three summers I have been overjoyed to help teach two weeks of the SEEDS – Blacksburg Nature Center summer field camps, which I would modestly, yet accurately, describe as the Best Camp Ever.

By The Numbers

Ten kids ages seven to nine, two teachers, two dogs, and one 12-passenger dually van, “Big Bertha”, ride out into the local wilds every day for a week, spending 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. hiking, wading, swimming, catching, identifying and enjoying nature to the fullest.

This year the record for most species (plant, animal, and even fossil) identified was 104.  104!  (The other camp “only” got 87.) Sure, there were thousands more that we could have looked up, but this wasn’t a BioBlitz, these identifications came from the things kids noticed that they wanted to look up.

Lessons Abound All Around

There is so much to be learned and taught in nature, but the teaching often requires only the direction of attention toward something that Mama Nature will perfectly illustrate and channel into the child’s brain through some fantastic magic by which we all gain a “sense” of things.  These are a few that I can put into words:

    1. Look closely at this chicory flower (Cichorium intybus) and you'll see a bright yellow crab spider (Misumena vatia) waiting to catch some pollinator prey.

      Look closely at this chicory flower (Cichorium intybus) and you’ll see a bright yellow crab spider (Misumena vatia) waiting to catch some pollinator prey.

      Look!  No, really look. – Observation skills are paramount in nature.  Since humans are such visual creatures, we practice looking closely and noticing detail, whether it’s an edge, a texture, a color, the placement of a fin, the shape of a wing, the pattern of scales, or the number of legs.  When you look closely, the opportunity to be amazed grows by orders of magnitude.
    2. Are you listening? (And smelling, and feeling, and tasting?) – We use all five senses to observe nature, knowing not just by the look of things, but, for instance, black birch trees by the spicy wintergreen smell of a snapped twig, an Eastern Towhee by it’s “Drink your tea-ee-ee-ee-ee” song, or the presence of microscopic diatoms by the extreme slipperiness of the rocks in the creek.
      If you were to accidentally brush up against poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) or stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), the juices from the stem of this orange jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) would reduce the skin irritation.

      If you were to accidentally brush up against poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) or stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), the juices from the stem of this orange jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) would reduce the skin irritation.

      Sometimes we have to refrain from using some senses, such as learning not to touch poison ivy and never eating an unidentified mushroom or plant.
    3. Nature does not want to hurt you.  – Everything in nature is just trying to go about its life, preferably without getting eaten too soon to create the next generation.  We are the big, clumsy, scary ones that often cause a fight-or-flight reaction in animals.  Don’t want to get stung?  Don’t step on or poke the bee.  Be careful where you put your hands and feet; look first.  We are not afraid in nature, we are aware.  We can be curious and cautious at the same time.  For instance, we learned that bright colors (red, orange, yellow, and black among the insects) and patterns (the white and black of a skunk) in nature are often warning signs to predators:  “Try to eat me and you’ll be sorry!”
    4. This bracket  or "shelf" fungus could be Artist's Fungus (Ganoderma applanatum) or Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor).  I didn't look closely enough to tell for sure because we were on the hunt for orb weaving spiders!

      How beautiful is this?!  This gorgeous bracket or “shelf” fungus could be Artist’s Fungus (Ganoderma applanatum) or Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor). I didn’t look closely enough to tell for sure because we were on the hunt for orb weaving spiders!

      Superlatives are appropriate. – Nature is awesome.  Recognizing that fact, out loud, inspires greater learning about and deeper respect for nature.  One of the very few rules of the camp was “If you find something cool, show Ms. Dee!”  The kids would shout “Rule 4!” and I would come straight over to see whatever insect they’d caught or wildflower they found or the shocking size of the crayfish in the net.  Nomatter how many times I may have observed that species before, there’s always something new to notice, something cool/neat/awesome/interesting/intriguing/fantastic/amazing/incredible to make note of and discuss.
Years ago a small seed found a safe niche on an outcrop of sedimentary rock above Craig Creek.  Catching the rain, finding nutrient from fallen leaves of larger trees, and hanging on with many strong roots, that seed has made its life and is now a small tree.

Years ago a small seed found a safe niche on an outcrop of sedimentary rock high above Craig Creek. Catching the rain, finding nutrient from decaying fallen leaves of larger trees, and hanging on with many strong roots, that seed has made its life and is now a small tree.

  1. Nature is everywhere. – Whatever we learn out in the “wilderness” areas also applies in our back yards, school yards, driveways, parking lots, towns, and farms.  Once the sense of nature gets inside you, it’s a lasting framework for understanding that never fails.

I could go on and on (and on and on) about the student-directed learning opportunities in nature, and chances are that throughout the life of this blog, I will.  For now, though, I’d rather take the time to direct you to some of the great places we went  – check out the links below: