Oscar has once again made her summer home in a corner of my bathroom.
The season of spiders began here a couple of months ago, with the appearance of the first obvious webs in dark corners. Then I began having to dodge webs strung across my favorite forest paths. Now they’re all over, indoors and out, helping their owners make a living extracting bugs from their territories.
My grandmother called all spiders “Oscar” and allocated them an honored status in her home on Dauphin Island, Alabama. Oscars ate the mosquitoes and gnats that plagued us kids on our spring-break visits to her dockside ranch house. So although some of my best friends are arachnophobes, I’ve always enjoyed having spiders around.
This Oscar’s dining room is a tangle-web, an extravagantly three-dimensional array of strands that’s particularly difficult for the unfortunate prey to find its way out of. Maybe that explains why Oscar’s so healthily chubby. (My cleaning habits have nothing—nothing, I say—to do with that.)
Some of my forest spider friends, the Cross Spiders, build those familiar iridescent orb webs that catch the light so beautifully.
By autumn, they’ll drape the forest as spiders grow larger and need more prey.
Here’s the exquisite builder of those shimmering dreamcatchers:
But my current favorite is the Sierra Dome Spider, who builds this wonderful Buckminster-Fullerish type of web, about four to seven feet off the ground, specially designed to capture bugs rising from the vegetation below: an angel’s tiara accidentally left behind in the forest.
Such a stunning home also draws romance. Male Sierra Dome Spiders, dreaming of love, are attracted to females with their striking dome nests—and see how beautiful she is! That lovely orange thorax, those delightfully translucent blue legs!
But after their romantic encounter, he’ll then destroy her nest by rolling all those carefully placed threads into a ball, to keep other males from sniffing around. She has to rebuild the whole thing, strand by strand, in order to feed herself.
Tangle-webs, orb webs, dome webs: three different architectures, each tailored for what its builder needs. But there are a few essential functions they all have to fulfill. They have to be able to trap prey and hold it long enough for the spider to get there. They have to hold the weight of the spider. They have to be able to stay basically intact under the influence of a struggling bug, and as the spider wraps and removes her prey. And they have to be strong enough to withstand wind and rain.
Look at her web after she’s trapped and removed prey. It’s full of gaps where strands have been broken.
Yet removing one thread, or even many, doesn’t cause the whole thing to collapse. Spiders have developed the ability to produce different kinds of silks to serve the various functions of different parts of their web.
For instance, consider the strands that are sticky to capture bugs. Most solid materials break more easily if there’s already a surface rupture. To keep such initial cracks from developing, spiders coat their capture threads with a watery coat that lets those strands absorb vibrations more easily, giving them more elasticity. That means they can hold the prey longer, giving the spider time to get there.
Spiders’ strands also have a strange but really useful three-part response to being tugged. The whole web of threads shimmies with the prey’s wiggling (alerting the spider to its presence), holding together, but as the bug’s struggling puts more stress on the threads near it, they suddenly get very pliant, taking the stress off of more distant threads—which can then continue to hold up the web. Finally, under lots of stress, the buggy silk once again gets stiff, meaning it will break at the stress point, leaving the rest of the web intact.
On the other hand, when wind puts equal stress on the whole web (as opposed to a bug stressing mainly one thread), the whole thing stays strong. Amazingly strong, in fact: your neighborhood spider’s web can stand up to hurricane-force winds.
These architectural marvels are everywhere during this season of spiders. Even though “you’re never more than three feet from a spider” is probably one of those spider myths, there’s probably one closer than you think. Thank Oscar for his excellent work next time you see her.
 I have left in embarrassing details about the state of our bathroom to show how helpful he’s being in cleaning it up for us. [back]
 Apparently it works for some humans too; a realtor friend once told me back in my single days that if I were to succeed in buying that adorable quirky little cottage tucked into a Seattle greenbelt, I wouldn’t remain single for long. Although I did not buy that particular quirky cottage, I did later buy another. I did not remain single for long. [back]
 My companion has not yet destroyed my home, although he is planning some extensive remodeling. [back]
 Sorry, arachnophobe friends. [back]