One of my favourite novels when I was young was Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White. An endearing story of a pig named Wilbur and his friendship with Charlotte, the spider who could spin messages in her web. I yearned to find a Charlotte of my own, a spider who could show me the way to eternal enlightenment through messages in silk. Nowadays it is the webmasters of the internet that dictate my search for truth through HTML.
Common garden spider wrapping a greenbottle fly.
The true web masters of the world are spiders, spinning complex lattices in which to catch their prey. Early autumn is the time to see large orb webs glistening in the early morning sun, drooping under the weight of dew. Gardens are abundant with the criss-crossing of silk, sometimes invisible until you walk into them – I always feel guilty when this happens and find myself apologising to a disorientated spider who finds itself clinging to my coat. Those big round webs are built by the beautiful Common garden spider, Araneus diadematus, our commonest orb spider. Masters of symmetry, these spiders spin their webs at night, constructing an elaborate sticky trap in readiness of catching dinner. They sit patiently in the middle of the web, waiting for something to fly in and get entangled. At this time of year juicy wasps and flies are the bounty. In Warwick Gardens most of these spiders are centred around the ivy bushes as they are in flower and teaming with flying insects. I can spend hours web watching… waiting for that moment when something lands on the web – the speed at which the spider catches and wraps an unfortunate insect in a silk tomb in a matter of seconds is astounding.
Green leaf web spider under web, and with prey
Another spider has a different tactic. The tiny Green leaf web spider, Nigma walckenaeri, spins a flat, rather untidy web across the top of a leaf and crouches underneath it, rather like a bivouac, shooting out when something triggers a vibration. The spider and its tiny web is virtually invisible against the green of the leaf. This spider punches above its weight in regards to size of prey, regularly catching large flies and hoverflies, and administers a powerful bite to paralyse it.
Nursery web spider with egg sac, and spiderlings in web tent
The large Nursery web spider, Pisaura mirabilis, uses web skills in another way. They do not spin a web to catch prey, instead lie stretched out on leaves and wait for flies and other insects to pass by, then use quick sprinting and strength to overpower them. The female lays her eggs into a silk cocoon which she carries around in her fangs. When her eggs are about to hatch she attaches the sac to a blade of grass and spins an elaborate tent. She releases her spiderlings inside, hence the name ‘nursery web’. The female will stand guard nearby until the spiderlings are old enough to disperse.