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Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Valley of Spiders…

A noiseless, patient spider,

I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,

Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surroundings,

It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,

Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

                                          Walt WhitmanSky spinner

It is “in your face” season in the Valley. Out the door into a face full of filament. Duck between two fuschia baskets and webs grab your skin. A many-legged thing trickles down your arm, lowers itself to the ground and scurries off. Out in the bean patch step between two poles and you are clawing at your face, your glasses laced with threads that cling to the lenses, your ears. Between any two upright objects a doily of web sways in the breeze. It is spider season and the spinners have cast their sky nets, fishing for delicacies of the insect world. These days it seems the entire world is one wide web.

Casting forth

It’s nothing new, you know. This epidemic of spiders happens every year. If you have been observant over the days of summer, you may have noticed here and there a knot of exploding infant spiders, just a prelude of webs to come, a pulsing knot of tiny yellow “spinners” (as Shakespeare called them). Now they abound in web, body, and spirit.

Apparently in this spider season there’s enough dismay out there to prompt the media into arachnid coverage. The other day my radio station featured a special segment with UW’s spider man who volunteered some sage information about the annual spider phenomenon. “This is the time of year the males are on the move, looking for love,” the spider man said. Yes, it’s mating season for male arachnids. That had me wondering about spider webwork: I thought only the females spun webs, their way of trapping the nourishment necessary for producing those fiber balls flush with next year’s spider generation. The Ripple’s research department discovered that males, too, spin webs—not for an easy meal, but to attract female spinners. They secrete their unique reproductive juices on their webs, and females who venture there find themselves with spider. Better watch your step, ladies, and tread lightly. Spider man continued on about spider control. “There are indoor spiders and outdoor spiders,” he added. “Those arachniphobiacs who wish to rid their house of spiders are quick to call exterminators and have them spray the OUTSIDE of their homes. Doesn’t do a thing for the household, indoor spiders. Waste of time and money,” according to spider man.spider netting

Although my wife would disagree, these plump web weavers are a minor cloying annoyance and pose a far greater threat to flying insects than they do us. (Excepting the time one crawled into my mother-in-law’s ear in the middle of the night and caused a ruckus that roused the entire household. Fortunately the little intruder found little there of interest and exited of its own accord, preempting a trip to the ER and ending the midnight crisis.) My little hive of carniolan bees might disagree as I have noted the swaddled mummies of several little ladies woven in effigy into nearby webs.

Dewy web

If there are any Little Miss Muffets in the Valley, they have little to fear from our fall variety of garden spiders, and while I agree these hefty arachnids, their grasping legs and swollen abdomens are a bit repulsive, unless you are a fly, bee, (or other spider), our Valley spinners are as harmless as the household cat. Venomous spiders like the Brown Recluse, commonly known as the “Fiddleback” spider because of the violin-shaped markings on its back, are not indigenous to our Valley. Their bites can cause considerable harm; in some instances dermonecrosis: the deterioration of flesh spreading outward from the bite.

The black widow spider inhabits the drier environs east  of the mountains. Years ago one of them stowed away on a beehive that had summered in my bee yard in eastern Washington. One morning I opened the door of my bee shed to find the doorway webbed and myself face to face with a shiny black bug sporting a red hour glass for a belly button. Now I’m a country boy, born and raised in “Widder” country and calling 911 or an exterminator never occurred to me. I corralled the “timely” spider in a quart mason jar. We named her Lucretia after the notorious Borgia female who reputedly poisoned those who got in her way.We fed Lucretia on grasshoppers we caught and she flourished until the first frost nipped her chow line in the bud. I’ve had a number of pets over the years, and Lucretia required the least care of the lot them.What a tangled web

Aside from Little Miss Muffet’s spider, there are other arachnids of literary note. E. B. White’s philosopher spider Charlotte, of Charlotte’s Web immediately comes to mind. And then there’s the spider whose persistent efforts to affix its web to ceiling beams inspired Scotland’s Sir Robert the Bruce to mount yet another campaign against the English to secure his right to the Scottish throne. And what about the itsy, bitsy spider that walked up the waterspout? That little nursery song fairly well sums up a spider’s persistence.

I am busy with the stuff

of enchantment and the materials

of fairyland my works

transcend utility

I am the artistmore webbing

a creator and a demi god

it is ridiculous to suppose

that I should be denied

the food I need in order to create


           A Spider and a Fly

          Don Marquis

I came upon some fascinating information the other day, news that seems especially pertinent to a Valley full of spiders and cows. The U.S. Army has teamed up with a Montreal biotech company (Nexia BioSteel) to create the first man-made spider silk using mammal cell cultures of a cow. And why does Man want to become Spiderman? Spider filament of the type orb webbing spiders spin to make the draglines, the radiating spokes of their webs, is five times as strong by weight as steel. These threads are so sturdy they can stop in mid-flight a bee flying at twenty miles an hour. While Nexia is interested in practical, non bellicose uses for the synthetic webbing, such as stronger fishing lines and medical sutures, the U.S. Army, of course, has other designs on the webs: a stronger, lighter soft body armor for the troops. It plans to combine the stronger fibers with Kevlar to create a safer, more efficient product for soldiers on the ground.


It’s all very complicated, but somehow Nexia has discovered an anatomical similarity between the spider’s silk gland and cow and goat mammary glands. So why all this cutting edge genetic engineering? Why not recruit spiders to spin the genuine article? Spiders are fiercely territorial, apparently, making spider farms an economic impossibility. (Silk production, on the other hand, experiences no such difficulties to overcome: a cocoon is not very territorial.)

Will you walk into my parlor,” said the spider to the fly.

“ ‘Tis the prettiest little parlor that ever you did spy;…”

                                                Mary Howitt

I’m wondering if this new research has potential for the Werkhoven Dairy. A year ago the Werkhovens expanded their dairy operations to include an anaerobic digester: first milk and now electricity as well. With all those high efficiency mammary glands in their herd, they might consider branching out even more—or “webbing” out I guess that would be.

Now my wife would be a staunch opponent of more web production here in the Valley. This time of year it’s, “ I can’t stand it any longer. I’m going to get some spray and get rid of these spiders!” Or, “That does it; I’m getting a bug bomb and setting it off in the house!” Yes, there’s no fiercer spider fighter than the wife. I’m a more peaceful coexistence sort of guy—short of one poking around in my aural canal—and gently corral and usher them outside. That goes for those big wolf spiders, too, the ones that scurry across the carpet like a fair sized mouse. But when a house spider and my wife cross paths, it’s one squashed bug quickly succeeded with dire threats of pesticide. In fact in the memorial letter our estate lawyer suggested we each write, I set down my wish that the dear wife’s epitaph read: She hated spiders.”   Perhaps I need to remind her of some parting words from E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”webbed

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  1. That does it... I'm buying bug spray!!

  2. I'm on my way to warn them now, but first I have to get these webs off my face.