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June 28, 2013

Spider webs are part of nature's fine-art collection

The Daily Star

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There are so many beautiful, unique and wonderful things in nature. It may be magnificent waterfalls cascading down over tall cliffs from an emerald forest. To others, it’s a little, tan fawn with white spots as it suckles from its mother in the tall grass on wobbly legs. But one of the most unique things in nature is a spider's web.

Last Tuesday morning, they were spectacular. As the American poet Carl Sandburg wrote in one of his poems, “The fog comes on little cat feet. It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches and then moves on.” It was when the fog covered the valleys and held the heavy dew from the rising sun that made them all the more beautiful.

With the sun inching its way through the white morning mist, the spider webs were glistening in the meadows and on tree branches as I made my way up a hill on a morning walk. Dozens of them decorated the landscape like delicate ornaments on nature’s Christmas tree. Each was like a snowflake – no two being alike. They were carefully designed and fastened between branches and tall grass stalks.

I wished I had a camera that morning. But I knew if I went back to the house to get one, it would be too late. The warming sun would push the fog silently away and I’d miss their beauty.

Spider webs that are absent today may be there tomorrow. I often have wondered how these delicate traps could be spun it such a short period of time. How does an insect with a brain no bigger than a grain of salt create such a masterpiece?

I started to pay attention to these works of art as I walked along. Many were only secured by three or four main lines, yet they created multiple circles -- each getting smaller -- until they reached the center of their web. Then there were spokes -- like those on a bicycle wheel -- that went from the outside to a central hub.

I counted several of the spokes to see if there was a definite pattern. The first one had nine arms stretching out from the middle. That web was smaller than others. Another had 12, and the largest web that I counted had 15 spokes.

By the time I came back off the hill, the sun had dried the dew and the webs nearly disappeared into the landscape. But they were still there to serve their purpose.

Spider webs are actually made from a fine silk substance that is produced by spinneret glands located on the tip of the spider’s abdomen. These glands secrete three types of silk. A thicker, trailing safety line is spun to secure the web in place. This material is stronger than an equal weight of steel. There’s a sticky silk used to trap a spider's prey and a fine silk that the spider uses to wrap up its victims.

It’s amazing to see how fast a web can be created. I was hiking a trail up north and stopped for lunch in a small clearing. Three hikers came along within a few minutes and continued on past me. About a half-hour later, I followed them down the trail.

As I walked through the same tall bushes, I ran into a couple strands of webbing that already crossed the trail. If I was that spider I’d move because before long, someone else would come down that same trail and take out all its hard work.

And how can a spider spin a line from the top of the canopy on my deck to the back of a chair nearly three feet away? I thought beavers were great engineers, but spiders will give them a run for their money.

Spiders sure are amazing creatures. They are nature's artists.

Rick Brockway writes a weekly outdoors column for The Daily Star. Email him at