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Architects of Nature Series: Spiders Make Good Neighbors

an orange and yellow orb weaver spider with black stripes sits on a web with a strip of zigzag pattern in the middle of the web
This zigzag pattern likely keeps birds from flying into the web.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is closed today, Monday, January 30 due to inclement weather. Any programs, tours, lectures or classes will not be held. If you are a ticket holder for a tour or an event today, we’ll contact you about rescheduling.

An editor’s note to readers who share my arachnophobia: The only spiders pictured in this blog are orb weavers on webs. Images of spiders hiding in nests or funnels have been removed for a better reading experience.

 

The Architects of Nature blog series is inspired by the outdoor exhibition Architecture at Home, located near the museum’s entrance on the Orchard Trail. This exhibition brings together a wide range of voices to explore how architecture can prompt questions about human-centered design, housing attainability, and environmentally friendly design. In this blog series, we ask ourselves: what can nature teach us about these themes? Here, we spin some webs about the master architect of nature: the spider.

 

I will admit it, for all my touted love of nature, I don’t like spiders. Maybe it’s the way they walk, perhaps it’s the way they ruthlessly trap their prey, or maybe it’s as simple as creatures with eight legs give me the chills. But recently, I indulged in “spider therapy.” I awoke one morning to find that an Orb spider, specifically a yellow garden spider, or Argiope aurantia, was creating a home on my porch. Were it not for its giant size (female bodies can reach one inch in length), I likely would have “removed” it from my presence. But being paralyzed in fear by its size and menacing look (I know it was watching me), I opted to sit on my porch chair and watch it work.

 

Since it was new to the neighborhood, it had just begun to make its web. Orb spiders are known for their spiral web designs and this new neighbor was no exception. Their construction process involves building two different layers of web. The outer, non-sticky spiral serves as a guide for what will eventually be a sticky, inner spiral. This is the portion of the web that catches prey. Once this inner portion is complete, the spider removes its guides.

an orange and yellow orb weaver spider with black stripes hangs from a green stem while building a web
Yellow Garden spider or Argiope aurantia, a member of the Araneidae family.
an orange and yellow orb weaver spider with black stripes sits on a web with a strip of zigzag pattern in the middle of the web
This zigzag pattern likely keeps birds from flying into the web.

The final detail of this abode comes in the form of a zigzag pattern called a stabilimenta. While there are various theories as to why this exists, the theory that seems most likely has to do with birds. Spiders in the Araneidae family build their webs during the day in open spaces and leave them up for many days. This allows these spiders to conserve their energy for other things, like watching scared humans quiver in their presence. This diurnal, multi-faceted building process has its advantages, it also means the likelihood of birds barreling into their homes like a hurricane is quite high. These zigzag patterns are likely a visual cue for birds to change course.

 

While probably the most recognizable type of web, orb webs are one of many construction techniques implemented by spiders. Triangle and sheet webs are both built horizontally, close to the ground. These allow for smothering prey. Funnel webs are non-sticky and have both a front and back door! Prey can enter through the front and the full-bellied spider can exit through the back. Cobwebs are the home to the most famous of treacherous spiders: the black widow. While black widows might be good at deadly encounters, their construction methods are questionable and probably wouldn’t meet building codes. These messy webs are low on construction quality but efficient in capturing prey.

All these construction methods would be useless without a strong, raw material to work with. Amazingly, spiders hold the “ingredients” of the web in their bodies as a liquid. It is only when they release the liquid that it becomes solid. Spider webs are said to be five times stronger than steel! What this actually means is that if you stretched out a piece of steel to be the same diameter as a thread of web, the web would be stronger.

 

This knowledge coupled with the incredible web making of the diving bell spider, led students and faculty at the University of Stuttgart (Germany) to create a research pavilion based on this spider’s home. The diving bell spider combines web-making and air bubbles to form a home that allows it to live underwater. Inspired by the strategy of the diving bell spider, students and faculty designed and built a structure that was 13 feet tall, 25 feet long, and only weighed 573 pounds. It can even withstand winds of up to 58 miles per hour.

 

an outdoor pavilion designed in the pattern of a spiderweb with thin black metal bars intertwining to form a dome shape
A diving bell spider and the structure it inspired located at the University of Stuttgart in Germany.

So the next time you see a spider web, remember that it’s someone’s home. Personally, while I’ll never love this critter, I can learn to respect it as a fellow neighbor and builder.

 

Written by Samantha Best, outdoor interpretation specialist, Crystal Bridges.

 

Check out the rest of the Architects of Nature series: