As I lay in bed early one morning, I watched a small spider descending on a single strand of web material just outside my window. It disappeared below the sill but then reappeared as it made its way up the screen before vanishing again on one side. This went on for several minutes as the tiny yellow creature explored the area, probably trying to determine whether or not it would be a good place to weave a web. I didn’t watch it long enough to discern what its decision was, but long enough to realize that I had been privy to yet another process that goes on relatively unobserved by most of us during our daily activities.

Now I’ve never been a great fan of this particular insect. Like many people, I am unnerved by the way a spider propels itself along, and I always gasp when I see one of its kind lurking in a corner or scurrying out from a sink drain. The tiny ones tend not to bother me as much as the larger, more conspicuous ones, and I’ve been known to recoil in horror when my hand has moved too closely to one. Yet, as much as they unnerve me at times, I am fascinated by these creatures that sometimes seem to materialize out of thin air as they hang from threads that are all but invisible.

While all spiders exude silk through a tiny opening in their abdomens, not all of them use this material for web building. Some spiders use it simply to encase the thousands of eggs they lay in a season, while others use it to help them get around via a process called ballooning. The silk liquid that the spider produces hardens the moment it hits the air, and the process involves creating a thin layer of it that is designed to catch the wind and move the spider from place to place. Of those spiders that don’t build webs, some actively hunt, while others, classified as jumping spiders, leap great distances to capture their prey or to avoid imminent danger.

There are four basic species of web builders: Cobweb spiders, orb weaver spiders, cellar spiders and funnel web spiders. These spiders have the poorest vision of all and depend for their survival upon the vibrations produced when hapless intruders become entangled in their webs. Orb weavers are responsible for the intricate webs we see outside in dense shrubbery or in open fields.

As a child, I remember being startled quite often when suddenly coming upon a web produced by the large and very imposing black and yellow garden spider, an event that always put the kibosh to whatever exploratory journey I might have been on. The body of the female garden spider can measure one inch or more in length, and its web can be as much as two feet wide. It spends most of its time hanging head down in the center of the flimsy structure, waiting for an unsuspecting victim to come along. And by the way, the scary creature we call daddy-long-legs isn’t a spider at all but a member of a separate insect family that only look like spiders.

It’s important to keep in mind that, despite our dislike of these creatures, spiders serve an important purpose in the ecosystem by keeping house fly, mite and other problematic insect populations under control. Of course, as with all other insects, spider populations themselves can reach troublesome proportions, and there are things we can do to minimize our encounters with them that include limiting the places they might like to hide, shaking out our shoes before we put them on, stacking wood away from buildings and being vigilant when opening cardboard boxes that have been in storage for awhile.

There really is no way to predict just where or when we will come upon spiders or any other insect or bug toward which we all display varying degrees of disgust or delight. They are, like all else in nature, part of life, and yet another species with which we must coexist, albeit uncomfortably at times. For the short while I observed this particular tiny arachnid moving back and forth across my window screen that morning, I was again reminded of how many other communities exist within our own larger one and whose inhabitants are bound, as we are, to many of the same laws of nature in order to survive.

— Rachel Lovejoy, a freelance writer living in Springvale, who enjoys exploring the woods of southern Maine, can be reached via email at [email protected].

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