By Bill Lawyer
If you ever find yourself complaining about walking into a spider web some evening or early morning, consider this: you’re not running into a swarm of angry fire ants, escaping from their flooded nests, as featured in a recent article in The New York Times.
During my summer evening neighborhood walks with my dog, my flashlight illuminated dozens of spider webs being constructed and utilized.
The spiders seemed determined to use any object at hand (at legs, actually) to catch unsuspecting flying insects. Along Oakland Beach Avenue a web was attached to a telephone pole, parked car, and shrub.
The night of Rye Town Park’s outdoor movie, as people were leaving, they discovered a huge web strung out at the Playland Pool parking lot — using two trees and a pile of branches.
Even on my backyard deck, I’ve had to do a sweep to remove the webs that get built every night between my house, the deck railing, and a deck chair.
But thanks to several generations of children brought up reading “Charlotte’s Web”, people are more likely to let the spiders do their thing.
And what they do is eat lots of insects.
How many, you ask? According to the Live Science website, scientists estimate that each year, about 27 million tons of spiders consume somewhere between 440 million and 880 million tons of insects, new research finds.
The new study, published in the journal The Science of Nature, finds that spiders’ food consumption is similar to the amount of food that all whale species (Cetacea) eat annually, biologist Martin Nyffeler of the University of Basel in Switzerland and ecologist Klaus Birkhofer of the Brandenburg University of Technology in Germany wrote in their paper.
Spiders that weave the typical roundish webs are known as orb-weavers. Even with everything we know about them, they’re still remarkable in how they combine planning and the use of various chemicals to design, build and maintain their webs.
And of course, even without non-suspecting people barging into the webs, spiders nearly always have to spin new webs each night, particularly after a heavy rain.
Orb weavers rarely bite anything other than insects, and then — only if they’re startled. And, their venom is mild.
Among the lessons we are learning about orb weavers is what is it about the webbing that makes it work so well.
This is one example of the research that’s known as biomimicry — how we can learn things from nature that can help solve human problems while protecting the environment.
Another attribute of orb weavers is how they are able to distinguish the difference between an inanimate objects such as a leaf fragment caught in their webs, rather than insects.
And these are just a few of lessons to be learned, if we look for them, as we take our evening walks around the neighborhood.
So let’s all do our part in letting the spiders do their part, right in our backyards.