Down, Miss Muffet
is the first to know when mail arrives at my house, feeling
the letters as they are dropped into the green metal mailbox
hanging from the cedar shakes next to my front door. She also
is the first to know when someone is approaching to ring the
doorbell, or drop off some cardboard-encased delivery. While
she has eight eyes to see, most of her observations are picked
up through vibrations traveling through her equal number of
legs. She moved into the space behind my mailbox with the
warming spring weather, constructing a shelter of fine threads
that, for their diameter, are stronger than steel. She is
a spider and I feel honored and a little safer by her presence.
I first noticed her after taking some mail out of the box
in early June. When I put the hinged top down, I saw a white
silken tunnel-like structure. It was attached to the back
of the top of my mail box and stretched up less than an inch
to the overhanging edge of the cedar shake above it. It was
engineered in such a way that it tolerated the stresses of
the opening and closing of the mail box without tearing. I
was impressed. Inside the silken structure I could see a blurred
dark image moving its legs, impressions of tiny feet pushing
against the sturdy substance, perhaps reinforcing it with
more threads at the threat of my presence. At each end of
the structure were round symmetrical openings. With subsequent
mail gatherings, I noticed how the structure thickened over
time. Another spider was settling in around my house.
There are a variety of spiders inhabiting my urban lot. Some
make webs among the plants and trellises in my gardens, while
others wander webless among the vegetables and flowers. Among
those roaming the vegetation are small jumping spiders that
can leap vertically about 20 times their length with the aid
of a couple of specialized legs that seem spring-loaded. Also
wandering the garden are wolf spiders that scurry along the
ground, hiding amid the garden debris. In the basement of
my house, tiny spiders make chaotic cobwebs among the floor
beams and heating-system pipes. In the late winter each year
a spider shows up in my bathroom, often tucked into a ceiling
corner, seeming to act as an early sign of the spring to come.
They seem to be remarkably well adapted to the environments
around and in my house, which may relate to their long tenure
on this planet.
Spiders have been around for over 300 million years. These
animals have developed an impressive range of diversity that
has allowed them to adapt arachnid life to most parts of our
planet today. One species has even been found hanging out
under rocks on Mt. Everest at an altitude of 22,000 feet.
They have been resilient enough to survive cataclysmic environmental
events over the hundreds of millions of years they have been
spinning silk on Earth.
The earliest evidence humans were taking notice of spiders
dates back to Paleolithic times when somebody drew the image
of one on a cave wall in Gasalla Gorge, Spain. One of the
most impressive representations of these critters was made
about 2,000 years ago in Nazca, Peru, where a huge spider
figure that measures about 160 feet across was created. In
the wilderness I hike in southern Utah, I have seen a number
of paintings of spiders on canyon walls that are thought to
date back a thousand years or more.
While arachnophobia, the fear of spiders, is pervasive in
today’s American culture, in many of the indigenous cultures
in this hemisphere the spider was revered as a superhero.
Among the Pueblo Indians of the southwest United States, a
cultural hero known as Spider Woman made humans from the earth
and taught them the art of weaving. Not all cultures have
portrayed spiders as creatures to fear and kill with the nearest
spray can of pesticide.
There are a few standard features common to most of the known
35,000 species of spiders (some researchers claim unknown
species may at least triple this figure). Supported by eight
jointed legs, spiders come with a two-part body protected
by a hard external skeleton, and they scan the scene through
four pair of eyes and through sensitive leg hairs that pick
up nearby vibrations. Spiders have silk glands that produce
a strong, durable and flexible thread that is used in wind
gliding, shelter construction, web building, climbing, prey
snagging and meal preparation. They also have fangs and poison
glands that allow spiders to immobilize their insect prey
for consumption. Some spiders, like the black widow and brown
recluse, are poisonous to humans, but most species are relatively
harmless to us.
Spiders do provide a great service in helping to keep the
insect world under control. As the star spider in E.B. White’s
classic Charlotte’s Web once said, “Do you realize
if I didn’t catch bugs and eat them, bugs would increase and
multiply and get so numerous that they’d destroy the world,
wipe out everything?” Unlike chemical pesticides, the venom
spiders use to subdue their prey varies from species to species
in its biochemical structure, reducing the likelihood insects
will develop immunity. Their venom is being investigated for
the development of new, and perhaps safer, insecticides. Better
yet, farming techniques have been developed to foster the
natural growth of spider populations to help control insect
pests without chemicals.
Spiders have also proven to be environmental monitors of sorts.
Due to their eating habits, they concentrate toxins and heavy
metals. A lack of spiders about may not be a good thing.
So, as the simple little spider behind my mailbox lives out
her short life, she will devour bugs and provide an indication
to me that the toxic burden around my home may not be too
bad. And for this I am eternally grateful to her and her fellow