Monday, September 19, 2016

Wickedly Marvelous Spider Webs


 

Spiders are making a remarkable appearance in the garden this fall… there seems to be an immense population of them this year. Several new insights which have been the subject of rigorous research help in our understanding of this marvelous species.

Firstly, spider silk has long been considered one of the toughest known natural fibers and anyone who has ever watched an insect struggle to escape a web can attest to this. It is light and flexible and stronger by weight than high grade steel, making it perfect for hospital sutures and at the opposite end of the spectrum, military body armor.

However production of large quantities of spider silk has been a challenge. Scientists have been attempting to produce spider silk by genetically altering silk worms who mass produce silk for use in fabrics. *Their silk does not in any way have the strength of spider silk.  

Genetically altering the silk worm would allow for mass production of spider silk and the offspring of those silk worms would retain their new found ability to produce spider silk. Kim Thompson, CEO of Kraig Laboratories in Lansing Michigan, reports they have succeeded and are currently testing gloves made of spider silk. According to Thompson, ‘It’s a huge and sexy market’.  (Yes, that is a quote.)

Other news about spider webs was a bit more altruistic and uplifting.  In a recent article by George Dvorsky, he comments on studies conducted by  researchers in the United Kingdom and Spain who noted that spiders are capable of fine tuning their webs. Various signals are sent through the tension of a web, including the condition of the web and the presence of prey. The authors liken the web to a finely tuned guitar, as each strand of the intricate web transmits a vibration across several frequencies, allowing the spider, whose eyesight is minimal to ‘feel’ what is happening in his home.


The spider is also able to assess the environment, as each will collect the web and seek shelter if storms are approaching. Once over, the web will be quickly reassembled and life resumes as usual.

In my own observations, I have noted that the instant prey has accidentally flown or fallen into a web, the silent spider, resting quietly in the center of the web, will race as a streak of lightning to the exact spot, twisting and tumbling the poor victim into a cotton-like shroud, to be eaten then or saved for later as desert. Considering the strength of the web and the inhabitant dwelling within, it is small wonder we all dance the rapid hand-slapping, hair-jiggle-jarring jig when accidentally walking into a web on a fine Fall evening!