Shorter days, more spiderwebs


A friend complained yesterday that the days are slipping away ever faster, and soon his life will be over. That’s a sensation that comes in September when every day is shorter than the last.

This time of year, it’s startling how fast the daylight dwindles. Every night we close the curtains a little earlier. And every morning we can sleep a little later and still see the sunrise.

But I am happy to report that shorter days do not mean our lives – or the world – are coming to an end soon. In fact, this month is full of life.

While we’re asleep, orb-weaving spiders are festooning every outdoor space with their spectacular engineering feats. (Orb weavers are the species that build more or less circular webs.) They bridge every garden path and decorate the outside of many dining room windows.

Nearly all the orb-weavers are female, as anyone who read Charlotte’s Web might have guessed. Spiders of multiple species have multiple variations in lifestyle and orb-weaving skills.

We don’t know what the males do to keep busy while they await the coming mating season, at the end of which some of them will be eaten by their mates.

Reading about spiders is both fascinating and frustrating. The fascinating bits:

  • They have six and sometimes even eight pairs of eyes.
  • Some species consume their webs every night, rest for a while, and then build fresh ones for the next day.
  • They can extrude more than one kind of silk thread – one for framing the web, another thinner, stickier one for catching insects. Some have even more kinds of silk threads.
  • As you surely know, their eight legs distinguish them from six-legged insects.
  • Although spiders and insects both belong to the same animal phylum – the arthropods – two different varieties of scientists study them: entomologists for insects, and arachnologists for spiders.
  • Spider sex is so weird I’m not even providing links on the topic. You don’t want to know.

The frustrating part is that identifying spiders accurately generally requires a microscope. And I’ve never met a spider who would hold still long enough for that sort of examination.

For those who fear spiders, here’s a word of reassurance: There are only two spiders in our state that are of medical concern, and neither lives in Thurston County. According to the State Health Department, one lives only in Eastern Washington; the other hangs out only in Seattle and Eastern Washington. (So what is it doing in Seattle? And how did it get there?)

Yet fear of spiders is endemic. Arachnologists have found that even some of their entomologist colleagues, who ought to know better, are afraid of them. Scary movies and Halloween decorations don’t help.

There was also a famous hoax that spread on the internet in 1999 claiming that a poisonous spider hid under toilet seats and killed several women. Not a single word of it was true, but of course the tale spread far and wide. Its perpetrator wanted to make the point that people are gullible, and perhaps also that the internet was going to make that problem worse. Point taken.

But spiders in the garden are friends and allies, eating insects that would otherwise damage our plants. And spiders outside the window are wonderful entertainment, even if they do come with shortening days and ever-longer darkness. They mark the beginning of the season of fresh apple pie, heartier meals, and the return of cozy indoor evening pursuits.

These are the days that ripen the pumpkins. This is the time when the seeds for next year’s flowers and food crops are fully formed, holding the promise of another spring.

Between now and then, we are headed into an abundant harvest season, a refreshing and colorful autumn, and a winter of rest for gardeners.

If we occasionally walk face-first into a spider web, it’s a small price to pay and a helpful reminder that sometimes it’s best to keep our mouths closed.


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