A Stone's throw: Spider, vain

October 26, 2013 11:26:16 PM

Betty Stone -

 

Hallowe'en approaches. Draped over many jack-o-lanterns, witches' brooms and autumnal gourds, we shall see the usual spider webs. They are meant to evoke dread and a shiver of fear. Spiders are scary creatures, right? 

 

In fact few spiders, only the widow and recluse varieties, are poisonous. They bite solely in self-defense. There were only 100 reported deaths by spider bites in the entire twentieth century. There were 1,500 deaths from jellyfish stings. That is somewhat reassuring, when you consider how much more ubiquitous spiders are than jellyfish. 

 

Every elementary school member of a "bug club," and others, too, no doubt, knows spiders are arachnids, not insects. Just count the legs -- eight, not six. There are 443,678 species. They exist on every continent except Antarctica. Most spiders live for about two years, but tarantulas can live for 25! 

 

They are ancient critters. They first appeared during the Devonian period, 386 million years ago. A few are herbivores; but some are ferocious enough to take on birds or lizards for food, which they trap or lasso with their silk. Some actually show signs of intelligence in hunting. 

 

Their famous trademark is their silk web fiber, which they extrude from six types of silk glands. They use these amazingly strong fibers not only for webs, but for safety ropes, parachutes and lassoes. For that matter, far more spider webs are messy, tangled cobwebs than are the beautiful concentric orb webs we associate with spiders. The black widow, for instance, spins a notoriously messy web. 

 

Because the orb web is so beautiful, however, it has frequently become a work of art, not only for the spiders, but for human beings. Both webs and spiders themselves are often depicted in art. Spiders are portrayed as symbols of patience, mischief, cruelty, creative powers, malice and myth (because they produce their own worlds). 

 

Some varieties are social, living in large colonies and cooperating in capturing food. The females care for the young. Spiders have elaborate courtship rituals, a protection, it seems, from being eaten. It might be reassuring to the tenderhearted to learn that about half the victims of the spider web manage to escape. There is a fine balance in nature. 

 

Both spider venom and spider silk have been under recent research. The silk is lighter, stronger and more elastic than synthetic fibers. In 1973 Sky Lab took three orb web spiders into space to test them in zero gravity. They produced sloppy webs at first, but then adapted. 

 

Spider venom may be a less polluting alternative to pesticides. It is more deadly to insects, but harmless in that form to human beings. It has possible medical use in the treatment of cardiac arrhythmia, Alzheimer's Disease, and stroke. 

 

And cooked tarantula is considered a delicacy in Cambodia. Yuck! 

 

Once there was a giant green, yellow and red spider outside my back door. It was a thing of great beauty; but I killed it anyway, simply because it was a spider. Now I am ashamed of that. Not only was it harmless, but it was helpful as well. I found out it was a garden spider which ate only mosquitoes. My wanton, ignorant act hurt me, too. 

 

E. B. White's charming children's book "Charlotte's Web" rescued the typecast spider from villainy to altruistic heroine. Since it was published after my own childhood, I had not read it until all three of my school-age children insisted that I do so. I remember finishing it one day at the hairdresser's, wishing the book were at least in a brown paper anonymous cover. I would have been more comfortable if any observers there caught me weeping over a perceived steamy romance than a children's book about a spider. 

 

Even now, I am grateful to White for giving us a much happier alternative to scary Hallowe'en spider webs.

Betty Boyls Stone is a freelance writer, who grew up in Columbus.