Animal Moments

I Once Loved a Spider

For several months I watched a common garden spider (Araneus diademata) living her life outside one of our bedroom windows. I first noticed her in late July or early August: a large (looking) brown, white, and yellow spider with striped legs. She had quite a rounded abdomen, and her back was beautifully marked with white spots arranged down the middle and somewhat resembling a human spine.

I got into the habit of observing Ophelia (as I quickly named her) several times during the day, sometimes standing there for some minutes if she was in motion. Mostly she was not. She spent long days completely immobile (as far as I could tell) in the hub of her web, head down, facing out through the web.

For weeks I saw her either motionless on her web or almost out of sight in a nest of silk and pine needles on the edge of the window which was spanned by her textbook-perfect orb web. Once I  watched her move up and down along her upper web, no doubt doing repairs. I also once saw her just after she had finished wrapping up a prey item (a wasp I think). She was still "handling" the item with several front feet.

Then one rainy day I was feeling unwell at my computer, so I took a little break to go check on Ophelia. I had seen her on her web that morning, even in the rain. But this time she was gone. The web was empty. I saw no sign of her in her nest  (where I could usually see at least a couple of legs sticking out). I don't know why, but then I looked down, and there she was on the edge of the window sill, part of her body seemingly crumpled under her. I thought, this must be her dying. She isn't in her nest. She isn't on her web. She looks so vulnerable.

Then she moved, fell over the sill, and caught herself on her trailing thread. Using all of her legs, she scrambled up the almost invisible strand straight onto her web. I watched her walk up her web, moving each of those eight legs just where it would do the most good at every step. She climbed right into the center, and I could see that she was out of breath. (Apparently most spiders have limited aerobic capacity. They tire easily after brief exertions. Inefficient "book lungs" are in part to blame.)

But Ophelia got herself into her usual head-down, back-to-me posture on her web. Instead of holding still, however, she continued (as long as I watched) to work her palps and first pairs of legs quite energetically. I could see that her last pair of legs were hanging onto the silk. One of her third pair was hanging on, but its mate was just lying against the longer hinder leg. Her forward pairs of legs were moving about. I think I saw her put one front foot into her mouth and jerk it out again. At one point she flexed a third leg sharply under her abdomen. I observed all this while standing on tiptoe to see her as closely as possible. When I returned to my work, I had completely forgotten having felt ill.

I continued to watch Ophelia day after day as it got colder, the days shorter, and conditions more inclement. I had read that the orb weaver lays her eggs in the late autumn and then dies. I kept waiting to see an egg sac, imagining it weathering the winter and opening up in the spring to reveal dozens of tiny spiderlings, And then I hoped I would see them disperse, which many spiders do by the behavior called "ballooning," when every spiderling releases several long strands of silk that catch the breeze and carry it, each to a different landing place.

I last saw Ophelia just before our first snow in late November. It was a very cold and threatening morning, and I saw her in her nest. But the next morning, after a light snowfall, she was gone--from the nest, from the web, and from any other place I could hope to find her outside the window.

Ophelia was really gone. I missed her. She was so distant, yet I felt a bond with her. I still check her nest once in a while. Perhaps there are egg sacs among the needles that I can't see. And who knows? Perhaps another spider will use that window next year. I look forward to getting to know her.

posted January 1, 2012