Answer Man

A not so creepy, crawling friendship

Q: My wife loves to start her day sitting on the deck sipping coffee and watching the sunrise. Never again! On the morning after the Sept. 27 “supermoon,” we awoke to severe fog — and spider webs! The tree next to the deck was literally covered! We have never seen this before. We did not see any spiders and when (I can’t resist) “out came the sun and dried up all the rain” everything disappeared!

Can you identify the spider from the web? Are they dangerous? While the fog did help these webs appear that morning, they have not been there every morning or else we would have seen something. Where did they come from? Where did they go? It’s as if an entire herd came through and vanished by morning. Sorry, but I also have to also ask: Did the moon have anything to do with this phenomenon?

Ron Rensing, of Belleville

A. Please urge your little Miss Muffet to return to her tuffet with her coffee and whey so she doesn’t miss enjoying another spectacular sunrise.

Yes, I know. Many people believe that these eight-legged creatures put the “creepy” in creepy-crawlie. I’m even thinking about buying a friend who is petrified by them a sweatshirt for Christmas that says, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself (and spiders).” And it certainly doesn’t help their reputation when Hollywood turns out movies like “Arachnophobia,” the 1990 horror classic in which a newly discovered Venezuelan spider goes on a killing spree.

As curator of arachnids at the Burke Museum in Seattle, Wash., Rod Crawford has spent much of his career trying to convince us that we have it all wrong. Without going all kumbaya on you, Crawford stresses that most spiders are not only harmless but also beneficial, so Garfield should be reported to the ASPCA (the final A for “Arachnids” in this case) every time he swats another spider with his morning newspaper. Crawford offers the same advice for your wife: Instead of fleeing indoors, she should savor her cinnamon light dolce cappuccino while admiring the work of natural art in your nearby trees.

But seriously, folks: While Crawford could not pinpoint from your pictures the specific kind of spider you had been “terrorized” by overnight, he said the web almost undoubtedly shows it to be in the so-called “orbweaver” family. Here’s the most important thing to remember:

“There are quite a few different species (at least 3,000) in the orbweaver family,” he told me, “but none pose any danger to humans.”

Instead, your typical garden orbweaver goes quietly about its business as it spins its attention-grabbing spiral wheel-shaped webs to snare its daily repast of other insect pests. If you could see it, you might find the web construction mesmerizing. Generally, they’ll start by attaching the web to a surface before dropping off and lettting the wind carry them to another surface as they release a line of silk from their spinnerets. Then they may climb back to the center of their new line and drop another line from the center to form a Y. It then goes to work fashioning the rest of the scaffolding with many radii of nonsticky silk followed the characteristic circles of sticky silk that can snag a passing fly or wasp. (According to experts, some spiders can produce up to eight different kinds of silk for various needs.) When the spider feels the web vibrate, it knows dinner has been served.

As for your sudden population explosion, it, of course, had nothing to do with the full moon. (Good grief, that’s just what people need to worry about — werespiders!) While Crawford can only surmise, he figures that an orbweaver egg sac may have hatched, producing countless little spiderlings ready to try out their webmaking abilities so they could grab their first quick lunch.

Seeing the webs first thing in the morning where none existed the night before is not unusual, either. Most orbweavers tend to be active during the evening while hiding during the day. That’s only logical when you think about it. If you’re a spider, the last thing you want to be is a main course for some bird that spots you spinning your web at high noon.

During the day, wind or rain can easily destroy these gossamer structures, which may be why you noticed them rapidly disappear. In fact, many orbweavers build a new web each evening — and some even will eat their old webs beforehand. (After all, they apparently contain lots of protein. I can’t vouch for the taste, though.) If you don’t believe me, you can go to YouTube, where someone as perplexed as you filmed an orbweaver spinning its web at night (search for watch?v=jH8ccBa1EQo). There are countless other videos of spiders building webs both in real time and slow motion, including one of a spider consuming its old home (search for watch?v=PkIlnPfs6Ck).

So, again, tell your wife to just sit back and enjoy the spectacle. If she needs more convincing, go to Crawford’s spider mythbusting site (currently www.burkemuseum.org/spidermyth/index.html), where he addresses dozens of popular notions from “you swallow an average of four live spiders in your sleep each year” to “some spiders are deadly.”

“The real problem here is not the spiders, which were just doing what spiders do, but the irrational fear response,” he said after reading your question. “(But it) is usually fairly easy to correct. I always recommend that phobics consider seeing a therapist — and nobody’s lynched me yet for saying that!”

Today’s trivia

What might have been the most unusual place for a spider to have spun a web?

Answer to Sunday’s trivia: In 1969, Al Wiman was an up-and-coming 29-year-old reporter for ABC7 Eyewitness News in Los Angeles. On Aug. 9, 1969, he was assigned to cover the horrific murders of model-actress Sharon Tate and four others at Tate’s home. About four months later, Wiman decided to get into the minds of the killers, so he and his news team began driving down Benedict Canyon. They soon found what the police detectives could not: the bloody clothes Charles Manson and his murdering accomplices had worn during their killing spree and then discarded.

“‘Let’s time how long it takes me to undress and redress,’” he remembered saying. “And I put the stopwatch on and ran it for six minutes and 20 seconds. We stopped and got out and looked over and I said, ‘My God, those have to be the clothes!’”

Sure enough, he had found a key piece of evidence at just that stretch of road where there was no guardrail, allowing a driver to pull over and throw out trash. Wiman later would spend 27 years at KMOX/KMOV Channel 4 (1974-2001) before wrapping up his St. Louis career at KSDK Channel 5 in 2005. You can find a video of Wiman telling the story to students at www.mansonblog.com and his original 1969 report of finding the clothes on YouTube.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer

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