This is a guest article by Lindy Price.
Towards the end of spring a young spider built a web close to my back door. She had striking colours and two pairs of exceptionally long front legs, perhaps twice as long as her back ones. She hung in her web upside down with her legs divided into four pairs, the front ones stretching out and down from either side of her abdomen. These long forelegs were strong and agile, quite different from the others, and were clearly relied upon to perform most functions, including keeping herself firmly attached to her web.
She was of course an orb web spider, but not like any I had ever seen before. This one had a preference for being permanently on display in the centre of her web; never moving, day or night, rain, hail or shine; totally exposed, and much larger than the common orb web spiders that frequented my garden. Research identified her as a golden orb weaver, (Nephila spp.) characterised by its impressive size, a habit of pairing the legs two by two, and the golden thread of its web. A special spider, so the Australian Museum website informed me, and one that I was apparently very lucky to have. Luck was not my first feeling, but I was awestruck and fascinated, if only morbidly, and due to a serious case of arachnophobia, I was way too frightened to do anything other than hope she would go away.
She grew and grew over the spring and summer and by the time we were getting into early autumn she was enormous - perhaps fifteen or sixteen centimetres across. She visibly expanded with each meal, of which there were many in any given day. There was a steady supply of honey bees and the occasional pair of much treasured blue-banded bees, much to my alarm, given my perpetual efforts to encourage them to my garden. Pleading with her to give them up in favour of flies got me nowhere. Such an attitude I recognised as discriminatory - speciesism even, no better than any other form of discrimination - but with no influence to change the status quo, I had no choice but to accept it. Bees were a favourite staple of her diet - but she didn’t discriminate.
She became so big that I was sure I would easily have had a heart attack if she had ever fallen on me. I quickly learnt to check, to assure myself that she was firmly fixed in the middle of her web before stepping outside; and never, ever, to disturb the branches of the bushes to which her web was tethered as she was prone to violently shaking her web in protest - and, eek, threatening to drop.
By late summer she had matured and changed her appearance, growing a becoming high-rise, silver back like an over-cooked muffin, and a matching pillbox hat on her head. The underneath of her abdomen, by contrast, had some fine stripes in shades of yellow and black tastefully set off with a touch of maroon, although this was very hard to see unless getting uncomfortably close. I was sure that she had had a little of that same maroon detailing on her knees at one stage, but some of these early subtleties seemed to have been replaced with a more elegant palette of black and white, like the elongated figurine of an Edwardian lady; although it must be said that by then, any pretence at camouflage was completely gone. She stood out, stark against a cloudless blue sky.
Her paired front legs were impressive; legs of which any spider, I imagined, would be rightfully proud. As long as my fingers and strikingly marked, they were hairless, shiny and narrow, with two large, knobby knees per leg, and long, black, pointed feet. With astounding agility she wound up the flies and bees into neat little packages, and ate them just as quickly as she could drag them back to her dining area in the centre of her web—and she moved across that web with lightning speed. Fastidiously tidy, she constantly mended any holes in her web, quickly removing the continual build-up of unwanted leaves and small twigs left by the wind; dexterously unhooking them with her narrow feet, then dropping them to the ground.
The web itself was a regal affair: the central disk was meticulously built with a formulaic precision in gossamer thin, parallel gold threads - visible only when glinting at an angle to the sun. The outer area of her web, in contrast, was an untidy mess of long silver threads. Hung higgledy-piggledy in every direction, this arrangement seemed to provide a safety net for the protection of the inner sanctum. At the outer corners it was anchored with thick ropes attached to the climbing rose on one side and the Manchurian pear on the other - strong enough to tether a cruise liner.
Maintaining her position, she hung in her web. Regardless of the heat and blazing sun, pouring rain or howling winds, she never left her post, mending any holes as needed each morning. In the centre of the web, the golden orb, she assembled a longish line of seed-like bits, reserves of small packaged insects for overcast and low food days, and a partial cross of zigzagged heavy gauge silk over which she positioned herself in a cross formation. It seemed to disguise her in some way, perhaps making her spider-ish shape less recognisable to potential predators, or, as another theory, reflecting ultraviolet light to attract insects and deter and confuse the birds. Whatever it was, it worked.
Living so close to my back door, we watched each other’s every move, coming and going, inside and outside the kitchen. We came to know each other quite well, or at least, it seemed, as far as the familiarity of our respective movements went. Each morning, first thing, I would go out to check if she was still there, say good morning and give her a wave. She watched, only her eyes moving.
As the summer passed and I could see just how big and scary she was becoming, I was astonished at myself, at my changing attitude. Spiders have long been the bane of my life; a life-long, fully fledged, hysterical phobia. However I would not by then, any more than in the past, have wanted her to come near me - or, perish the thought, to touch me. But her predictable habits made things easier and less threatening, and hence I felt no need to have her removed or rendered homeless. Certainly any potential guilt was assuaged, along with the avoidance of any need for considering cold-blooded murder. I was well known for my fear of spiders with family and friends and they would no doubt have been astounded.
One morning I went out to say good morning to find she was in the process of shedding her skin. She had managed to remove most overnight (while the birds were asleep), but her long front legs were awkward and slow to peel. Vulnerable now in broad daylight, she kept a low profile by moving little and not drawing attention to herself; waiting for the cover of darkness to try again. Unfortunately, when I went out the following morning she had completed the task, but two of her legs were missing on one side. It may have been some sort of projection on my part but I swear she was suffering from shock and was in pain from what had happened. She did not move for several days and her high-rise abdomen visibly shrank from lack of food. I worried how, now severely disabled, she would survive. How could she catch her food, how could she wind the flies and bees up and drag them back to the centre of her web? She was lopsided and having difficulty even staying in the web. Every puff of wind threatened to dislodge her.
It seemed to take her about a week to recover enough to try to catch prey again, but indeed she did. Her efforts, from there, to my mind, were nothing short of miraculous - a marvel of ingenuity and will. Again I am reminded in no uncertain terms of how in our human arrogance we underestimate every other living thing. And from that time on, I fell in love. My heart was captured, spun in silver thread.
Her ragged discarded skin hung from the bottom of her web for a about week; her first priority with her limited agility: food. I watched. Slowly, lopsided, she limped across the web to a fly caught and struggling. She held it with one front leg, and wound it in web by enlisting one of her short back ones, her grasp of the web, all the time, precarious. Struggling, she then very slowly began to drag it back across the web, pulling herself along by her only other front leg in a crooked, lopsided movement, dragging the fly with an unaccustomed and newly enlisted middle one.
She never re-grew her legs or regained her prior mobility but she did not starve. She simply did her best with what she had. She continued to mend the large rents in her web caused by the wind, remove unwanted leaves, restore the line of seeds in her camouflage system and see off the occasional attacking wasp.
I was aware that her lifespan would not extend beyond the last of the warm weather. That past autumn had been unusually long and hot but several recent very cold nights had taken their toll and soon after she went missing from her web. She never hid and I knew her absence was final. It was a sad morning and I would miss her.
Over the next week or so the empty web grew ragged and then disintegrated, finally disappearing; the tree turned red and gold and lost its leaves - the very leaves that she had chosen to support her beautiful web. And with a sense of the inevitability of life’s losses, but sustained by the gifts we had shared, I got on with planning my upcoming trip - and hoped upon hope that she had seen fit to deposit some eggs somewhere safe for the next generation.
Lindy Price is a Melbourne based botanical artist, portrait painter and writer with a life-long interest in fauna (although not especially spiders), flora and conservation.
Banner image courtesy of Michael Podger from Unsplash.