Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Spiders and Tenacity

Spiders that create webs (not all do) have glands at the tip of their abdomens that secrete spider silk. Different glands produce different types of silk (sticky for catching prey, fine for wrapping it, etc.). Though webs appear fragile, spider silk is actually five times stronger than a steel strand of the same weight.

For our annual Halloween party, I usually end up removing real cobwebs to replace them with fake ones. The imitations make for more dramatic decorations (and don’t reflect poorly on my housekeeping skills), but their engineering pales in comparison to the genuine article.

If you’ve ever paid attention to a spider’s web-spinning activity, you know what a marvel it is. To begin the classic design, known as an orb web, this eight-legged wonder attaches a fine thread to an anchor spot, lets out more silk and swings on the end of it to a second anchor spot. Then it walks back and forth on the attached filament, adding more silk with each trip to strengthen the line.

The next step is to create a loose loop and pull down on the middle with another strand to make a Y shape. Walking back and forth, the spider continues to create an outside frame for the web, plus spokes (like those on a bicycle wheel) that are all connected in the middle. The last step is to move from spoke to spoke, letting out sticky silk in a spiral design.

(This animation from does a better job of showing the construction than my words can convey.)

Sometime in August of this year, a cross spider* appeared in our back yard. I found it one day after accidentally walking through its elaborate web while cleaning up after the dogs. As I waved the sticky threads away from my face, I noticed the spider—which had a body about the size of my thumbnail—race to the curled edge of a nearby leaf for cover.

A few minutes later, I returned to find it hard at work repairing the web I had just destroyed. The restoration began with the spider eating the broken threads. Spiders are great recyclers and devour old or damaged silk to help them produce more.

Over the next few weeks, I made a daily check on my backyard friend’s welfare. One particularly windy day, I found it clinging to the thin threads, holding on for dear life with all eight legs. The next day, the spider was in a new location with a brand new web, probably because the powerful gusts destroyed the first one.

I couldn’t help but admire the tenacity of this little creature. When forces beyond its control took away everything it worked so hard to build, it simply moved on, got to work and started anew. I doubt there were any hand-wringing, bemoaning, “why me?” moments. Simply an acceptance that this is where I am now and if I want to eat, I better get busy.

It seems that I have a lot to learn from spiders. When I get pushed off course—as I’m experiencing now with my career—I need to ditch the self-pity. Learn to accept and adapt. Get out on the end of a thread, find new anchor points and start spinning a life around my changed circumstances.

Remind myself that I too, have something within me that’s stronger than steel.

* Thanks to Patricia Michaels of for identifying the species.


  1. I love this post as much as I love spiders (that's huge) beautifully written.

  2. As always your post today is thought-provoking and beautifully written. I may even stop sweeping the spider webs off my plants ;-)

  3. I love your writing Fritz. I'm reading but cannot comment because I'm in awe of you (and I stink at writing)......Lolo