A spider’s relative

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

She lives at the corner of our house where the glass room meets the screened porch, sheltered by the eaves. There she rests, head down and legs stretched languidly while we scurry about our busy lives inside.

Several times a day we stop to admire her plump black-gold-white body and the racing stripes on graceful legs. She seldom leaves the soft mat in the center of her web, except to pick up some (formerly) fast food for her supper.
Don’t bother asking why I demolish other cobwebs inside and outside the house - I can’t explain it. I want them gone, those matted, stringy, dusty-gray, gummy tangles swathing my window sills. If I can catch their weavers, I take them outdoors rather than kill them, but, yes, they were among the targets of a recent fumigation.

But not Charlotte. Charlotte is a garden spider, a huge one, whose orb web is a masterpiece of graceful engineering. From the solarium I can look at it edge-on, like the rings of Saturn, only divided by spokes into perfectly spaced cells.
Charlotte - whose body alone is an inch long, the tips of her legs nearly three inches apart - is the largest of four we discovered around the house late that summer. Her smaller sisters live behind the hydrangeas and next to the air conditioning compressor.

The evening we first noticed her, she had a palmetto bug, one of those huge brown interlopers that send shivers up our spines when they scurry across a kitchen counter. “Thank you, friend,” I said to the spider sincerely. “That’s one that won’t come calling in the night.”
After she dressed her guest in a lovely silk wrapper, Charlotte dragged him to the center of her web and held him delicately. Then she thrust her head into his body to drain him of his life’s juices.

Next morning the spider built a new web closer to the glass. It was almost two feet across, and as she completed the last few revolutions, her abdomen dipped forward, playing out silk and tacking it in place deftly with one rear foot.
No dancer was ever more elegant. Around and around she went - dip, slide, dip, slide - and the midpoint of the web was closed with a single, nearly invisible, silken thread.
In moments she spread a soft carpet across the center, and then as I watched, stitched her zigzag signature across the hub. From her several spinnerets, clearly visible from my position inside the glass, a tough wide band of silk issued, and her abdomen pivoted from side to side pressing it into place. Finished, she turned abruptly back to the center and, hanging upside down, pumped the entire structure three times as though testing its strength. Then she was motionless.

The encyclopedia says the garden spider can rebuild her entire orb web in about an hour. It also says her species name is argiope aurantia. Maybe that’s why she was named the “orange” garden spider by some color-blind biologist.
It’s been several years since we’ve seen garden spiders, and I got to thinking about the one that built her lacy parlor across the sun room panels the summer after we moved into this house.

I pulled down a notebook of old columns. Here it is, the one I wrote in October, 1985, about a spider named Bernadette. (The name “Charlotte” had already been used, I explained.)
Some good imagery here: Bernadette greeting dinner guests with a warm shawl woven on the spot, in which she gently wraps them. “They are so overcome by her hospitality that they never move again, save for a gentle farewell wave from a leg left protruding from the shroud – er, shawl.”

The cedar beams of the solarium framed her web, stretched from corner to corner, as pretty as any of those glass and lead contrivances sold in gift shops as sun catchers.”
We watched her for weeks, even observing her gentleman caller, a miniature replica of Bernadette. He must have carried out his mission before she made a meal of him, if she did, because several days later, she was missing from the center of her orb. We found her energetically securing one of three marble-sized brown spheres to a beam.

Two weeks later, I found Bernadette lying on the deck below the pane where her industry had inspired us from mid-July to late October. She was too weak to climb back to her home, so I shielded her with a leathery oak leaf. When I checked that evening, her pretty black and gold body was stiff.

But looking forward only a year, I wrote, “In the minute spiderlings sleeping in three egg cases, Bernadette’s ultimate immortality is assured. One morning next spring, in God’s annual re-creation of the world, maybe one will escape the pitfalls awaiting such tiny creatures and find her way back to the old home place, and Bernadette’s daughter will become the silent companion of another season.”

And of course, that’s exactly what happened - 14 times. Why not a genealogy of animals? I know a community near Savannah so old and stable that its members can point to fields of Salzburger cattle - stock descended from cattle brought in the ships that carried their own forebears to America in the 17th century.
I have no problem believing that Charlotte’s 12th great-grandmother was a lady named Bernadette.
[Sallie Satterthwaite of Peachtree City has been writing for The Citizen since our first issue Feb. 10, 1993. Before that she had served as a city councilwoman and as a volunteer emergency medical technician. She is the only columnist we know who has a fire station named for her. Her email is SallieS@Juno.com.]