Today, I relive Charlotte's Web. The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
E. B. White's children's classic, Charlotte's Web, is about
a runt-of-the-litter pig, Wilbur, and Charlotte.
Charlotte is like a fairy godmother in
the form of an Araneus Cavaticus orb weaver, better known as a barn spider. A young girl,
Fern, first saves Wilbur from the axe. After that, it's Charlotte who schemes to keep
him from becoming bacon, as he matures. And Fern is the lone human bystander who
understands the animals laying their plans.
In the past I've talked about spider silk and about orb weavers. Now a barn spider
just like Charlotte appeared at our house two weeks ago. That night, she spun a web
across our door, closing us in and keeping all evil creatures out. The web was gone
at dawn. We could, once more, come and go as we pleased. Every night she's done
that same ritual.
We call her Ms. Arachne, not Charlotte. Ms. Arachne has taken residence in a crevice
where a joist holds our roof. Each evening she waits for us to turn off the lights and TV.
Then she spins a small hammock next to her hole. From there, she drops to the floor
carrying one silk strand -- then climbs back up and repeats, setting the frame of her web.
Next, she runs a spiral path, laying down her complex net. It takes about an hour to finish.
It's clear we're watching a master weaver. Such craftsmanship! But why is the web gone
each morning? Two reasons: One is conservation; spider silk is fine material, not to be wasted.
I rose in the small hours one morning to find her in the last stages of eating her web.
That's so she can reuse the silk the next night.
I learned the other reason one night when I woke to find Ms. Arachne fastidiously dining.
You see, she drinks her meals. Having caught some flying insect, she'd darted out and killed
it with a quick sting of poison that would've affected you or me like a bee sting.
Then, quick as mercury, she rolled it up in silk taken from the web itself. Now there
she was with this big white ice cream cone, sucking everything liquid out of it. She'd
left a large hole in the center of the web when she'd taken the silk to wrap her bug.
She's untroubled by my circling camera. Actually, she can only tell light from dark. Her
sense of touch is a lot better than her vision. When I bump the window near her, she reacts
by jumping up and down in the web. It's a kind of threatening
Maori Haka war dance. We may
be friends, but friends understand about boundaries.
E. B. White's Charlotte lasted through Indian summer; then died of old age. Ms. Arachne has
been with us for fifteen days as I record this. Unlike Charlotte, she's woven me no messages
in her web. Still, she's pretty smart. Her brain is tiny until you include her substantial
nervous system. She can learn and adapt. And, of course, like Charlotte, she can teach. She's
shown me so much that I never knew. As I study her, night after night, E. B. White's quirky
vision of a magical spider seems almost plausible.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
E. B. White, Charlotte's Web. (New York: Harper and Roe, 1952)
Video of a Barn spider weaving a web.
Video of a barn spider capturing and consuming a moth.
For more on spiders and spider silk, see Episodes 1069, 1717, 2435, and 2470.
All photos by John Lienhard
Note added, Nov. 7, 2009: We first found Ms. Arachne spinning her web on Sept. 7, 2009. Last night we saw
her walking away from her crevice and today she's gone, leaving behind her egg sac, sealed in silk -- just
as Charlotte did at the end of E. B. White's story.