Last weekend, I found about half-a-mile of delicate spiderwebs coating the tops of the vegetation at Port Meadow. Below is a short film I made about this incredible phenomenon:
While walking in the suburban countryside this time of year, you might stumble across a rather extraordinary sight. It may look like someone has spread elaborate Halloween decorations around the countryside, but these incredible structures have been made by spiders.
Spiders make many people’s skin crawl, as around 3-6% of the global population has arachnophobia, but these tiny invertebrates are one of nature’s most impressive engineers.
Spiders are not insects – a common misconception – they are arachnids. They characteristically have eight legs, and their bodies are split into two sections: the cephalothorax – which comprises the head, and where all eight legs attach – and the abdomen which has the spider’s spinnerets.
There are seven broad types of spider web: orb, sheet, tangle, funnel, lace, radial, and purse; and all of the webs have a different function for the spider species spinning them. These webs are sheet webs, so-called because they look like silk bed sheets thrown over low-lying vegetation. Sheet webs are normally spun by a family of spiders known as the Linyphiidae, which is the largest family of spiders in the UK with over 280 species.
These are Nursery web spiders, identifiable by the characteristic tent shape of the maternal web. These spiders don’t spin webs for predation, but for their young. Normally the females lay their eggs in summer, so it is likely this is a second brood.
These young spiders are quite well-developed, likely dispersing using sheet webs and ballooning. This is where the spiders climb to a high part of the landscape, and point their abdomen upwards, pulling out several threads, which the air or electrostatic currents catch, carrying the threads skywards, allowing the spider to travel thousands of metres. It is a very efficient method of dispersal, and a bit like paragliding!
A gathering of spiders in this number is known as a venom, which can be a bit misleading, as very few spiders in the UK are venomous, the most notable being the False widow. Nursey web spiders are harmless though, and watching them emerge like this is truly one of nature’s greatest spectacles.
Thanks to Ivo Andrews for his spider knowledge and helping with the script!
British Arachnological Society (2020) Spider and Harvestman Recording Scheme website, Available: http://srs.britishspiders.org.uk/portal.php/p/Nursery+web+spider [Accessed: 23/10/20]
Gomez A. (2015) Pisauridae: Nursery web spiders, Available: http://abugblog.blogspot.com/2015/10/pisauridae-nursery-web-spiders.html [Accessed: 23/10/20]
Hendry L. (2020) Natural History Museum British Wildlife: Spiders webs: not just for Halloween, Available: https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/spider-webs.html [Accessed: 22/10/20]
Hendry L. (2020) Natural History Museum British Wildlife: What are spider webs made of? And how do they spin them?, Available: https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/what-are-spider-webs-made-of.html [Accessed: 22/10/20]