What Is A Spider Web?

Curious Kids: What are spider webs made from and how strong are they?

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Postdoctoral Research Fellow, The University of Queensland

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Andrew Walker does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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This is an article from Curious Kids, a series for children. The Conversation is asking kids to send in questions they’d like an expert to answer. All questions are welcome – serious, weird or wacky!

My name is Leo. I am 5 years old and I live in Sydney. My question is: what are spider webs made from and how strong are they? – Leo, 5, Sydney.

Spider webs are made from silk. And silk is made from something scientists call “proteins”.

Proteins are special chemicals made by a living thing — like an animal or a plant. You have lots of them in your body. Proteins usually have a certain job to do.

Some join together to make something bigger. Your hair and your nails are made of proteins (they are both made by a protein called “keratin”).

Insects and spiders make silk in a special part of their body called a gland, and use their legs to pull it out of their bodies. This is called spinning.

Most species of spider have more than one kind of silk gland. Each one has different strength and stretchiness and is used for a specific purpose such as web frame, sticky strands, or covering eggs. The strength and stretchiness of silk depends on the way the spider’s body arranges the silk proteins.

Spiders have evolved to spin very strong silk webs so they can catch insects to eat. This means that long ago, spiders that made stronger webs caught more insects to eat and had more babies, but spiders that made weaker webs caught fewer insects and had fewer babies.

After millions of years of this process, some spiders today make silk that is very strong. We don’t usually notice just how strong they can be because they are amazingly thin. But the strongest silk, such as silk from a golden orb spider, is actually stronger than steel. Even more amazing, it is about 50 times as light.

Actually, spider silk is a bit like a cross between steel and rubber. Even with the help of complicated machines and chemicals, humans still don’t know how to make a material this strong, stretchy, and light. Spiders are still the champions at this.

Amazing facts about silk

Most people know that spiders and silkworms make silk, but did you know there are more than 20 different groups of animals that make silk?

Silk-making animals include crickets, silverfish, glow-worms, ants, bees, wasps, flies, caterpillars, lacewings, and sawfly larvae.

Some of these make silk to protect themselves. Crickets, for example, use silk to sew leaves together to build a nest. Others use silk in mating, such as dance-flies, in which the male impresses the female with a gift of food wrapped in silk. Some use silk for hunting, such as spiders and even glow-worms, which use sticky silk to capture flying animals they’d like to eat.

Scientists are closer than ever to producing artificial silk. For example, Dr Tara Sutherland at CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences can make bee silk proteins using bacteria, and then spin them into solid strings similar to those made by bees.

Maybe one day, if you become a scientist, you might be able to make something as strong, as light and as special as spiders’ silk.

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Types of Spider Webs and What They Mean

Spider webs are intricate marvels of engineering, beautiful and strong. And if you walk into one, you instantly become a karate master. In this moment, you really only want to know two things: “IS IT ON ME?!” and “WHAT KIND OF SPIDER WAS THAT?!”

See also:  What Kind Of Spider Looks Like A Crab?

Unless you see the spider, which is unlikely, you won’t be able to tell exactly who spun that web. However, if you got a look at the shape or design of the web before you destroyed it with your karate chops, you might be able to discern what family group it belonged to.

Contrary to Halloween decorations and other cartoon spider stereotypes, not all webs are round and used to catch prey. Some webs, such as those of the brown recluse, are small and used as a sort of nursery to house and protect eggs or young. Here are some of the different types of spiders according to the types of webs they weave.

ORB-WEAVER SPIDERS

(Araneidae) These sticky webs are the most familiar looking. They have spokes like a wheel, with a spiral design. Like most spiders, orb weavers are primarily found outdoors. Some orb-weavers’ webs include a structure that resembles a ladder, called a «stabilimentum,» but its use is still up for debate. No one really knows except the spiders, and they’re not talking.

TRIANGLE SPIDERS

(Uloboridae) If your first guess here was «a spider web shaped like a triangle,» you’re on the right track. If you think of the Araneid’s web as a pizza, the Uloborid’s web looks like a single slice; however, triangle spider webs are flat and built horizontally. These webs aren’t sticky; they’re fuzzy. Triangle spiders don’t dispense venom, so their webs are covered with tiny fibers that the spider uses to smother its prey.

FUNNEL WEB SPIDERS

(Agelenidae) Funnel web spiders use their webs as both a trap and a hideout, complete with a front entrance for prey and a back door in case the spider needs to make a quick exit. The web is large and flat, with a funnel at one end. The hobo spider is a member of the Agelenidae family.

COBWEB SPIDERS

(Theriidae) These guys are the pests who spin those super-sticky, messy webs in corners and along the tops of walls, especially in dark basements, garages and other storage areas. They are also known as «house spiders» and «comb-footed spiders.» The black widow spider belongs to this family.

MESH WEB SPIDERS

(Dictynidae) Think of mesh web spiders as the outdoor version of the cobweb spider. Their webs are a little more organized and less messy than cobwebs, and these spiders build them under leaves, in fields and vegetation and under rocks.

SHEET WEB SPIDERS

(Linyphiidae) The spiders in this family trap their prey in webs made of dense layers of silk. Webs may be flat, bowl-shaped or dome-shaped.

Unfortunately, webs aren’t always reliable identification tools. While the presence of webs does indicate that spiders are hanging around your home, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re spider-free if you don’t see webs. Many kinds of spiders, including brown recluse, wolf spiders and jumping spiders, are hunters and don’t use webs to catch prey.

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Be it flies, moths and some beetles, a large number of pests are drawn toward lights. Though pests like some species of cockroaches, such as smoky-brown cockroaches, are highly attracted to light, most flying insects will surround a light source. While this can be a nuisance during a relaxing evening out on the porch, light can also be used to trap and kill these annoying pests.

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What are spider webs made of? And how do they spin them?

Find out how web-spinning spiders do what they do and learn about the impressive, multipurpose material they use to catch their dinner.

Spiders make their webs from silk, a natural fibre made of protein.

Not only does spider silk combine the useful properties of high tensile strength and extensibility, it can be beautiful in its own right.

Jan says, ‘Silk is an amazing material. Golden silk orb-weavers, which are found in warm regions around the world — but not the UK, unfortunately — spin webs with a lovely golden sheen. Their silk has even been used to create a shimmering golden cape that was exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2012.’В

UK spiders tend to produce silk that is white or has a bluish hue.

There are seven different silk glands, which produce silk with different characteristics and uses.В For example cribellate silk is very woolly.

Jan Beccaloni, the Museum’s arachnid curator, adds, ‘Cribellate silk acts like Velcro, sticking to the legs and bristles of captured insects.’

Each type of silk gland is associated with a particular spinneret. No species has all seven, but orb-web weavers have five.

Golden silk orb-weavers (Nephila species) spin silk with a brilliant yellow colour

В© Claire E Carter/Shutterstock.com

A golden cape woven from spider silk, which was exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2012

How do spiders make their webs?

A spider spinning silk to make its web, pulling the thread out with its hind leg

В© Ian Fletcher/Shutterstock.com

Spiders have structures called spinnerets on their abdomen, usually on the underside to the rear. These are the silk-spinning organs. Different species have different numbers of spinnerets, but most have a cluster.

At the end of each spinneret is a collection of spigots, nozzle-like structures. A single silk thread comes out of each.

Jan explains, ‘Although it looks a bit like an icing nozzle, the silk is pulled out by gravity or the spider’s hind leg. The silk is liquid when it’s inside the spider.’

Before it is extruded out of the spinneret, cribellate silk first passes through a sieve-like structure called the cribellum. Spiders that make this type of silk also have a row of specialised leg bristles called the calamistrum, which combs the silk out and gives it the different, woolly texture.

See also:  What Do Sydney Funnel Web Spiders Eat?

Spiders then follow various patterns of activity to construct their webs, depending on what species it is. It’s fascinating to watch.

Do all spiders make webs?

Although webs are the most well-known use for spider silk, not all spiders make webs to catch their prey. In fact, less than half of the 37 spider families in Britain do.

Other spiders, such as crab spiders in the family Thomisidae, are ‘sit and wait’ predators — for example Misumena vatia lurks on flower heads, waiting to ambushing visiting insects. Others, such as jumping spiders in the family Saltidae, actively follow their prey and catch it by leaping on it.

A crab spider,В Misumena vatia,В ambushing prey from its flower vantage point

Courtesy of Pixabay (CC0)

A jumping spider,В Salticus scenicus, attacking a fly

Some spiders even invade other webs to find their food. The pirate spiders, of which there are four UK species in the genusВ Ero, go onto another spider’s web and mimic the behaviour of its prey to lure the spider closer. When the web’s owner investigates, the pirate spider attacks.

Silk: a multipurpose material

A jumping spider peers out of its silk cell hiding place

В© Judy Gallagher (CC BY 2.0), via Flickr

However, even spiders that don’t make webs have uses for silk, including creating moulting platforms, sperm webs for males, and retreats.

Jan adds, ‘Jumping spiders, for example, make little silken cells in which to hide in during the day — a bit like a sleeping bag.’

Most spiders use silk to wrap their eggs.

Another common use for silk is as a drag line. Every so often a spider attaches a thread of silk to something, like an anchor, so that if it falls, it won’t fall too far and can drag itself back up to the previous position.

Ballooning is another spectacular use for silk, allowing the mass dispersal of spiderlings and small adults.

After climbing to a relatively high point, the spider points its abdomen skywards and pulls out one to several threads. When air or electrostatic currents carry the threads upwards, the spider follows. They can be carried many thousands of metres.

A field coated in silk after a mass dispersal of spiders by ballooning

В© Stephen Michael Barnett (CC BY 2.0), via Flickr

Money spider mass dispersals in particular make quite a sight. Sometimes the numbers involved can leave an entire field coated in gossamer threads.

Jan says, ‘Not all spiders disperse this way, but it’s the reason spiders are some of the first creatures to colonise new islands.’

More spider web facts

Now that you know how spiders make their webs, discover their impressive variety. British spider webs can be grouped into seven broad types based on their architecture: orb, sheet, tangle, funnel, lace, radial and purse. But even within each group, different species put their own spin on the style.

The diving bell spider (Argyroneta aquatica) probably has the most unusual use for its web, which enables it to spend most of its life underwater — a unique ability among spiders.В It constructs a net of silk between submerged vegetation and uses it to gather a bubble of air — its very own diving bell.

View the common styles of web and the spiders that make them >

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