Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Frost Is a Coup de Grâce

As usual, we’ve been keeping tabs on our argiopes—our black-and-yellow garden spiders—as the season’s progressed. We’ve had them all summer—two on the corner, among the blades of a yucca, and one in the flowerbed near our front door.

Look, spider-watching really is fun! The orb-weavers stick around all season. You walk past an argiope web every day, and you can’t help but note things like, “oh, look, she’s got a grasshopper!” And you know when one of them has made an egg case, because she disappeared from her web for a whole day and has now returned to it, half as rotund as she was before. Then you find yourself peeking around the nearby vegetation, looking for that hidden egg sac. When you clean out that bed later on, you don’t want to inadvertently pitch that spent vegetation into the composter if it’s got her babies in it!

This past week, the argiope near our front door seems to have given up on her web-making. The winds and rain were simply too much; apparently, she threw in the towel and crept away.

She’s moving slowly; she’s getting skinny.

Over the weekend, she clung precariously to the bricks above our front door, which freaked out my nephew when he was visiting (we all had to walk right under her each time we went in and out of the house).

Do you suppose the argiope just said to herself, “Oh, what the heck! My web-spinning and egg-laying is done! Let’s go out and see some of this great big world that the grasshoppers are always telling me about (right before dinner).

Nah—I know better. She hasn’t given up; quitting isn’t in a spider’s vocabulary. It’s survival; we’ve seen it plenty of times with argiopes. If one web location isn’t good—if it’s too windy, or gets smacked into too much, or doesn’t catch enough bugs—the argiope relocates. I’ll bet that’s what she was trying to do, bless her heart. And anyway, orb-weavers tend to have poor vision; she wasn’t “sight-seeing.”

The next day, we found her just standing, rather still, on the concrete steps leading up to our front door. (I hope she hadn’t fallen . . . I’m glad no one had squished her . . . some people just squish spiders as a matter of course . . .) So we picked her up and put her into the plants in one of our front planters. It’s pretty warm there. And so far, that’s where she’s stayed.

The embers of life go out so slowly with spiders. It’s her time.

I used to get rather sad when the freeze would come and, in a single, late October night, put an end to all the spiders, all the tender plants, all the bugs, all that vibrant summertime life. But now I see: The frost is a coup de grâce.

When it doesn’t come, cold-blooded life gradually grows too cold to continue, anyway. Spiders don’t have enough food, because the insects are dwindling; they can’t spin effective webs, because it’s cold and windy, they cannot move quickly anymore, and they’re beginning to starve. Without a decisive freeze, it can be a long, drawn-out death.

Think about it: All summer long, these insects and spiders have fought hard and survived. Our argiopes have netted and trussed prey, and feasted on it; they’ve scrambled away and hidden from garter snakes and praying mantises; they’ve mated; they’ve laid eggs. They’ve endured this summer’s drought, and they’ve put up with the indignity of being sprinkled with the garden hose.

The great majority of arthropods never make it to autumn; there are a million ways for a bug to expire. The ones that are left at this time of year are the survivors, the winners, the elders—as old as any of their kind ever get. In human terms, they are going to die of “natural causes”—of old age, of senescence, of systems breaking down.

The overnight freeze, when it comes, is a gift from nature that lets them die in their sleep.

I used to think it was rather cruel, how the freeze sneaks in during an autumn night and extinguishes all those amazing little sparks of life, but now I see it’s nature’s kindest way of saying—to the humblest of its creatures: Well done; come home.


MObugs said...

What a simply beautiful and poetic ode to the garden spider. They have long been one of my favorites and I am always sad to see them go for the season. I know it is natures way, but I much prefer the lively, active, warm summer season to the cold, dreary, bone chilling winter season. I have had several of these beauties around the farm this year. Last summer I had the biggest I had ever seen of her kind, in fact I was convinced it was a world record garden spider. Her leg span appeared to exceed 5 inches. She regularly fed on cicadas and large grasshoppers. She was a fine specimen of her kind. I look forward to the return of all natures creepy crawlies.

Julianna Schroeder said...

Thanks--and I love your blog. As my aunt recently said, "Those creatures need all the good PR they can get."

Sue Eckhardt said...

I came here from a google search trying to learn about argiope spiders and freezing temperatures. I completely enjoyed reading this post in your blog. I agree with "MObugs" who said it was beautiful and poetic. It also made me understand that I should not disturb the beautiful argiope that has been living on my front porch for a couple of weeks. I will let nature take its course and, if it's her time, then so be it. Thank you for writing this.

Julianna Schroeder said...

Thank you, Sue, for you kind comments. I'm glad you're not going to harass your spiders--I see them kind of how I see an annual flower that overwinters as seed. Sad to see them go! But even though the flame of life is turned down low over the winter, it'll be ready next spring! Do you know if your argiopes left any egg cases for you?

Thanks again,