Published on October 23, 2017

Nature Notes: The Web We Weave

Originally printed as an 'All Outdoors' column by Suzan Bellincampi in the Vineyard Gazette. Reprinted with permission.

Funnel weaver webs on forest floor

“Will you walk into my parlor?” said the spider to the fly. “'Tis the prettiest little parlor that ever you did spy.”

The webs of funnel web weaver spiders might just be the very prettiest parlors of all, ready for a cricket, ant, or grasshopper to drop by for a visit. Announced or not, an insect is a welcome guest to a funnel weaver spider.

The name "funnel web weaver" refers to a group of spider species in the scientific family Agelenidae, not just to one particular species. This group of spiders doesn’t not need to be tacky to trap their insect prey. In fact, no adhesives is needed at all to help them catch their food.

Their webs are mats of dry silk fibers, not the sticky threads used by many other web-weaving spiders. Thus theirs is a life voice of sticky situation!

Don’t get stuck trying to figure out how they do it. Funnel web wavers spiders use speed, stealth, and good design to capture their victims.

Gorgeous funnel-shaped webs, usually invisible, are now noticeable, glistening with dew in the damp mornings. Cooler temperatures have created the condensation needed to see these webs more clearly. The yards and fields outside my house have been completely covered with them. They are just the perfect trap to ensnare an insect or two for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

Funnel web weaver spider © Myer Bornstein
Funnel web weaver spider © Myer Bornstein

Once one of the prey insects do stop and rest on the web, the spider will run, inject it with venom and drag it back to its den to eat it. Thought these spiders are venomous, from a hidden part of the funnel to grab its soon-to-be snack, inject it with venom and drag it back to its den to eat it. Though these spiders are venomous, it is rare for a person to get bitten, since the spider’s chelicerae usually won’t pierce human skin.

A common funnel web weaver observed is the grass spider. If you want to see this elusive spider, just touch the edge of its funnel web to trick it into coming out into the open. Alexander Pope must have tried this trick and marveled at the sensitivity of the spider: The spider’s touch, how exquisitely fine! Feels at each thread, and lives along the line.

If you do catch a glimpse of this secluded spider, note its three rows of eyes. Spiders have eight eyes, and the grass spider’s eye pattern is two on the first row, four on the second, and two more widely spaced on the third row. Its two-part body is brown with grey, black or tan markings; and its legs are bristly.

The grass spider continuously builds its web and can expand it to as large as one square yard! To assure safety, the grass spider will leave its funnel open on both sides so it can slip out the back door in case of trouble.

Even with this escape route, the grass spider prefers to stay put and rarely leaves its wondrous web. Thus, it is unlikely that you will find this variety in your house. It did, however, have a household use in the 17th century—its web was used as a bandage to stop bleeding.

The next time you see one of these meticulously-crafted spider parlors, marvel at its form and function, but don’t miss its exquisiteness. This distinction of this bonus combination was not lost on Edwin Way Teale who observed, “The difference between utility and utility plus beauty is the difference between telephone wires and the spider web.”