The Adventures of Spider and Man

I have told you before about my battles with the spiders, which are far more plentiful in Oregon than they were in my last state of residence (Utah), or the state before that (California), or indeed anyplace else on the planet (Earth). My policy has always been one of the utmost tolerance: The spiders may live anywhere they please except inside my apartment. This gives them a lot of freedom, for the vast majority of the world consists of areas that are not my apartment. Why, just stepping out my front door I am instantly within sight of dozens of places a spider could live that are not my apartment.

Unfortunately, spiders are like children, in that telling them they cannot do something only makes them want to do it more. (They are also like children in that they are always getting “underfoot,” and if they misbehave you can squish them with a Kleenex and flush them down the toilet.) The spiders have become bolder, and I’m afraid my tolerance is being tested.

Not long ago I noticed that a large spider had built a web on top of the shrubbery located right outside my front door. Not in my apartment, no — but very, very close. This put me in an awkward position. I had always told my friends, “I have nothing against spiders! I wouldn’t mind at all if one moved in on my block, or even next door!” And my friends had always been impressed by my progressive attitudes. So imagine the shame I would have felt if they knew how uncomfortable it made me now that a spider had moved in so close!

I tried to be neighborly to this spider. I sought to understand it. The first thing I did was to assign a gender to it. I decided it was male. This is because “he” is easier to type than “she,” and also because the spider exhibited classic male behavior: sitting around, waiting for food to magically appear, devouring it quickly, and not yakking the whole time about what he did all day.

Being very scientifically minded, I performed an experiment wherein I threw a pebble at the web to see if the spider would try to eat it. My scientific finding was that he did not. In fact, he didn’t even react to the pebble at first. He seemed to know instinctively that the object that had just landed on his property was not food. After a few seconds he scurried over to it and cut it down, then excreted some fibers to reinforce the part of the web that had been compromised. It was a pretty impressive operation, actually, and very efficient. I mean, someone broke a window on my car and I didn’t replace it for three months.

In the further interest of science, I threw some more pebbles onto the web, and a leaf, too. I figured this would annoy the spider enough to make him move away. But then again, the life of a spider is pretty boring. Industrious bugs like ants go out in search of food, while the lazy spiders just sit around and wait for food to show up. So maybe this spider actually enjoyed my fun pebble game, as it gave him something to do.

Of course, maybe the spider wasn’t trying to eat the pebbles because he wasn’t hungry. To test this hypothesis, I found a black ant in the dirt, picked it up, and flicked it onto the web. I kind of felt bad for the ant, and that is why I did not assign it a gender, because I did not want to get attached. It had been minding its own business on the ground, far away from the spider web four feet above. The queen had probably warned it, “Never go crawling up into the shrub, because spiders live there.” She probably hadn’t seen fit to mention, “Oh, but a giant might pick you up and toss you into a web anyway, and then you’re screwed.” So I felt bad. But only a little, because it was just an ant, and this was science.

The instant the ant hit the web, the spider was upon it, wrapping it up in thread and bringing it back to the middle. You can’t just eat the ant way out on the fringes of the web. What are we, savages? No, you have to bring it to the center of the web. That’s where we do our dining.

The spider did his spidery things, which I guess meant injecting some venom into the ant to kill it. Then he ate it. It was very cool. I thought the spider would just suck the ant’s fluids out and leave a shell, but nope. He actually ATE the ant. This spider was HARDCORE.

Now that I understood a little about how my spider neighbor lived, I felt more comfortable with him residing just outside my front door. But it turns out I was a fool to be lulled into a sense of security so easily. Two days later I opened my front door and there on the doorstep was: the spider. He had crawled in under the screen door and was apparently just waiting for me to open the main door and let him into the house.

“Oh, no you don’t!” I said, putting my hands on my hips. “You’re not coming in here!” Perhaps the spider had taken my game of Throw Things at the Web all too much to heart. Maybe he thought we were pals now. Maybe he just wanted to play some more. Also, maybe I shouldn’t have given him the ant. It was probably like feeding a stray cat, or providing day labor for illegal aliens. Next thing you know they’re showing up every day, wanting more. (Spiders: Eating the ants that Americans won’t eat.)

Now I was on the horns of a dilemma. You are aware of my policy toward spiders, and how it is the same as my policy toward ballerinas: I am in awe of your natural beauty and flawless instincts, but if you come in my house I will kill you. I have thus far carried out this policy with total ruthlessness, killing each and every spider (and ballerina) that has entered my home, no matter how “small” or “harmless” or “one of God’s creatures” it is. Surely the word would have spread by now. Surely the young spider children were using my apartment in their campfire stories. “Never go into Old Man Snider’s house!” they whisper as they hold their tiny flashlights under their chins. “No one’s ever come out alive!” If I had access to the spider community’s mass media publications — their newspapers, or their (please forgive me) websites — I would have announced my policy to them directly. But since that was impossible, I had to rely on my consistency to convey the message.

Yet at the same time, I kind of liked this particular spider. I’d been very impressed with the cool things he was doing out on his web. The way he chomped down that ant was spectacular. Maybe I could make an exception just this once and shoo him outside rather than squishing him?

No. Seeking to understand your opponent is fine, but not if it makes you slack off in your vigilance. That’s how it is with violent extremist Islam, and that’s how it is with spiders. Besides, as soon as I opened the door, the spider had begun to skitter inside, and I do not react well to skittering. If my own mother had eight legs and skittered the way spiders do, I would stomp her, too. So my spider friend was quickly dispatched, and I grieved for the loss of a friend and a hard-learned lesson.

Then I made the following chart:


Has eight legs. Has two legs.
Has eight eyes (probably). Has four eyes (two artificial).
Immediately pounces on food as soon as it appears. Procrastinates cooking until he gets really, really hungry, then just eats whatever’s handy because he’s too hungry to make anything time-consuming.
Repairs web damage soon after it occurs. Still hasn’t replaced the porch light, which burned out two years ago.
Is not tricked into eating things that are not food. Has been known to eat Marshmallow Peeps, Red Vines, and cotton candy.
Actively seeks better places to live. Mostly just complains about the neighborhood.
Can tell instinctively whether an object being thrown at it is food or not. Must examine and perhaps even taste the item before making a determination.
Primary duty is sitting around all day. Same.

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A cursory glance at some spider sites on the Internet suggest that spiders liquefy their prey's insides and then suck it out. This is because spiders do not have teeth with which to chew their food. But I swear to you, this spider ATE that ant. I was watching him, I turned away for a minute, and when I came back the ant was half gone. I guess it's possible the spider had broken the ant in two and discarded half, but I really think he was eating it, exoskeleton and all. Maybe I should have examined his guts after I gooshed him to see if I could find ant remains.

SnideCast Note: The queen ant has the same voice as the Queen of England, as portrayed in a previous column.

I tried to take a picture of my spider friend. This is not easy to do. Spiders are small compared to other things you normally take pictures of, and their webs are often nearly invisible, particularly against a backdrop of daylight. Nonetheless, here is the photo I got, in which forced perspective makes the spider look to be about a foot in diameter. Please understand that his web was constructed over a different shrub, not the one you see in the background. The one in the background is about 30 feet away. The spider was about an inch in size. I should have put my hand next to him to give you some perspective, but I didn't think about it.

Commenter #31 below has helped me identify the spider in question: Araneus diadematus, or European garden spider. That's what kind my spider friend was, and it's the type I see in abundance in my neighborhood. The Wikipedia entry for this spider says "it is hard to provoke a garden spider to bite," which sounds like a challenge to me. Anyway, now I know what I'm up against.