October is a great time to observe spiders and their webs. Some of the best spider activity happens now, before the cold weather arrives. This lesson is suitable for PreK and K students, addressing many science standards; but adults should find it interesting, too. See the end of the article for science standards. Plus, spooky spider webs are part of Halloween lore.
Spiders are not the only insects to make silk (what other ones can you think of?) but they are the only insects that use silk to capture prey. Some spiders capture prey without proper webs, but this lesson is geared toward web-building spiders.
Spiders spin silk from a spinneret on their backside. A spinneret can make many types of silk ranging from strong foundation lines to elastic drop lines to sticky bug-catching threads. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spinneret
An orb web contains all these types of silk and is probably the most beautiful web. Here are the steps used in making this web. A teacher should draw these steps on a white board.
- A spider atop a twig tosses a line into the wind, again and again if necessary, till it snags another suitable twig. (for an interesting folk tale regarding this, see https://anasebrahem.wordpress.com/2013/11/15/robert-the-bruce-and-the-spider-inspiring-story-never-give-up/ This is the first foundation line.
- The spider walks across the foundation line, spinning a second thread.
- She comes back to the middle of that thread and drops to the ground, taking it with her and anchoring it so there is a Y-shape.
- The spider constructs a series of additional foundation lines and then radii from a central point. None of these are sticky silk.
- Finally, the spider spins sticky silk around and crossing the radii. Here is a picture that might be helpful: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Orb-web_building_steps-01.svg If you stare at this picture long enough, you will begin to wonder about the missing steps. “Wait, ” you will say. “How exactly did the spider get from steps 4, 5, and 6? I don’t get it.” You are not alone. For a scholarly article see: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/256375822_Early_stages_of_orb_web_construction_in_Araneus_diadematus_Clerck
Now, read the delightful book A Very Busy Spider by Eric Carle. Pay attention to each step of the web-building process as the plot unwinds.
Activity #1: Make your own drag line. Cut a length of cotton string about 3 feet long and tie it through the loop in a safety pin. Pin the drag line to the back of your clothing at the waist line and drop it over your shoulder to keep it from tangling if you are with other student spiderlings. Tip for very young children: have them do it in steps: 1) extend string out on floor. 2) Pick up one end and put it through the small loop, keeping the string on the floor. 3) Have them cross one end of the string over, to make a loose loop. 4) Children or teacher finish the knot, or children help each other.
Activity #2: Ballooning with the drag line. If there is a group of children, have them gather close together in a ball. Imagine they are about to be hatched from a silken egg sac created by their mother, all crowded together. They chew their way through the silk. Their immediate task is to get away safely from the other spiderlings which might be tempted to eat them. So they fling themselves into the air, dragging their line behind them. It sails out through the wind, carrying them far away to a landing spot. Children love running and throwing their drag line behind them. Author’s note: October 2019 I was kayaking on the Rogue River, Oregon, when we were surrounded by diaphanous silk from hundreds of ballooning spiderlings carried by the wind. It was glorious!
Activity #3: Using a drop line. Some spiders use this method to escape predators. Pretend you are a spider gripping the center of your orb web. You are attached to the web with a springy drop line. If a predator (say, a bird) comes near, you let go your perch and drop to the vegetation surrounding your web where you will be hidden until the predator leaves in frustration. Then you give a small yank to your elastic thread and it bounces you back into your web. Children love doing this, especially if the teacher acts like a bird ready to catch them.
Activity #4: Go on a web walk. Before doing this, look at pictures of various types of webs spiders build. They aren’t all orbs. Some are triangle webs, tangle webs, funnel webs, sheet webs. Each one has its advantages based on location and type of prey. Look at shrubbery, around windows, under eaves and tables, near outside lighting. What types of webs do you see? Why are they built in that special location? http://ffden-2.phys.uaf.edu/webproj/212_spring_2019/Rose_Peters/rose_peters/spiderwebs.html
Activity #5: Capture a spider web to keep. This is a good activity for older children and adults. It requires patience and the willingness to try multiple times (see the folk tale about Robert the Bruce, above, about patience!). Sprinkle baby powder lightly on all parts of the web. Visually inspect the web carefully to find the foundation lines of the web. These are strong and your actions must break these lines without destroying the web while capturing it. Hold a stiff piece of black paper, larger than the web, close to the web. Position it carefully, then push the black paper firmly and quickly against the web, snapping the foundation lines while you do so. If you are successful, a beautiful web will be stuck against the paper, highlighted by the powder. You can store these webs between two sheets of photo protection, as from a scrapbook. Note: Try to take a web without a spider. Orb webs are often abandoned by spiders when they try a new location. Orb builders can build a new web in approximately an hour and collecting a web will not change their ability to do so.
Activity #6: Draw and write. Draw one of the spider webs you observed, with its surroundings. Include the prey that might be captured and the spider if you saw it. If you can’t go on a web walk, use what you learned from this lesson to draw a picture. Label the spider, the type of web, where you found it, and the prey. Date the picture. By dating your drawings, you will become more aware of when to look for spider webs.
California Science Standards Addressed (PreK and K):
K-LS1 Use observations to describe patterns of what plants and animals need to survive.
K-LS1-1 Use observations to describe patterns in the natural world to answer scientific questions.
K-LS1-1 All animals need food in order to live and grow. They obtain their food from plants or from other animals.
K-LS1-1 Scientists look for patterns and order when making observations about the world.
K-ESS2-2 Construct an argument supported by evidence for how plants and animals (including humans) can change the environment to meet their needs.
K-ESS2-2 Use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose informative/explanatory texts in which they name what they are writing about and supply some information about the topic.