Charlotte's Web:
A Look at Springtime Spiders

The all-time favorite CHARLOTTE'S WEB ends in the springtime, as tiny spiderlings emerge from Charlotte's egg case. The gray orb spider called her egg sac her magnum opus, Latin for "great work." Charlotte told her friend Wilbur the pig that the egg sac held 514 eggs and would hatch in the spring. Her friend Wilbur the pig patiently waited, and this was his reward:

One fine morning, a tiny spider crawled from the sac. Then another, and another. They were no bigger than the head of a pin. For several days and nights young spiders crawled here and there, up and down, around and about, waving at Wilbur, trailing tiny draglines behind them and exploring their home. There were dozens and dozens of them. Wilbur couldn't count them, but he knew that he had a great many new friends. They grew quite rapidly. Soon each was as big as a BB shot. They made tiny webs next to the sac.

Wilbur was surprised and amazed when they hatched out, and even more surprised and amazed a few days later when they did something he'd never imagined they would do. One spring day, a warm draft of rising air blew softly through the barn cellar. The baby spiders felt the warm updraft and one of Charlotte's children climbed to the top of the fence. Wilbur was surprised to see the baby spider stand on its head and point its spinnerets in the air. The spider let loose a cloud of fine silk that formed a balloon. Wilbur was frantic when he saw the spider let go of the fence, float into the air, and sail through the door with a "good-bye." At last one little spider took time enough to stop and talk to Wilbur before making its balloon. It was time for the baby spiders to set forth as aeronauts. They were going into the world on a warm updraft to make webs for themselves. The air was soon filled with tiny balloons, each balloon carrying a spider. That's our summary, but you'll enjoy reading the whole chapter. You'll find the ballooning spiders in Chapter XXII: A Warm Wind.

Floating on a Spring Breeze
CHARLOTTE'S WEB is fiction, but baby spiders really do balloon through the air, and they do it most in spring! Most baby spiders hatch when the weather gets warm, but a few hatch from their eggs during fall or winter. It's hard to notice that they've hatched, though, because they stay quietly inside the egg sac until spring. The first thing most kinds of spiderlings do after emerging from the egg sac is to spin a dragline and balloon away!

Baby spiders have no wings, but can fly as high as the highest-flying insects and birds! In fact, ballooning spiders often hit airplane windshields. How can a spider, with no wings, possibly get this high in the air? How can baby spiders with no ability to fly on their own power get as high in the air as flying airplanes? You'll find out:

Spin Cycle

Spider Spinnerets
Dennis Kunkel Microscopy

Wilbur was surprised to see the baby spider stand on its head and point its spinnerets in the air. Spinnerets are organs that look like short fingers attached to the rear of a spider's abdomen. Most spiders have six spinnerets, but some have four or two. The spinneret's tip is called the spinning field. Each spinning field is covered by up to a hundred spinning tubes. Liquid silk flows out of these tubes to the finger-like parts of the spinneret. As the silk dries, the spinnerets weave the thin silk strands together into thin or thick threads, or even wide bands. This is called spinning. Spiders can control the spinnerets to make thick or thin strands of silk. And different kinds of spiders may spin different colors of silk. Most orb weavers use colored silk for their egg cases.

Spider silk is super strong; it's the strongest natural fiber known. Made of protein, it is produced in the spider's silk glands. Most species of spiders have five different kinds of glands, but seven different kinds have been discovered. Each type of spider silk gland produces a different kind of silk. Some make a liquid silk that dries outside the body. Others make sticky liquid silk that stays liquid and coats a dry thread of silk. Sometimes spiders produce a special silk that looks like a beaded necklace. They do this by pulling out a dry silk thread and coating it with wet, sticky silk. Then they let go of the silk with a snap. The jolt separates the liquid silk into a series of tiny balls of sticky silk. This kind of spider silk is especially useful for trapping jumping or flying insects.

More About Spiders
Charlotte and her babies were orb weavers. It's easy to spot an orb weaver's web. Just look for a wheel of silk. The pattern in each web may be slightly different, but most of the webs are round. Orb means circle, and the round webs explain how these weavers got their name. Orb spiders weave beautiful, complicated webs, but they're all built to do the same thing: to trap flies, butterflies, grasshoppers, beetles, and other food. But even with eight eyes, orb weavers can't see very well. They make up for their blurry eyesight in another way. Find out more about orb weavers and their wonderful webs here:

Webs aren't the only way spiders trap food. Hunting spiders don't build webs at all. Why do you suppose spiders that use webs to catch food have poorer vision than spiders who get their food in other ways? Read more here:

Bug Soup
Spiders use their webs to catch their prey, but they can't eat anything until it stops struggling. And spiders don't have strong mouthparts. They can swallow only liquids. A spider's mouthparts form a drinking straw that helps it swallow its food, but the problem is turning an insect's body into soup! Many spiders do this by "predigesting" their food. That is, they spit out stomach juices on the insect's tissues. The strong stomach acids not only do the killing, but they actually dissolve the insect. A large tarantula can liquefy and suck out a mouse, leaving nothing but a little pile of fur and bones, in 36 hours flat!

Try This! Journaling Questions

  • Get a copy of CHARLOTTE'S WEB and read Chapter XXII: A Warm Wind. Write down all the questions you can think of. What reliable sources can you look to or finding the answers? Go for it!
  • Why is it important for spiderlings to drift away from the place their mother chose so quickly after leaving the egg sac?
  • Why do you think spider silk is so very strong?
  • Experts have long known that tiny insects and spiders drift through the sky in the same way that plankton drifts in an ocean. Why would there be more insects and spiders floating in the air during daytime than at night? Find out more, and learn how to observe ballooning spiders and other aerial plankton here: