Have you ever seen a spider web so geometrically precise that it made your mind boggle? Spiders are skilful architects, and many construct webs that are among the most beautiful works of structural perfection in the natural world.
Unless you’re an araneologist, you probably won’t have paid much attention to just how different spider webs can be. When we think of a spider web, most of us will conjure images of the classic ‘orb’ web as shown in the video above: the most symmetrical and the most popularised web, probably due to it’s appealing visual aesthetic. Although this is the type we may notice most when going about our daily lives, spiders actually make many other kinds of web constructs. We all see that missing sector orb web hanging outside the window, but what about the little patch of fluffy looking lace web laying flat against our garden fence or brick wall? Because it doesn’t fit with the shape we’ve been taught spider webs are, most of us will pay it no attention; disregarding it as old and disused, a half started web that’s been abandoned – or maybe even just registering it as strings of dust. To the untrained eye, these other kinds of web can appear deserted, broken, or even like random constructs – and other kinds many of us may never even have spotted before.
Although not a foolproof means of species identification, a web can usually help tell you what family the spider comes from, and in the UK the main types of web can be broadly split into seven categories:
Orb, Hammock, Radial, Lace, Funnel, Purse and Tangle
Let’s take a look at these different kinds of web.
This is the classic spider web everyone is familiar with, and undoubtedly the prettiest. A 2D web shaped like a wheel, the orb web is constructed from radial threads, and supplemented with a spiral. Four UK spider families spin this kind of web: Araneidae, Tetragnathidae, Theridosomatidae and Uloboridae. The first three families coat the silk with a sticky glue to ensnare prey, but the last spins a different kind of silk which acts like Velcro, trapping prey in its woolly strands.
There are different types of orb-weaving spiders. The most common one that most people will have spotted at least once is the garden orb-weaver Araneus diadematus. The females have quite a bulbous abdomen, and the males are slimmer with longer legs – but both have a distinctive pattern. Common in UK gardens, this spider builds its web vertically and they can be as big as 40 cm across in diameter. It takes the garden orb-weaver about 2 hours to build its web! First, it sends out a long line of silk drifting on the breeze, hoping it will catch on something. Then, once it is secured, the spider adds the scaffolding, aka the radial threads, and the spiral. The missing sector orb-weaver Zygiella x-notata builds the same web: except, like the name suggests, it leaves a section free from spirals. In this section a ‘signal thread’ runs down from the web’s hub to the spider’s retreat, where it spends daylight hours. When prey hits the web, this spider is notified via the signal line. This web is often seen outside our windows.
These are dense sheets of horizontal web; you may have seen them in low bushes or grass, often in large numbers – an aracnophobe’s worst nightmare! But they’re nothing to be scared of; though the webs may give you a fright, the spiders that weave them may surprise you. These webs are made by Linyphiidae, a family of tiny spiders – including what people often call ‘money spiders’. This is the largest spider family in the UK, boasting 280 species. The webs are built with a dome sheet, like a hammock, and sometimes supported above and below by threads. The spider hangs about below the sheet, waiting for prey to fall into it.
This type of web is built into and around a central hole or crevice. The inside is lined with silk, and the spider lays a number of ‘trip wires’ or ‘signal threads’ which radiate out from the central hole. The spider uses its hind legs to hold onto the inside of the retreat, and the front ones to touch the radial threads. Only a single UK family build this type of web: Segestriidae, and of which only 3 species live in Britain. Unlike other webs, the radial web does not serve to ensnare prey; instead, a bit like a ‘trap-door spider’, it alerts the hiding arachnid to outside movement – and the eight-legged predator jumps out with impressive speed. One species, Segestria florentina, or ‘tube web spider’, has green iridescent jaws.
These webs are common in gardens, on walls and fences. Three species of lace web spider live in the UK: Amaurobius similis, A. ferox and A. fenestralis. Like the radial web, lace webs are also built around a central tubular retreat. However, the web is sparsely constructed and made from woolly silk – resembling lace. They often colour a blueish-grey, and when the lacy threads detect prey, the spider dashes out quickly.
If you have a fear of spiders, these may give you the creeps. Funnel webs are similar to both lace and radial, in that they too have a central retreat. These webs have large, flat, non-sticky sheets funnelling into a long tubular hole, much denser than the lace web; sometimes, a spider will build just a collar of web instead of a sheet if it decides to live in a hole or crevice. This type of web often lasts longer than the spider who built it, and is refurbished by following generations: if left undisturbed in an unused attic or garage, they can reach considerable size. The infamous house spider builds this kind of web.
Only one species makes this kind of web: Atypus affinis, or ‘purse web spider’. It is the UK’s only tarantula relative. This is the strangest type of web in Britain, and good luck trying to find it: the purse web spider spins a silk tube, which is usually sealed, and partly underground. It’s often camouflaged by soil and debris; when prey walks over the top of the tube, it is seized and dragged inside through a slit made in the wall by the spider.
Lastly, tangle webs are exactly what the name suggests: a messy 3D lattice of silk. Many spiders in the UK build these webs: a well known example being the ‘daddy long legs spider’ Pholcus phalangioides. This spider bounces up and down rapidly if disturbed in its web. These spiders eat not only the usual house pests, but also trap and eat bigger spiders like the common house spider – not a bad roommate to have! Tangled webs occur in and around your house, but also in low vegetation.
There are about 650 species of spider in the UK, from 37 families. But, contrary to popular belief, not all spiders spin webs – only 17 of these families do so in order to catch prey. What’s more, only 12 of the 650 species have been recorded as being able to bite humans, and a mere 3 of these capable of causing anything significant like swelling or localised pain. So, despite our cultural aversion and collective fear of these eight-legged creatures, they really aren’t much of a threat at all. Even though most of us get the jitters at the sight of one scuttling across the floor (or worse, the bed!), once you delve into the world of spiders you’ll discover that beneath our misguided fright is actually a very fascinating creature. Now you know some of the different types of webs our spiders create: why not go ‘web hunting’ in your garden, house or garage to see how many different kinds you can find!