We all know that climate change is bad and that this week’s unprecedented heat wave in the Pacific Northwest was alarming. I knew it was bad for people and animals, but I never stopped to consider the insects. Few people pay attention to these unsung heroes of our ecosystem, me included, but they are just as vulnerable as every other living organism.
I’ve always been a terrible Arachnophobe, but for the past few weeks I’ve enjoyed watching the fat little Orb Weavers who had woven their webs outside our windows. One in particular chose the window right by my desk, and I became fascinated watching the daily routine. Like clockwork, at sundown my little friend would make way to the centre of the web. Sometimes I’d get a front row seat to the life and death battle between my spider and the prey. Twice that battle waged for a good half hour when the prey was a rather large flying beetle, but always my friend would prevail.
After each big meal, I’d notice in the morning that the web was brand new and larger than it had been when I went to bed. I guess more food means more energy to build, because all the spider webs around the windows and the yard seemed to keep getting larger. It was impressive to see how big they could build them!
When masses of downy fluff from dandelions filled the air and coated the webs, all the spiders would faithfully take them down and build anew. And so, I felt confident I had a contingent of healthy spiders and that I’d be enjoying my little companions through the fall.
It never occurred to me to check and see how spiders cope with extreme heat. I assumed, like most things in nature, that they would just adapt and come through it like we did. Of course, we had a nice cool basement retreat—my spider friends did not. And so, after four days of record-breaking scorching temperatures, when I went back to my desk and resumed my routine, I waited for my friend to do the same. It never happened, and when I checked all the other webs I’d enjoyed watching, they too were empty. There is nothing now but tangles of dusty and broken strands hanging abandoned, where translucent, geometric precision had once stood proud.
I’d like to think they moved on to escape the heat, but all of them disappearing at the same time makes that unlikely. If anyone had told me that one day I’d be mourning the absence of common garden spiders, I’d have thought them crazy. Yet, despite years of fearing these eight-legged creatures, I’ve come to appreciate their amazing abilities and their important place in the world. The loss of my spider friend who’d entertained me for hours while I typed away at my desk made me sad, because it drove home the reality of the cascading effects of climate change. Humans excel at adaptation, and we have technology to help us survive these new environmental extremes. My spider friends made me realize that all the other species we share this planet with, are not going to be so lucky.