EVER EATEN A spider? The golden orb-weaving spider (Nephila edulis) has a plump abdomen that, after baking, tastes remarkably like pâté. Many years ago I fed one to a journalist on A Current Affair. She was very reluctant to chew it but agreed about the taste.
The scientific name of this spider celebrates its culinary merits. French naturalist Jacques Labillardiere bestowed the name in 1799 after seeing the spiders roasted and eaten in New Caledonia. Other species of Nephila are eaten in Thailand, served raw as well as cooked, as well as in New Guinea, where they're fire-roasted. About the size of small olives, the abdomens are a substantial titbit.
Besides tasting good, golden orb-weavers have useful silk. If you have ever blundered into one of the golden webs you will know how strong they are. Small birds and bats are sometimes snared, and in New Guinea and Vanuatu the strands have been wound together to serve as ready-made fishing line. The silk is superior to most synthetic high-performance fibres, with high tensile strength and elasticity.
Because much of the interest in spider silk has come from Japan, the Jorō Spider (Nephila clavata), native to eastern Asia, is the main species used in research. (Photo credit: Micha L. Rieser/Wikimedia.org)
Interest in the silk runs so high that many academic papers about Nephila have appeared in recent years. There are high hopes for bulletproof vests, as well as violin strings, tennis rackets, nets, textiles and surgical products. In Madagascar, over an eight year period, enough silk was harvested from golden orb-weavers (more than a million) to create a remarkable golden cape, displayed in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. During a harvest session, each Madagascan spider produced 40 metres of silk.
Golden orb-weaving spiders match sheep by having useful fibre as well as tasty meat, but we shouldn’t expect to see spider farms bringing new life to rural communities. With much less silk in a web than a silkworm cocoon, their yields are low, and so is their tolerance for each other. This means they can’t be farmed, so researchers have been trying to synthesise spider web proteins, or alternatively, to genetically engineer an animal, plant or fungus to produce spider silk. Decades of study have yet to enable industrial production but those golden threads are so alluring that the necessary breakthroughs will probably be made, perhaps soon.
Tim Low is the author of the award-winning book Where Song Began. Follow him on Twitter @TimLow5.