Hummingbirds, Spider Silk, and Web of Life Eggs, Part 2

A few weeks ago we published the first installment of Linda’s thoughtful and reflective take on the the connection between spider webs and hummingbirds. This is part two. And in a brief moment of self-promotion, we’d like to remind you that our new book, Hummingbird Plants of the Southwest by Marcy Scott, will be available in a few weeks.

By Linda McKittrick

The full moon is setting in the West early this morning, and  I am lucky enough to be able to see the moon beaming from this desk. As if that weren’t enough beauty, the morning offers the sound of a male dove beginning his mating song. Soon more will join in. As moonbeams make their horizontal way into the yard, the silvery spider webs in the foliage around my door shimmer silvery white.

2 photo 1 Spiders use silk for a variety of reasons: web weaving, cocoon construction, and even in a kind of sperm delivery system. All spiders have silk glands located in their abdomen, which emerge from tiny tubes in their spinnerets, known as spigots. Spiders, while not the only animals to produce silk (caterpillars and weaver ants do, too), produce the strongest silk, often compared to the strength of steel. It also has a remarkable capacity to expand. One example of this is referred to as “capture spiral silk,” used in web construction, allowing for prey to impact or collide with the web with minimal breakage. Spider webbing is also relatively weatherproof, meaning that it has an ability to endure, sometime past the life span of its weaver. This web longevity may be tied to its purported antimicrobial/antiseptic properties.

Female hummingbirds use spider silk to build secure, strong, and flexible nests. I am going to share with you a few photos of the young hummers growing; the nest accommodates all that Spring and young birds challenge it with. I am reverberating with the “Ah Hah” of how much of their success in fledging was due to the superior spider-silk building material that their mother used to build a strong, flexible nest. They rode out significant winds, their little nest bobbing like a tiny boat in a stormy sea, because the nest was securely anchored to base of branches with spider web. The rapid growth of the two babies was easily accommodated as well, as the spider web allowed it to expand in size without breaking apart as the babies grew. Much of the success of these little birds’ hatching, growing, and fledging rested, literally, on spider silk.

The first and second eggs were laid a day apart.

2 photo 3 The first and second eggs were laid a day apart.

They then hatched a day apart.

2 photo 5 They then hatched a day apart.

What a difference a day makes when it comes to beak size.

What a difference a day makes when it comes to beak size.

When it came time for fledging, they flew off one day apart, as well. I was lucky enough to see this; they flew like “professionals” right off the rim of the nest!

2 photo 10 When it came time for fledging, they flew off one day apart, as well. I was lucky enough to see this; they flew like professionals right off the rim of the nest!

I read this week that Little Miss Muffet (the girl scared away from her tuffet by a spider, scattering curds and whey; too bad, as they are so nutritious) had a father who revered spiders. The Australian Museum website has a nice little piece on this should you want to find out more. It was from this source that I learned Reverend Dr. Thomas Mouffet (1553-1606) had a deep love of spiders. He wrote of the common house spider that “she doth beautifie with her tapestry and hangings.” More interestingly, it appears that he liked to treat ailments with the use of spiders. The museum quotes him as writing, “The running of eyes is stopped with the dung and urine of a House Spider dropt with Oyl of Roses, or laid in along with Wooll.”

Back to modern day: Scientists are exploring what spider silk may have to offer in terms of ligament healing in the human body. Also interesting, the antimicrobial/antiseptic properties of spider silk that humans have long reported using to bandage and heal wounds are being explored in scientific labs. This moves the conversation forward from anecdotal observation to preliminary results of effectiveness in the lab.

I love a good opportunity to come to terms with Life on Life’s terms. The so-often-feared spider, who frightens so many Miss Muffets in the world, has so very much to offer. The spider contributes to new generations of pollinators, such as hummingbirds. Yes, it is true that some spider bites do real harm. I know this first hand; a black widow bite is painful and in some can be dangerous. Yet its silk may have significant healing properties and scientific utility, offering varied gifts to humans.

Which brings me to the concept of the Web of Life, which is an all-encompassing view of life where all of nature, including humans, is seen as linked to all things, as if we were all connected by an enormous, invisible, yet dynamic web. Inspired by this idea, I thought we would revisit a recipe from the past and give it a new twist.

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Web of Life Tea Eggs

Chinese Tea Eggs are often described as marbled. In the spirit of today’s theme, let’s playfully reinterpret them as having a spiderweb pattern. I like the recipe so much that I made a fresh batch and photographed all the steps, so you will have real success! These tea eggs are a portable, aromatic, healthy, flavorful and beautiful savory snack. They can be eaten just as they are or can be used as a jumping off point for great deviled eggs or a flavorful egg salad.

8-10 eggs
3 tablespoons of tea or three tea bags (see note below)
3 tablespoons Chinese Five Spice powder

Boil the eggs just like you do normally. Just the eggs and hot/boiling water.

When the eggs are hard boiled, let them cool a bit for handling and then crack them, creating the beautiful web pattern. You can smash one side of an egg against the kitchen counter, and then play around with cracking them with your fingers and hands for finer details. These cracks allow the flavor and color into the egg white.

Mix up a bath of the tea and spices.

Place the cracked hard boiled eggs into the tea bath and simmer over low heat for as long as you would like – I simmered mine for more than an hour. Then I covered the pot and let them steep in the tea bath for several hours.

NOTE: Black tea is most often used in Chinese tea egg recipes, but any tea will do really, and it is fun to experiment. In the several years I have been making them, I have used mostly loose leaf tea, but this time I used some very old tea bags that I found in the back of a drawer. I did not give their flavor a second thought; but you could if you would like. Try green or oolong tea.

2 photo 13 2 photo 14 2 photo 15  2 photo 12

Linda is both an urban and a rural food producer. She ranches in the Sierra Madre foothills in Northern Mexico. She also keeps honeybees and fosters native bee habitat in the urban Southwest. She enjoys raising poultry, with a special fondness for heirloom breeds. She sees herself as an extension of the hives, flocks, and herds among which she lives. A version of this post originally appeared on her blog, Savor the Southwest.

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