Harnessing the power of spiders to bomb Nazis

This is an unusual story: in WWII, the US government needed the finest, strongest strands of silk for bombsights, so they turned to the Spider Lady, Nan Songer. She was commissioned to extract the silk from spiders and pass it on.

Songer began experimenting with black widows (genus Latrodectus), which produce a silk dragline composed of six strands to stabilize themselves in midair and control their landings. By separating this thread into individual strands with a needle, she achieved the width that the military needed. “The strands were virtually invisible to the naked eye,” Sahara Quinn, a historian and vice president of the Yucaipa Historical Society, tells The Scientist. Yet they carried illumination better than silk from other species, helping the crosshairs stand out against a background.

Through her experiments, Songer also devised a novel technique for extracting silk in greater quantities. She carefully pinned living spiders belly up and then used a hairlike yucca strip to stroke their abdomens until they produced strands, which she collected with a small hook. Using this “silking” technique, Songer was able to harvest reams of silk that she wrapped around frames for transport. The US government quickly became her biggest client; its couriers traveled to Yucaipa with empty briefcases handcuffed to their wrists to prevent theft.

I am impressed. I’ve extracted long silk lines from spiders unintentionally — that part is easy — but then separating them into single strands? I didn’t even know there were 6 strands in a line of silk!

Unfortunately, the process has been replaced with synthetic fibers. Too bad. Retiring to a spider croft where I spend my last days spinning artisan silk was sounding attractive.

Also, the Nazis are all gone now, right?


  1. weylguy says

    The critters’ contribution to the war effort notwithstanding, small consolation for me, who was once bitten by a black widow with unpleasant consequences.

  2. ospalh says

    I recently came across an apparently well researched Youtube video that said that the WW-II bombsights, especially the Norden, where widely over-hyped. Nice propaganda, not more.
    So, nice story, but them being super-accurate because of the super-fine hairs/bits of silk, meh. They could not hit a pickle barrel. And for some 120 m accuracy, closer to the truth, simpler cross hairs would probably hav been fine.
    (I can’t post a link now. Maybe later.)

  3. Oggie: Mathom says


    Not only that, but the USAAF was absolutely paranoid that our enemies would find out about the Norden bombsight (which was also an autopilot allowing the bombardier to control the airplane via the bombsight aim-point). The bombardiers were indoctrinated with the idea that it was worth dying to destroy the bombsight in the event of a plane going down. Of course, the Germans knew about the Norden bombsight from about 1940 and decided that, for what they did, the Luftwaffe didn’t really need it. So many ‘super-secrets’ really weren’t.

    I knew that spider silk was used, and I even knew that Black Widow silk was preferred. I didn’t know that it carried illumination so well.

    If you aren’t careful, you learn something new every day. I wasn’t careful.

  4. ospalh says

    So: the link

    (I thought it was Greg of Greg’s Airplanes and Automobiles, but this seems solidly researched, too.)

  5. StevoR says

    PZ Myers : “Also, the Nazis are all gone now, right?”

    Its now that distant year of the far off future 2022. Of course, there are no nazis, I mean , how could we NOT have learnt from history – the 1930’s and WW II and .. Oh wait.


    It still baffles me. We know where that shit leads but still it keeps coming back with people being just .. known evil , known failure.. Yeah.

    For fucks sake.

  6. mordred says

    At least here in Germany it was officially decided that there are no more Nazis shortly after the war. In fact there never had been an Nazis at all! Honestly!

  7. silvrhalide says

    @7 That’s because they all vanished, along with all the Hitlers in the phone book, right after the war ended. :P