It’s hard to take a walk in midsummer or fall without being aware of the presence of spiders. Although they become active in the spring, it is now, when they and their webs have reached their full size, that we really start to notice them. So if you are not overcome by arachnophobia, now is the time to appreciate how diverse spiders are, and how exquisitely adapted they are to an amazing array of habitats and microhabitats.
To begin with, it’s perfectly safe to observe most spiders at close range. Although all spiders are venomous, and need to be to subdue their insect prey, few are capable of biting humans, and only two — the black widow and brown recluse — pose any hazard to us. Both of these species are primarily southern in their ranges, and are still relatively uncommon in the Hudson valley (though, thanks to climate change, their numbers may well be increasing in our area). The brown recluse is well named, for it usually hides among woodland debris.
All spiders produce silk, but not all weave webs to capture prey. Crab spiders rely on camouflage, waiting for insects to land on the flowers of Queen Anne’s lace, yarrow, black-eyed Susan, or goldenrod. Crab spiders are shaped a bit like miniature crabs, and match the colors of the flowers they rest upon. They even have the ability to change color if moved to a different flower. Fishing spiders are quite large, and hunt along the edges of ponds or streams for aquatic insects or even small tadpoles or fish, which they can pull up out of the water. Wolf spiders, also large, run down their insect prey on the forest floor. Both have good vision, and the females of both kinds carry large silken egg sacs around with them. The fishing spider builds a “nursery web” in the top of a plant for her hatchlings, while the wolf spider carries them on her abdomen for a week or two in late summer. One may also find the smaller, short-legged jumping spiders on meadow flowers. They have the best vision of any spider. Two of the jumping spider’s eight eyes are large and owl-like, and it can use these to focus on the movements of an insect (or a person). Using this binocular vision to accurately judge distance, a jumping spider can approach its prey slowly, like a cat, and then pounce on it in one leap from almost a foot away! If the spider should miss, it is supported in mid air by a silk thread attached to its perch before jumping.
Orb weavers are best known and appreciated for the beauty and symmetry of their webs, strung between trees on a woodland path, or among tall plants in a meadow or garden, depending on the species. Orb webs are most easily spotted if they are between you and the sun. The spiny orb weavers have strange spiky shapes like fancy gourds or conch shells. They bridge large gaps between trees by pointing their abdomens into the air and loosing sticky strands of silk (with a tensile strength greater than steel cable) to the breeze till one catches on a tree trunk or branch. The largest and most impressive of the orb weavers, the black-and-yellow Argiope, hangs head downward in the center of its web, and swiftly “mummifies” its victims by wrapping them in silk. The characteristic zigzag pattern woven in the web may help keep birds from flying into it, and has also been found to look like a large flower when seen in ultraviolet light, which is how flying insects see it.
Sheet web spiders, whose webs have names like “filmy dome” or “bowl and doily,” add much to the beauty of a morning meadow. Drops of dew act like tiny prisms in these webs, glinting in the sunlight like gold, green, or red jewels. The little spider hangs poised beneath its web, protected from predators by a tangle of strands above it, and waits to seize and bite small insects that land in it.
Less showy than the orb or sheet web weavers are the funnel web spiders, whose webs in fields or open woodlands have broad aprons, with a funnel at one end where the brown spider hides, waiting for the slight vibration of a small insect’s landing. Since I am of the interactive school of nature study, I enjoy teasing the spider out of her web by touching it lightly with a fine plant stem. If I have just the right touch, and jiggle the web slightly, but not too much, I am rewarded by the appearance of the spider at the door of her funnel. Sometimes she even rushes out to bite the end of the stem, but then quickly withdraws, seeing she has been deceived, and runs back into her chamber, muttering to herself I imagine, if a spider could mutter.
Richard Parisio is a lifelong naturalist, educator and writer. He currently leads field trips for school classes at Mohonk Preserve, teaches courses about John Burroughs and conducts tours of Slabsides and the John Burroughs Sanctuary for groups and individuals by request. Rich is New York State coordinator for River of Words, a national poetry and art program on the theme of watersheds, and teaches River of Words programs for school classes, grades K-12, by request. Contact Rich (firstname.lastname@example.org) with questions, comments, or suggestions for Nature at Your Doorstep.