Late in the day, the slant of the sun casts a sidelight on the house. In this magic hour before sunset, a scarcely visible presence is revealed: spider webs by the hundreds shimmering in the golden light, strung among fence posts, draped from window lintels, and adorning the underside of the eaves. The spiders themselves are busy spinning or mending their webs. This angle of sunlight also illuminates clouds of gnats and midges along the shoreline. It is for the abundance of aquatic insects that the spiders prepare their sticky snares. This time of day is often marked by the appearance of a kingbird, a dark gray flycatcher, perched at the apex of the roof gable of the Lighthouse.
On a recent evening, the westing daylight showcased the handiwork of a large brown spider unfurled under the eaves of the shed. The web was neat and symmetrical, strategically positioned at a corner to catch bugs from two directions. Apparently, the kingbird was also eying this particular spider. It swooped down from the top of the house, fluttered at the roof line, plucked the plump spider from its web, and returned to its prominent perch. The bird repeated this maneuver until eating its fill from the smorgasbord of spiders.
As the kingbird has figured out, the lighthouse is prime habitat for spiders. Like most lighthouses, this place provides ideal conditions for arachnids: proximity to water, which is a source of tiny flying insects, and a bright light, which attracts the insects. All an enterprising spider must do for a meal is spin a web and wait.
Spiders are not the first things that come to mind when people think of lighthouses and they receive scant mention in keeper logbooks. Bugs, however, were a common complaint of lighthouse keepers, often because flying insects hampered efforts to keep the lens polished and lantern windows wiped clean. Like a porch light or street lamp, the lighthouse beacon attracts moths, beetles and other bugs —even more so. Insects were a general nuisance, sticking to glass, clogging lamp oil, smoldering around the flame, and littering the floors. Keepers dutifully recorded the chore of cleaning up from swarms of insects, but they neglect to acknowledge spiders.
As often is the case, spiders rarely get credit for all the work they do to around the house to control the population of pesky insects. A single spider eats a couple of thousand insects a year. For the most part, they work quietly and unnoticed by humans, which may account for the lack of mention in keepers’ logs despite the benefit they provided. In their little way, spiders are the unsung helpers of keepers in the struggle to maintain a cleanly burning light.
The most common species of spiders clinging to the exterior of the Lighthouse (and ingested by the resident kingbird) are the nocturnal orb weaving spiders. They are mostly drab brown. One variety has a series of white spots on its abdomen in the shape of a cross. Active at night, they build webs near porch lights or anywhere frequented by night flying insects.
The interior of the Lighthouse also has its share of spiders, and, fortunately, none that are poisonous. On the rare instance that anyone ventures into the basement, they usually reemerge with coating of cobwebs. This nether region has been ceded to its primary denizen, the cellar spider. These dwellers of dark, damp spaces have spindly legs and a long, thin body. They decorate the nooks and crannies with disorganized webs and hang upside down among their loosely spun threads. When disturbed, they gyrate rapidly in their web until they appear as a blur in the dim light of the basement.
In the living quarters can be found jumping spiders, often occupying a windowsill or houseplant. With squat bodies and large eyes, they are the most disarming and personable of spiders. Jumping spiders have excellent vision and will take notice of people in their vicinity. They turn to look at someone approaching, which hints at intelligence. They are active during the day, scrambling and hopping around in search of prey.
The trail to the Lighthouse is occasionally graced with the impressive web architecture of the black and yellow garden spider. One of the largest species of spiders in the area, the garden spider has a brightly colored abdomen and weaves an elaborate web with a distinctive zig-zag zipper pattern at the center. This conspicuous white patch of silk is designed to discourage birds from flying through and wrecking the otherwise invisible web.
Not everyone appreciates spiders. Some people loath them. That’s why it’s worth a reminder every once in a while of their positive traits, especially the part about eating lots of bugs. This bit of knowledge may not cure arachnophobia, but it may help to resist the urge to squash every spider with a shoe or rolled up newspaper.
Patrick Landewe is the Saugerties Lighthousekeeper. His column appears monthly.