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Along Came a Spider

By Heather Shirley I May 03, 2022

Spider climbing a web

For many people, spiders inspire more fear and loathing than any other creature, even more than snakes. Maybe it’s something about all those legs, their venom and their abundance both in nature and our homes.

For whatever reason, I am not afraid of spiders. When I lived in Switzerland, where there is no such thing as either air conditioning or window screens (inexplicably illogical since windows are left open to catch any hint of cooling breezes and thus invite bugs to enter as well), I welcomed spiders to my apartment. I was happy to trade living with their webs in exchange for their capture of various flying insects and mosquitoes.

Living lakefront, however, is a whole other ballgame when it comes to spider population density. Especially now, at the height of summer, remembering the pest-removal benefits of spiders is challenging and clearing abandoned spiderwebs from boathouses, balconies and ceiling corners seems like a losing battle.

There are more than 48,000 spider species in the world, with more being identified all the time. They occur on every continent— except Antarctica—across a wide spectrum of ecosystems.

I love the name of one beach-dwelling species, the Bob Marley spider. Found recently in Australia, this spider lives in the zone between low and high tides and was cleverly named for Marley’s song “High Tide or Low Tide.” Don’t you think the reggae star would have quite fancied having a spider named after him?

Another incredible species is the diving bell spider, which lives its entire life underwater. It’s found in fresh water across Europe and northern Asia. This spider spins an air chamber apparatus much like a diving bell that allows it to maintain a supply of oxygen. The spider only leaves the water to occasionally seize prey or to refill its oxygen supply.

Closer to home, the golden garden spider is a familiar backyard resident. These spiders spin impressive orb webs that trap insects. The large female is most often seen hanging behind the web. Web designs may include a white zig-zag pattern in the center. This is called the stabilimentum, and its purpose is unclear. It may attract insect prey by reflecting UV light and/or it may warn birds to avoid flying through the web and destroying it. It generally takes a spider a full day to weave a web, so reconstruction takes significant energy. Spiders may be the elder statesmen of conservationists since many recycle their webs, eating the silk to reabsorb the proteins needed to produce it.

The silk spiders spin and the webs they weave with it are true marvels. When something comes in contact with its web, a spider relies on specialized organs that enable it to feel even the tiniest of vibrations. The spider “reads” these to learn details such as whether it’s another spider approaching to mate—and whether that spider is a good mating prospect. The spider also reads not only whether it’s prey in the web, but what kind of prey.

Depending on its species, a spider may have as many as seven silk glands, each producing a different kind of silk. One kind of silk is used to wrap and immobilize prey, another kind is sticky, another is stretchy, one is used to construct egg sacs, still another makes the “elevators” a spider uses to move along its web.

For an even more fascinating spin on silk (get it?!), Google “BioSteel” to read about how transgenic goats are producing silk that is 10 times as strong as steel, stretchy and resistant to extreme temperatures. The special silk is harvested by milking the goats. Amazing, fascinating and kind of horrifying!

Karen Fucito, our fearless editor, was “lucky” enough to see a wolf spider near her home. She told me the body was the size of a golf ball! Can you imagine?

Wolf spiders are named both for their grayish-brown hairy bodies and for their hunting style. Instead of spinning webs and waiting to trap prey, wolf spiders use their excellent vision to actively hunt. They are quick runners, pursuing their prey and pouncing on it, then injecting it with venom. Their bites can be painful to humans, reportedly feeling like itchy bee stings, but they’re not dangerous.

In New Jersey, the only dangerous spider is the black widow, and although a bite from a black widow is supposed to be excruciatingly painful, no deaths have been attributed to the species.

This summer, as you swat yet again at old webs, try and get over your arachnophobia and appreciate the diversity and remarkable habits of spiders and their relatives. At a minimum, if you can’t quite make up your mind to appreciate the spiders around the area for their bug-reducing benefit, at least admire their role in the circle of life.

In nesting season, many birds, including hummingbirds, use spiderwebs to construct their nests. In the fall, migrating birds in need of protein to fuel their journeys will pluck spiders right out of their webs. Maybe when you’re cleaning, you’ll decide to leave one or two spiders alone, to rid your garden of some pests and to leave a few for the birds.

A furrow spider, common in the Northern Hemisphere.


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