Story and Photographs by Joan Herrmann
Whereiwander… Some of our lesser treasured creatures are spiders, but I have discovered that the more I learn about them the more fascinating they have become, perhaps you will think so too. Spiders may be encounter daily, almost everywhere; in our yard, gardens, woods, wetlands, homes, and workplaces. Incredible as this may seem it is estimated that as many as one million spiders may be found within one acre of land. Our meadow encompasses three and a half acres, so there is a possibility of finding and photographing more than three million spiders. I totally recognize that many of you that read my column or view my Facebook posts have a fear of spiders. I sincerely try to be considerate when posting and realize many people are arachnophobic (fear of spiders) or Ophidiophobic (fear of snakes). I have also learned that the things which I have feared throughout the years have become less fearless when I gain more knowledge about that which I feared. I now truly understand that contempt before investigation can be oppressive and knowledge can mean freedom from fear.
Spiders are truly invaluable predators that feed on hundreds of insects. Movies and books often feature spiders as malevolent creatures. During Halloween webs and spiders are used as decorations meant to frighten us. Tarantulas, black widows, and brown recluses are seen as extremely scary spiders; however, only the brown recluse is found in our area and is seldom encountered. The kinds of spiders we may observe in our area are crab spiders, wolf spiders, jumping spiders, and orb weavers which are all benevolent creatures. The orb weavers are among my personal favorites as they are the creators of the beautiful webs that we may encounter in the early morning covered with “jewels of dew”.
You may remember from science classes that spiders belong to the phylum Arthropods meaning that this group has segmented appendages (separate parts) and a hard outer skeleton. Arthropods include insects that have six legs and spiders which have eight legs. Another difference between insects and spiders is that insects have three body parts; head, thorax, and abdomen while the spiders have only two body parts. The spider’s head and thorax are connected and are called a cephalothorax which is connected to their abdomen. Insects have three pairs of legs and two pairs of wings attached to the thorax. Spiders do not have wings and their four pairs of legs are attached to the cephalothorax. Insects have antennae attached to their heads. Spiders have not antennae but have appendages called pedipalps attached to their head. Also, spiders’ eyes are also extremely different from an insect. Insects commonly have large compound eyes made up of many small lenses, while spiders typically have eight simple eyes. The mouthparts of insects vary from biting and chewing to sucking and piercing. Spiders have fangs found on the jaws (chelicerae) pronounced [cal.lis.er.a] and spiders have poison glands. Insects may have a stinger and/or ovipositors for laying eggs. Spiders have spinnerets and silk glands. The life cycle of insects is either metamorphosis or incomplete metamorphosis. The metamorphosis life cycle is an egg, larvae (or caterpillar), a pupa (chrysalis or cocoon), and adult. Incomplete metamorphosis is an egg, larvae, and nymph. The nymph resembles a miniature adult. Spiders hatch from eggs and begin life as a tiny spider that goes through multiple molts (skin shedding) until it reaches its adult size. Insects can be predators or herbivores feeding on other insects or on plants. All spiders are carnivores, their prey may be varied, but none are plant eaters.
The large jaw-like fangs of spiders are located in front of the mouth and are used to crush their prey or to inject venom which paralyzes the victim before consuming it. The arrangement of the spider’s eyes can be a key to identifying each species. For example, orb weavers have two rows of four eyes. All spiders can spin silk, but not all spiders spin webs. A female spider will be laying eggs this time of year, before the first hard frost. The female will spin a silken “platform” on which she will lay her eggs, then all the eggs and platform will be covered with another tough outer covering. She will attach this egg case to a suitable structure, which may be dried plant material. The egg case will winter over, but the adults will generally die before winter. The species will continue when the tiny spiders within the egg case emerge in the spring.
As previously mentioned many spiders do not spin webs. About half of all spiders either ambush or use traps or snares to capture prey. Water spiders may sit on lily pads or wait at the water’s edge and prey on dragonflies or aquatic insects. Crab spiders camouflage themselves by changing colors; they may be white while sitting on a daisy and turn yellow when sitting on a black-eyed susan. Ground spiders spin webs with a trap door and sit and wait for prey to enter. Jumping spiders sit quietly and wait for prey to approach and then jump upon them. About half of all spiders either ambush or use traps or snares to capture prey the other half spin various types of webs. There are numerous different types of spider webs such as sheet, funnel, cob, and mesh. Spiders of the same species make identical webs. Female spiders spin webs at dawn or dusk and each web takes about an hour to assemble. She may make repairs to the web, as needed during the day. She produces a liquid in her abdomen and secretes it from her spinnerets. The spinneret is located beneath the abdomen and may produce thin or thick sheets of silk. In addition to building a web and enclosing eggs in the case, she will also spin silk to wrap her captured prey.
Charlotte of E. B. Whites beloved story was an orb weaver spider. When beginning a new web the orb-weaver releases a sticky silk thread that is blown with the wind, to stick on a bit of plant material, thus creating a bridge. The spider will tighten it and crosses it on its specially adapted claws. She then reinforces it with one or more strands and proceeds to complete the web. There are numerous species of orb weavers each displaying a different color and markings and all have black and white striped legs. Their hunting techniques are amazing. They hide within plant material near the web, with one or two legs on a strand of the web. Then they wait as a fisherman does with his finger on the line. When she feels motion she rushes out of hiding and wraps the ensnared prey in wide sheets of silk. It reminds me of our wrapping food in plastic wrap.
I hope that this little bit of information may help you to see how important and clever these arachnids are and perhaps find them fascinating too.
As a Professional Nature Photographer, Naturalist, and Outdoor Educator, Joan Herrmann has been teaching and doing programs for Schools, Garden Clubs, Libraries, and Nature Centers, about 38 years. After moving from the Rochester area in 1995 she began her Photography business, Essence of Nature, and also became a co-owner of The Artworks in Old Forge, New York. As a docent at Munson, Williams, Proctor Arts Institute, in Utica, New York she has been educating children and adults, for nineteen years.
In 2007 she began working with the Black River Outdoor Educational Program (BROEP) and in 2013 and 2014 did a week-long summer program at BROEP in conjunction with Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC). Using her love of both nature and photography she created a Flora/Fauna outdoor educational program teaching students (ages 6 to 14) the joys of nature and creative photography skills.
Joan’s love of nature has been a lifelong study of Birds, Wildflowers, Mosses, Ferns, Trees, Amphibians, Reptiles, Grasses, Insects, Spiders, Tracks, Scat, and Galls. She has assisted in the cataloging of all trails used by the hiking Coaches and photographed and identified seasonal Flora.
Since October 2016 she has been writing a bimonthly nature column with Adirondack Express Newspaper. In October of 2019, she began a bi-monthly column with My Little Falls Newspaper. You may reach her at email@example.com