Story and Photographs By Joan Herrmann
Whereiwander… my wandering today is into the woods and meadow within our property; and down to the ponds belonging to our neighbor. Once again this is a nostalgic time of year for me and perhaps all of you too, especially if you are a passionate entomologist (one who studies insects). Yes, some of our insects may and can winter over, but numerous species of insects will not survive the first frost and some will not survive our frigid winters. The structures that they build, using only their tiny body parts (mouth and legs) to assemble, are truly amazing and functional works of art. For example, I love watching a spider build her web and a bald-faced hornet build a hanging paper nest. It is the female of these two species that design and build the web and the paper nest.
Many of the orb-weaver spiders build the stereotypical type of web that we are used to seeing, especially at Halloween time. Their web is extremely beautiful when covered with morning dew. Webs consist of both sticky and non-sticky threads and are made to hunt prey. The silk that spiders produce from their silk glands is attached to spinnerets. Spinnerets are six paired appendages on the end of the spider’s abdomen which act like a spigot to the internal silk glands. The spiders can create webs, swath prey by wrapping it with silk, or create the outer covering of an egg sac with its silk. Spider silk is an extraordinary material. The firmness of the silk is similar to nylon, but it has twice the elasticity. Orb weavers have the ability to recycle the old web silk and reuse it in a new web. Each species of spiders make their own distinctive webs.
Spiders may be encountered almost everywhere; in our yard, gardens, woods, wetlands, homes, and workplaces. It has been documented that an estimated one million spiders may be found within one acre of land. Our meadow consists of three and a half acres, so I have the possibility of finding and photographing more than three million spiders. However, the most I find on an average walk around the meadow, if I am lucky, is about a dozen different species. Spiders are invaluable predators that feed on hundreds of insects. Movies and books often feature spiders as malevolent creatures. At Halloween spiders and their webs are used as scary decorations. Tarantulas, black widows, and brown recluses are seen as extremely frightening spiders, but only the brown recluse may be found in our area and it is seldom encountered, as it prefers dark and desolated hiding spots. The kinds of spiders which we may observe are crab spiders, wolf spiders, tiny jumping spiders, and orb weavers all of which are benevolent creatures.
In Science class, you may have learned 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 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 do not have antennae, but they do have appendages called pedipalps attached to their heads. The spider’s eyes are quite different from insects too. Insects usually have large compound eyes made up of many small lenses, and spiders typically have eight simple eyes. The mouthparts of insects vary from biting and chewing to sucking and piercing. Spiders have fangs on their jaws (chelicerae) pronounced [cal.lis.er.a] and spiders have poison glands. An insect 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, a larvae (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis or cocoon), and adult. Incomplete metamorphosis includes 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 may be predators or herbivores; feeding on other insects or on plants. All spiders are carnivores, their prey may vary, but spiders do not eat plants.
The nests of Paper Wasps are another architectural wonder that may be observed this time of year. The nest can be seen dangling from a branch or twig. Bald-faced Hornets built this type of habitat which is visible in late summer and early autumn. This paper nest is a nursery for the queen, her eggs, larvae, and pupa which become adult “new queens”. It takes hundreds of worker females chewing bits of wood from rotting logs or weathered wood to chew the fibers combined with their saliva to create their nests. Look closely and you can see a multitude of colors which represent a different type of chewed wood. The oval-shaped structure may grow to be two to two and a half feet in length. The inside of the nest is stacked cells into which the present queen lays her eggs and the larvae develop. The female workers care for the larvae which pupate and may be male (drones) or new queen adults. The new queens will leave the nest and mate with the drones. The now fertilized queen will overwinter in leaf litter, rotted logs, or behind the bark of decomposing trees. In the spring the surviving fertilized queen will emerge and begin new colonies. After the first hard frost, the workers and drones will die. The paper nest will not be used again by the bald-faced hornets. However, it may be recycled and used by birds, mice, and other mammals to winterize their habitats.
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