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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

True garden friends

At this time of year, spiders seem to be everywhere. I spotted a fully formed orb web on a kitchen window screen one late afternoon when the sun’s angle was right. 

Not my photo, but this is  the kind of web I saw

As I walk through the garden, I brush through invisible strands of web stretched between bushes. Late one night I turned on a light and encountered a spider in the bathroom sink. She quickly retreated to the overflow hole, from which she had apparently ventured out in the dark, perhaps looking for insects attracted to water.

A spider hunting in the sink

         I once read that we’re never more than 3 feet from a spider. The point made by the writer was that we don’t notice these close companions in our houses and yards because they don’t bother us, just silently pursue their own aims. Since reading that, I’ve tried not to over-react when I see a spider on the wall. For gardeners, spiders are allies because they eat lots of insects.

A spider eats about 2,000 insects per year

         Attempting to validate the 3-foot rule this week, I was chagrined to learn that it’s a fallacy. It turns out that how far you are from a spider depends on where you are, which is hardly surprising. And despite my perception, there aren’t more spiders around at the end of the summer. In fact, this is a hard time for spiders because of dry weather. Perhaps what I’m noticing is that spiders in the garden are on the make, looking to hook up and reproduce.

     I admit that the spider I know best is Charlotte of Charlotte’s Web, described by E. B. White as “a true friend and a good writer.”

Charlotte A. Cavatica is an orb-weaving barn spider whom White named for her species' scientific binomial, Araneus cavaticus.
     At the end of the summer, after making her egg sac, Charlotte tells her friend and protégé Wilbur the pig that she will die. White drew a veil over Charlotte’s romantic life, but otherwise this seems to be completely accurate. At this time of year spiders find mates, and the females lay eggs in egg sacs made of silk. 

     I often find the sacs stuck under the rims of flower pots. I learned that eggs of temperate zone spiders, such as Charlotte and presumably the spiders in my yard, can stay safe inside the egg sac through the winter. The offspring hatch in spring, as Charlotte’s babies do.

Hatched spiderlings ready to disperse on their silk parachutes

     This small foray reveals how much more cool stuff there is to learn about New England’s dozens of resident spider species. Poking around on the Web (fittingly), I learned that those single strands I feel on my arms as I walk near shrubs could be lines of silk that allow a spider to take cover while monitoring any vibrations from her web. Spiders are predators but also prey.

     And that spider in the sink wasn’t an outdoor spider who found her way into the house. Apparently indoors is a much more challenging spider environment because of scarcity of food. Only specialized species can live in this difficult environment.  Just as well.

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