Sunday, October 31, 2010

Spider Costumes

One thing I'm learning: Spiders really know how to hide. Their costumes are much more subtle than the average Halloween attire.

These are the only spiders that regularly flaunt themselves in plain sight.  Most are a lot more subtle.

Take Dark Legs (a female zygiella x-notata). Can you see her up there? She has her legs resting on her "doorbell," a line of thread leading to the center of her web, but she herself gets to stay out of site.

How is that? Just a bunch of twigs, right? No spider at all.

That better? All that's really visible is the legs, just so long as you know where to look.

And here is Little Brown, an Araneus montereyensis, during the day, perched by the side of a twig, pretending to be a bit of bark or a drift of debris.

See? There she is!

Even larger spiders, like the Neoscona, can be hard to find. Just a lump in the brick:

Isn't it?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Funnel Web Spider in Flowers

I'm getting very fond of the funnel webs. They are easy to spot and quite willing to pose for photographs. Also, they have lovely stripes and beautiful gold and brown coloring.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The World of The Spider by Adrienne Mason

The World of the spider is a large book with plenty of space for photographs, and there are some lovely photographs, and Mason's text is brisk, informative, and to the point.

And... having said that, I'm stuck for anything else to say, even shortly after finishing it. It's a nice, informative book, but there's little to make it stand out one way or the other in a world full of nice, informative books.  It's got good photographs, but not the stunningly memorable ones found in, say, Nic Bishop's Spiders.  Flipping through it now, only Dwight Kuhn's picture of a jumping spider in mid-jump makes me pause for a second look.

So. there you have it: An unmemorable review of an unmemorable book. I'm not sorry I checked it out of the library, I'm also not sorry to return it.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Spider Byte

"Orb web spiders have special claws and non-stick feet so they can walk on their webs without getting stuck."
          from Spiders by Nic Bishop

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Who's Watching Whom?

I went to open the back gate, and look who was looking back out at me:

She's a bold little Agelenidae/Grass spider, too. So far, she's the only one I've had come out to see what I'm doing when I take pictures, and this in daylight.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Things I Thought I Knew But Didn't

 When I started this, there were some things I knew, or thought I knew, about spiders.

One of them was that spiders keep tidy webs, so if you brush away a messy, dusty web, you're not hurting anything.

I couldn't have been more wrong. Oh, the orb web spiders seem to fit this, more or less, but even they will cut corners. For the few days Belle was around, she tidied up her web every night and spun a new one, but Big Spider was not averse to re-using old anchor lines when she could, and once spun a shiny, new center while leaving the ragged outer edge untouched.

Other spiders are even less picky. The funnel web spiders have large, flat webs, perfect for catching the odd leaf or twig, and it doesn't seem to bother them in the least. Lady Lime has allowed a whole pile of debris to accumulate--just look at all those dead leaves!

Similarly, Legs, a cellar spider, was never troubled in the least by the odd bit of paper that got caught in her web, and her outdoor cousin Penelope, has allowed twigs, dog hair, and dried flowers to catch in her web without troubling overmuch about the housekeeping.

And as for the black widows! Milady's web was a shocking tangle of dog hair and debris, and it never did seem to occur to her that a little housekeeping might be in order.

It's not that they can't fix their webs. Treasure, a funnel web spider living below Lady Lime, recently had a huge rent in her web, probably caused when I was watering and shifting things around. She mended it quite tidily with some nice, new, smooth white silk. They just don't seem to care.

So much for my illusions or delusions.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Domestic Disputes: Update and Corrections for 'Knaves and Thieves'

Female zygiella x-notata aka Dark-legs
So, it seems I was somewhat mistaken about the Knaves and Thieves in the great fly theft incident. Thanks to bugguide, I have more of an update(1): This was more domestic dispute than daylight robbery.

They are a couple, probably zygiella x-notata, sharing a web.  Light-legs, the male, got there first, but Dark-legs, the female, wanted, and got, the fly. I have been poking around a bit, but I can't tell which of them likely built the web.

As far as I can tell, the couple got through yesterday's torrential downpour all right. At least, there are still spider legs visible behind the trellis near the edge of the web.

(1) Yes, I could have waited until after they'd replied to my ID requests, but I was too excited and interested.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Spider by John Crompton, a book review

I almost didn't read The Spider. I'm in a hurry to learn as much as possible as fast as possible and The Spider, written in 1950, struck me as too dated. However, David Quammen had the wisdom to include some selections from the text in his introduction, and that lured me into starting. Crompton's opening paragraph hooked me, and I devoured the rest of the book. I'm glad I did. I would hate to have missed Crompton's prose and his easy, good-natured approach to spiders and people alike.

Actually, I suspect he rates the intelligence of spiders at a slightly higher level than that of most of his fellow humans, but he does so so charmingly that one can't hold it against him, and anyway, it is only the faintest of suspicions. On the whole, he seems to regard everyone, spiders and humans alike, as a group of charming, eccentric neighbors.

I read bits of the book out loud to whoever happened to be around at the time, and I look forward to reading more of Crompton's books and reading bits of them out loud as well.

I can't read out loud to you (probably to your relief), but I will close by giving the opening paragraph to the Preface, the one that hooked me:

Coming out of the theatre one may expect to hear some member of the audience remark to the other that the play, though very good, was quite impossible; that such things could never happen in real life. It always seems to me that the lives of certain insects are more like plays than reality. And very good plays a lot of them are, particularly those staged by the bees, ants, and wasps. But of all the plays now running, I am inclined to think that the one produced by spiders is the best. It has almost everything the modern audience wants; love interest, suspense, psychology, battle, murder, and sudden death. But here again one comes away with the impression that it is all very far-fetched; that such things could not possibly happen in real life.

And if you can resist that opening, the you are heard to please indeed!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Knaves and Thieves in the Spider Realm

I'm going to have to start carrying a camera with me all the time, not just most of the time if I want to catch dramas like this morning's great fly theft.

This morning, I went out to take out the trash and heard some buzzing. There was a fly caught in a web by the fence. A light-colored spider was trying, somewhat inefficiently to subdue it (At least, it was much slower than Cousin Sal's wrapping the bee had been). Over to the left, a smaller, much smaller spider, with similar markings was running up and down a thread, starting toward his/her bigger cousin and then aborting. The bigger spider was about 1/4 inch long, the smaller one the size of a pinhead.

That was interesting enough, but then a third spider appeared from the right. This one was the same size as the first spider but had darker legs. It came about halfway to the first, light-legged spider and plucked hard at the web. Light-spider kept on paying attention to the now-silent fly. Dark-legs plucked again. Light-legs ignored matters and kept on with the fly. Dark-legs ran all the way down to the spider, on the other side of the web and got kicked for his/her troubles, Light-legs still focused primarily on the fly, which she kept fussing with, though not wrapping.

She walked a little way away and dark legs dashed down and pulled at the web, hard. A tug-of-war ensued. Dark-legs won and began to carry the fly away.

I raced back for my camera and caught some of the rest.

Dark-legs took the fly to his right hand corner. Light-legs at first seemed resigned and began to wander around. Mending the web, perhaps? If so, I would have a better idea for certain whose the fly really was (after all, I had not seen the fly caught; perhaps Light-legs was the intruder).

But, no, after a bit of wandering, Light-legs oriented herself and marched up to the right-hand corner where Dark-legs had disappeared with the fly. There was a bit of kicking, and then all went still. I couldn't see behind the trellis, no matter how I tried, so I have no idea if one spider chased the other off, or killed the other, or if both settled down to share the fly, or if this was all a prelude to some domestic bliss, or what was going on.

The trellis remained stubbornly silent after this, and it started to rain, so I came in.

The pin-sized spider? He hung around on the left for a while and then gave up and tucked himself away behind the trellis on that side.

Light legs

Dark-legs takes the fly.

The fly vanishes.

Light-legs heads upward.

She is determined to get the fly back.

Some threshing legs stick out.

And all is silent.


Our yard is full of tiny little spiders, no bigger than the head of a pin, spinning tiny, perfect webs. Both pictures are larger than the actual spiders or webs. The webs are slightly, very slightly, larger than postage stamps:

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Little Brown During the Day

Ha! Finally managed to find her during the day (at least, I'm almost sure this is the same spider). Here she is, resting under a leaf.

In addition to dropping down and pretending to be a piece of bark when I try to photograph her at night, she has the habit of spinning her web in a slightly different spot each night, and she generally destroys most of it by morning. She's camera shy.  Silly of her because, as you can see, she's an elegant little beauty with many shades of brown, gold stripes on her leg, and understated striping on the body.

The picture, by the way, is larger than the actual spider. Near as I can tell, she'd about cover the eraser end of a no. 2 pencil with her legs outstretched.

Edit: I was excited to finally have a daylight picture of her and posted it before hearing from the bugguide people. She's almost certainly a Araneus montereyensis. I'm going to keep an eye on her and see what she does.

Right now, she's all curled up under a leaf, legs tucked in, doing her best "I'm just a fleck of detritus" look.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Little Brown, Nightitme Images

I've been watching this little one for several days now. She's about the size of a pencil-end, legs included, and she's very nervous and very good at pretending to be a bit of bark or odd debris. If I so much as brush the leaves she drops down on a line and hangs still, or, if she's close enough, hides under a leaf.

Tentative ID via is that she's an Araneus bispinosus, but I'm instructed to keep watching--and will. I'm curious!

She's also lovely with her rough, nubbly back and shades of brown. She spins a slightly puzzle-piece looking orb web, not the tidy rounds of the barn spiders, but not the rough, ramshackle webs of the widows or cellar spiders.

Edit: Got some clearer daylight pics of her dorsal area. Seems she's probably a Araneus montereyensis. Sooo much to learn!

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Book of the Spider by Paul Hillyard, a book review

The Book of the Spider: From Arachnophobia to the Love of Spiders is a good, informative book tackling a huge range of spider subjects: Spiders in myths and legends, spiders as they live all over the world, the history of arachnology (or "spiderology," as Hillyard calls it), spider silk, attitudes toward spiders around the world, and etc. It's an impressive and informative array, very well organized, and enthusiastically presented. The book is well worth reading if one is interested in spiders.

Stylistically it is, as I said well-organized, no mean feat for a book covering such a broad array of topics, and everything presented with enthusiasm and warmth. It doesn't quite tip over into spectacular, though: It is a book you'll enjoy if you like spiders, but not a book that will convince you to like them if you aren't already interested.

The two main drawbacks are its age and the complete lack of color. The age is no one's fault: Time passes, and a book that had the latest information in 1994 won't in 2010, and in biology, that matters. The breadth of the book also mitigates this: Legends remain the same, and arachnology may have advanced, but the basic history is still what it was.

The lack of color is  possibly also a function of age. I did, however, find  it a bit odd in a book on spiders. Illustrations of any kind are scant, and there is one spider drawing which reappears, seemingly at random, and irritated me by being without any label at all (I've since decided, based on another book, that it's a drawing of a wolf spider. It's nice not to have that nagging at me).

Verdict: worth reading, full of lots of intriguing tidbits (Did you know there are, or were, groups of people who used spiders' webs for fishnets? I didn't), but not one to hunt for if it isn't on hand.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

An Unfinished Web: Worrying About Belle

Day before yesterday, Belle started her web.  I watched for a while and then took the dog for her walk. When I came back, the web was still there, unfinished.

I couldn't find any trace of Belle last night, either, and her web is still there. Both nights I saw her before, she tidied up the web. I wonder what became of her?

It's a troublesome side effect of watching spiders, this business of semi-adopting them.

There's a selfish side to this, I admit: Belle was at eye-level and large enough that I could get a look at what she was doing. The smaller ones weave so quickly, I can't see.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Updates and Introductions

So, how is everyone in the spider realm? Just fine, thanks!

Mostly, anyway. Someone vacuumed Legs up a few days ago, and she hasn't reappeared. Dead or moved to a less hazardous corner? I don't know, but I suspect the former. I have been looking for her. Milady also seems to have disappeared, but not to worry. There are plenty of widows in the garden!

Speckles stills spins her web, and Peekaboo and her kind are busy all over the yard. I'm getting quite fond of the Funnel Spiders, actually. They're so blessedly easy to spot, and they build such impressive webs.

Now, on to the cast:

On first spotting the messy web, we thought there might be another widow lurking between the lime tree and the wall. They (widows) do like the rims of pots. Turns out, though, that this is an entirely different lady. Like Legs, Penelope is a Cellar Spider, aka a Daddy Long Legs Spider, aka a Pholcidae. They eat widows. Go Penelope!

I love the little pattern there on her back, such a delicate little etching.
Ozymandias here is one of the Funnel Web Spiders aka a Grass Spider (who doesn't live in grass), from the Family Agelenidae, Genus Agelenopsis (thanks, bugguide!). She's got a massive web. It covers the space between several of the leaves and is far, far larger than you'd think a lady her size could manage.
I'm working on learning to spot spiders resting during the day. I'm not terribly good at it yet, but it's fun to try. Here's Speckles, resting in her homemade hammock at the edge of her web.

I think I mentioned we have no shortage of Black Widows? Here's Francoise, settled in comfortably on the statue of Saint Francis in our yard.

Objectively considered, she's beautiful.

I'm not sure I'm objective.

Spider Byte

"As a threat, spiders rank way down on the list, below bees, wasps, and even lightning strikes."
          from Spiders by Dan Greenberg

Sunday, October 10, 2010


I mentioned earlier that I was wanting to get a good picture of Sister Sue or Big Spider so you could see just how lovely and multi-shaded these beauties are.

Neither of them felt cooperative; in fact, Sister Sue has moved higher than ever, but Belle moved in a couple of days ago and she was kind enough to pose at eye level. Isn't she stunning?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Sister Sue Moves Again

At least, I think this is she.

This is probably the last picture I'll post of her unless she moves again. She's now between yards and best photographed from the neighbors' yard. The new neighbors' yard. We haven't met yet, and I am reluctant to march up to their door and ask permission to photograph spiders in their yard.

When I started this, I thought spiders stayed put! I know, this contradicted the mysterious multiplication of webs in the Fall, but it was one of the things I "knew" all the same. Nope. They move. Mind, I'm only almost sure this is Sue. I know she's not over the gate any more, and that the tree isn't, measured in web-lengths, an impossible distance away. It's the same size web, too, though slanted a bit more because of its location. So--for my purposes, this is Sue. Maybe one of these days I'll find out how arachnologists track their subjects.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Eensy-Weensy Spider adapted by Mary Ann Hoberman, Illustrated by Nadine Bernard Westcott, a book review

The Eensy-Weensy Spider is tremendously fun.

Hoberman's rhyme takes the eensy-weensy spider off exploring after she's finished climbing the water spout. She visits a playground, swims with a frog, marches in a band, stays out too late, and has a collection of preschool-sized adventures with the other bugs in the area.

Initially, I thought the rhymes had a very odd rhythm, but once I started singing them I realized that the fit the original song perfectly. It just isn't meant to be spoken.

Westcott's illustrations are cute, bright, and a tremendous amount of fun. Her little pink spider is expressive as she marches off determinedly to explore the world. She is surrounded by a bright, cheerful, challenging world. I found the whole delightful, though I have a special fondness for the preying mantis and the helpful beetle.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Brown Widows: Not So Bad

When I first heard of brown widows I jumped to the conclusion were black widows only a different color. I've been poking around a bit, though, and they a) are not the same spider, nor, apparently particularly dangerous. The bite hurts, but that's it. This UCR article on Brown Widows is a fairly good example of what I found, and I'd say they are a reliable source, so it seems that I can go back to gardening among the rose bushes in peace untroubled by the five I know live there.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Sister Sue Shows Off

Sister Sue's Finished Web

Sister Sue is a showoff. Like Big Spider, she's moved her web. Unlike Big Spider, she is more visible now than before, arching over the gate. Also unlike Big Spider, she starts her web early. Last night, she started around six, before it was at all dark. Someone broke one of the weblines of her old web, and that got her busy. I'm not sure she was wise; one of the times I went out to check on her, there was a bird perched nearby and looking very interested.

She also stayed well into the morning, I guess because it was a cloudy day. Again, this is unlike Big Spider who has spent the day tucked away.

I'm still trying to get a picture that will adequately reflect the range of browns and golds on the two. They are truly stunning. The flash, unfortunately, washes them out a bit, and even Sue isn't out in full sun.

Barn Spider Dorsal View

Barn Spider Ventral View

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Return of Big Spider!

Big Spider finishing her web.
It turns out Big Spider hadn't died or disappeared. She just moved across the way a bit to a tree, and I didn't know to look. She is only visible from a couple of angles now, and I'm sure the tree bounces a lot less than the clothesline. That shook every time someone slammed a car door nearby, and we're not exactly a car-free neighborhood.

She's still really skittish, though, and careful about the light. Her web is up much later than Sister Sue's, and, even on a non-shaky web, she disappears almost as soon as we're out in the morning.

Big Spider's hideaway.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Spiders by Nic Bishop, a book review

Spiders is an absolutely gorgeous book. Nic Bishop has a note in the back explaining that he kept many of the spiders in the house in order to catch them at key moments, and it shows. The pictures are stunning, the sort that make me ask "How come kids get the fun books?" They are also all carefully identified; each picture is accompanied by the name of the  spider as well information about what the spider is doing at that moment and why.

The text, too, reflects the care Bishop took. It is carefully presented for younger readers (The Sholastic site suggests first through third graders), without being overly simplified or stilted. There is an underlying affection and respect for the creatures.

Page layout and font choice are also spot-on. The pages are colorful without being distracting. The whole book gives the sense that spiders really are wonderful and that learning is a joyous thing. Scholastic also deserves credit for crafting a very sturdy book. The copy I read was from the library, and it has obviously been read but is in very good shape, even the fold out of the jumping spider (a gorgeous series of pictures) is still intact.

Highly recommended.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Brown Widow

Look at that--beautiful creamy back with brown speckles. Nice, innocent spider busy weaving her tangled web.

Then she rolls over.

Common sense tells me that I've been gardening out there barehanded and sometimes barefoot for years, and that it is highly unlikely that a bunch of brown widow spiders decided to show up in that evening just because they heard there would be cameras.

I'm still buying a pair of gardening gloves.