Spider Season

Posted by: Richenda at Tuesday August 17, 2010 in

The Pacific Northwest is not particularly known for spiders. Those honors belong to equatorial countries where the beasts are swollen to great sizes by water and heat, or they belong to deserts where heat and dust seem to have the same result on them. Believe me I have respect for the spiders of the desert.

I still remember my lonely drive along a deserted strip of road in Arizona. In front of me, the road reflected the moonlight and I could see a quarter of a mile ahead a dark animal was in the road. With nothing else to think about, I watched the animal and as I got closer my brain sorted through animal categories as I tried to figure out what it was. A coyote? No, too small. A mouse? No, too large. A rat? No. A mole. No. Wait…are there moles in Arizona? I don’t think so. Not like they have in Washington, anyway, with the rubbery little noses.

Mole photo by Michael David Hill, 2005, from Wiki Commons. (For a little fun, do a google image search for ‘star nosed mole.’ Trust me, it’s worth it.)

Okay then. So there was a mysterious creature in the road visible from some impressive distance. What was it? A rabbit? They don’t have cute bunnies in Arizona, they have those long-nosed hares. A hare? The closer I got, the more I was sure it was a hare of some sort. For bunnies were fluffy but this one had a kind of boney hunch.

The famous painting of a Hare looking suitably boney from Albert Durer, 1502. Thanks to Wiki Commons.

The closer I got, the darker and more shadowy it looked, and the more strangely shaped. But it wasn’t until I was almost over the creature with the tires that I realized… It’s a spider! I am pretty sure my eyes bugged out as I watched it hurriedly scuttle out of the way and I zoomed on by.

Creepy spiderlegs crawled up my spine as I shuddered to think of a spider that big and what it might mean if my car broke down and I had to do something as dusty as camp on the ground for the night. How many of them could be lurking? And that made me wonder where, exactly, a spider that size could lurk? For I’m pretty sure the thing would be visible to satellites.

Anyway. Enough about the horrors of Arizona. What I really wanted to do is share the arachnoid horrors of Washington state.

Like I said, spiders aren’t exactly associated with western Washington. Here on the wet side of the state we mostly get little forest spiders and a few larger wolfs that make it into the house to frighten you at midnight. But most of them run away as fast as they can and are too small to worry about too much except if you come across them in quantity.

With one exception.

There is a type of garden spider here that is very disconcerting. You see them beginning in spring, but they are small, then. But by the beginning of fall they have been busy eating each other (and everything else) and some of them have grown large enough to give you the willies.

Now everyone on the planet seems to think that if there is a creepy garden spider in the yard it must be the yellow and black Argiope aurantia (or Corn Spider or Writing Spider), which, believe me is plenty creepy in its own right. But though we do get those here, it’s not all that often that I see one. I’ve seen maybe three in the last ten years.

This is a yellow and black garden spider. This is emphatically not the kind of spider I am talking about. Photograph by Deisy Mendoza, from wiki commons.

What we do see, and see lots and lots of, is the European Garden Spider, Araneus diadematus. The European Garden Spider (which just happens to be in my non-European garden) is not yellow and black like the Argiope or Corn Spider. And it does not lie with its forelegs and hindlegs clasped together as if it were a four legged creature.

The European Garden Spider is instead brown and white with numerous markings including a white cross on its abdomen from which it gets the name ‘diadem.’ And it hangs not with its legs together, but resting apart.

This is the spider I am talking about. Photograph by Andre Karwath, from Wiki Commons.

Its web is extremely firm and sticky. You cannot pass through the web of the European Garden Spider or through strands of the anchoring silk without hearing snapping noises as the web breaks and branches of shrubbery previously roped into submission are suddenly released and spring backwards. What I’m trying to say is that the European Garden Spider does not build a fluffy dust-bunny kind of web. Its web is like spun glass, and it sticks to everything.

Look how the end of this fern frond is curled back. It is attached to the anchoring thread of a spider web. Photo by me.

Worse, the spiders can be quite large, to my eye they can reach two and a half inches long. The other main problem is that this spider is…well…meaty looking. I think I prefer my spiders small and wiry, rather than appearing like a portion of meaty pork cutlet too large to chew all at once. The meatiness lends a kind of fleshy vicerality to the whole business of encountering one—and significantly ups the creep factor.

The other trouble with the European Garden Spider is that around here there are a lot of them. They really, really, love it here. The climate must be absolutely perfect and the meals plentiful because a single bush might harbor eight or more of them. A few bushes together are a minefield.

And if they stayed in the bushes, that would be better. But another characteristic of this spider is that it likes to spread its net out across open spaces. In other words, it would rather spread a web across a walkway than stick to the bushes. (A few more years of evolution and this thing will be netting and eating small birds and maybe antelope.)

I have to stop for a moment and acknowledge the beauty and giftedness of this spider. They are the most gifted webmakers I have ever encountered. Their webs are picture perfect, high, round, arched, like meticulously woven sails tacked by slender anchoring ropes. In the dew they glisten. In the sun they sparkle. And otherwise they are almost completely invisible. A perfect net for to catch a meal.

The web isn’t just ornately pretty—spectacular, even. The web is large. Anchoring strands of rope-like web can extend many feet. I’ve seen a web-rope extend from the eaves of the barn to the nearest Japanese maple tree branch—that’s 24 feet. Yesterday while I was out watering the new rhodie I encountered a web stretched between the trunks of two small trees, a span of 16 feet with the web in the middle. And I want to know: how the heck does a spider between 1 and 3 inches long stretch and anchor a strand of web-rope sixteen feet and use it as a suspension bridge to build a web?

Here are the two trees. That black plastic stick on the ground is what I used yesterday to destroy the web. (One point to the human.) Photo by me.

I knocked down that web yesterday, because I am tired of being netted like a bug by meaty creatures with too many eyes. But this morning I thought of writing this article so out I went with the camera to see if she rebuilt it (the females make the webs). I didn’t find her at first, but there was a new web up near the deck over the bushes, so I got a couple of photographs of that for you. You can see how intricate it is. I took a few different angles so that you could get a sense of how suspended it is up there… How do they do that?

I used Photopaint to add an opaque circle so you could see the web better.

Same web, different angle.

Same web, different angle. All three photos by me.

There was another web in that bush, as well. The webs can be so invisible that you literally do not see them until you walk through them. I had taken a number of pictures of the top web before I even saw the one right beneath it.

This web was slightly lower and clearly well anchored in the bush. The spider was at the center of the web, which is typical. If you mess with them, though, they will rear up with their front legs, or run. Or sometimes they make a weird little noise—again, creepy. My son uses the big ones for Airsoft target practice, which I’m not sure I like very much. But to be fair they are big, and creepy, and hang over you… Photo by me.

I also found this other web as I was moving around—again it was invisible until the light hit it. I believe this web belongs to the spider whose house I trashed yesterday. Notice how the web is anchored well off the ground and spread out across an open space.

It is this spreading across open spaces that really makes them so creepy. See this nice walkway in the garden?

Thank you to our cat Figaro who helps bring the cuteness factor to the photo.

By late summer and through fall it is like an episode of ‘Fear factor’ every time you go up or down those steps (or anywhere around the house). The spiders build webs right across the walkways, and they build fast. In the morning it might be clear, but by the afternoon a previously clear section is now booby-trapped. And you will not see the web until you either brush against it or you are nose to nose with the spider herself. It’s awful, I promise.

And if you don’t see it you will walk right through it and the web will stick to you, spider and all. The spider will hang on you, that web is strong. And if you run, it will only bounce along behind you. (And here is where the meatiness really freaks you out because you can feel it hanging and bouncing back there.) After a while you get Post Traumatic Spider Disorder and flinch often and you learn to carry a big stick.

Another spider, this one near the front walk. Notice how difficult it is to see the web. Photo by me.

Around our house we have a name for these spiders, we call them the Booglies. This name is especially perfect at Halloween, when all things creepy seem to press out of the shadows. By October 31, if there hasn’t been a good frost, these things are as big and plentiful as they get. In some years there will be ten or twenty to a large bush, and, as hard as they are to see in bright daylight, in the dark you won’t see them at all. There could be one stretched right across the porch. So close your mouth when you run.

I need not say, then, that it is better if there is a frost before trick or treating, because the first good frost kills them all.

One last story for you. A day or two a week, I get to drive along a beautiful narrow private driveway to a lovely place of rest on the Columbia River. The drive is lined with cascading ferns and small bobbing saplings, and the vegetation is always threatening to overgrow the road. It’s like Jurassic Park, and breathtakingly beautiful. In the middle of the drive, you might be seduced into rolling down your windows and taking in a breath of that magnificently lush, oxygenated air. Don’t.

By late summer there are thousands of spiders and that drive has become a river flowing with spider webs. Those talented Diadematuses will have stretched web after web after web across the road. And by late August and September the spiders will be big. Trust me, keep your windows up. (And your doors locked.) Listen as you drive along the road and you can hear them. It sounds like thwap, thwap, thwap, as your car breaks through the webs and meaty spider bodies hit the front and sides of your car. You will see the forest move as when the webs break the ferns and saplings spring back, catapulting diadem-decorated spider bodies this-a-way and that, and flinging up leaves and dust and a few startled squirrels in the process.

As your car shudders along, thwap, thwap, thwap, thwap, pray for frost.

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