The Nature Nerd

Focus on: Spooky spiders


A Northwoods fishing spider Submitted photo.

A Northwoods fishing spider Submitted photo.

Spiders are spooky. That Halloween decorations and artwork often use spiders and spider webs is not surprising. Spiders fit that theme well. Most people think they are creepy and scary. But there is more.

Did you know spiders can fly? No joke! They may lack wings and they may not fly in the usual manner, but they do take to the air and travel.

Their manner of flight is called ballooning. This is another use of their silk, the material that they use to make webs. If it makes you feel any better, only small spiders are capable of flight.

To balloon a spider needs perfect atmospheric conditions. Most ballooning occurs on sunny days with light winds and sunshine. The spider simply climbs to the top of a plant. Then it produces a one or two foot long strand of silk. That is all it needs to do. The air currents will pick it up and carry it away. Where it goes, and how far it goes is up to the breezes. There are two keys to this manner of flight. First, is being small; a tiny spider nearly is weightless. Second is sunshine; warming from the sun produces an upward component to air motion.

At times the ballooning of spiders is fairly conspicuous. On a few of the best days many ballooning spiders can be seen. By looking upwards one can see numerous shimmering strands of the silk up in the air. I have seen times when dozens of them could be seen at once. Later, the remnants are visible. Long single strands of spider silk sometimes can be seen stretched across vegetation or other surfaces. Earlier these strands were used for ballooning, but upon landing are discarded. Sometimes tiny spiders just show-up, seemingly out of nowhere. These are spiders that dropped from the sky after ballooning.

This type of dispersion is important to the spiders. Female spiders produce large numbers of eggs. If newly hatched spiders cannot spread-out, they will not be able to find sufficient food. Taking their chances about where the winds will take them is risky, but is safer than remaining near their hatching site. The alternatives are not good; walking long distances is not a good option for a spider.

We do have some very large and frightening spiders in the Northwoods. The largest are fishing spiders, sometimes called dock spiders. Their bodies can be an inch across, and their legs can be two inches long (but they look longer, somehow). They are scary looking. But, the adults of these spiders are not going to drop out of the sky onto you. Actually, these spiders never hurt anyone. They may be capable of ballooning flight while very small, but become far too heavy for flight as they grow.

Late fall is not too late in the year for spiders to be seen outdoors. Spiders can be encountered outdoors every month of the year. On mild winter days it is common to see them walking across the surface of the snow.

Spiders måay seem like the perfect mascots for spooky Halloween activities. But if one takes time to watch them as they make their webs, hunt for the insects they eat, and even fly, they become fascinating creatures. It is worth the time to observe them and their amazing lives.

Jerry McCormick lives in Virginia, MN. He is a retired natural resources professional and is a self-described nature nerd.

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