Spider-spotting thrill knows no age limit

Spider-spotting thrill knows no age limit

One of the more thrilling personality traits emerging in my youngest grandson Max is his early fascination with “creepy crawlies” — a subset of life defined for the child mostly by how they move and where they are found. Already at the age of 2, he spends an inordinate amount of time pawing aside the grass and turning over stones to find ants, beetles, earthworms and the like. (Let’s just say the behavior reminds me of someone I’ve known all my life.)

It’s exciting to reexamine the things we’ve known forever as a pestilence or bother through the unjaded eyes of someone who is simply fascinated at their very existence. To a child, finding any random bug is very much akin to one of us grown-ups spotting an unusual bird. The same mechanism is there. The release of adrenaline, also known as the “fight or flight” hormone, quickens the heart rate and preps the body for action. Excitement knows no age limit.

The biggest thrill-inducer for Max at this point is seeing a spider or “SPY-DOUGH!” as he is apt to say. And while there are certainly things to teach him about the dangers of some spider species, there are plenty of positive lessons he can learn about them as well. A recent find along the side of my house will illustrate the beginning of the life cycle for the boy.

Garden spiders have captured my attention all my life, and for good reason. They are big, showy and tend to spin their webs in the most conspicuous of places. Furthermore, their web is often of the classic radial design — the very thing any kid would end up with if asked to draw a spider’s web. Garden spiders are fairly docile as well. They don’t race around scaring large critters, and they’ll never “attack” a human, although you may get a bite if you try to manhandle one.

We are most likely to notice the female with her inch-long black and yellow body, and if patient, we can take a front-row seat to her method of capturing and killing her prey. An eater of nearly all insects and even fellow arachnids, the garden spider dashes out to immobilize her web-tangled prey by rapidly wrapping it in silk and then delivering a dose of digestive juices through her mouth. She later sucks out her meal like a spider smoothie. All of this, of course, is to ultimately gain nutrition for the reproductive process — which may or may not end with her “digesting” her mate as well.

The much smaller male is on a one-way mission when he plucks the web of a female. He’s a one and done type of mate and will die of his own accord once the mission has been accomplished. The female then sets about laying eggs, which she spins into an egg sack that may contain up to 1,000 young. The young hatch within the protective sphere of the sack but don’t emerge until the springtime — a moment Mother Spider never lives to see.

Once out of the sack, the tiny spiders — think the tip of a ballpoint pen — climb up to a spot where they can most easily catch a breeze, then let out a strand of silk that allows them to “balloon” away to their new home. That’s the stage of life I encountered just the other day and one I just can’t wait to tell Max all about!

If you have comments on this column or questions about the natural world, write The Rail Trail Naturalist, P.O. Box 170, Fredericksburg, OH 44627, or email jlorson@alonovus.com. You also can follow along on Instagram @railtrailnaturalist.

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