Thursday, September 9, 2021

Grass Spider

 Nothing says summer like the endless string of webs left by the grass spider.

As summer reaches its end, days are beginning to get shorter, temperatures are more favorable, and we begin noticing large webs all over our yards. These webs, often glistening with dew in the mornings, are made by one of the most common spiders found throughout North America, the grass spider. The sparkling of the dew-covered webs is truly beautiful, and turns each web into a work of art. There are nearly 1200 known species Worldwide within this family and nearly 120 of them call North America home.

Their sheet-like web spreads out for a foot (or more) in a circular fashion with a distinct funnel-like opening near the center. It is this opening that earned them another common name of funnel web spider. These spiders should not be confused with another spider that goes by a similar name which is the Sydney Funnel Web spider of Australia.

The grass spiders belong to the Araneomorph spiders which are true spiders or modern spiders, whereas the Sydney Funnel Web spider belongs to a family of old-world spiders similar to tarantulas and trapdoor spiders called the Mygalomorph. The Sydney Funnel Web spider has earned a nasty reputation as being one of the deadliest spiders in the world. You will not find these spiders in the United States! Grass spiders are harmless, and not likely to bite unless mishandled. These shy spiders would rather avoid humans and are quick to retreat into their webs. Their fangs are small and not strong enough to puncture skin, except for the elderly and infants. Bites are not known to be serious but should be cleaned to avoid infection should one occur. These spiders will on occasion come into your home, but these indoor visits are rare unlike other species that are more prone to do so.

Grass spiders are medium-sized spiders with a legspan up to 1 1/2 inches. Their color varies from pale yellowish tan with gray markings to reddish-brown with black markings. Their abdomen is gray to black along the margins with a light brown to brownish-red stripe bordered by lighter colored spots. They have very long legs that are banded at the joints. These legs are usually held out in front of the spider at the opening of the funnel.

The females rarely leave the security of their web except to find a new location to build a web. They hide out at the opening of the funnel lying in wait for an unsuspecting insect to crawl across the web. They will run rapidly out of their hiding place and envenomate their quarry and drag it into the funnel to consume at their leisure. The webbing of this genus is not sticky like other spider webs, they instead rely on capturing their prey by using their extremely fast acting venom. 

Males are wanderers and are constantly on the look-out for food and for mates. When a male comes upon a female of his own species he will approach cautiously, after all he does not want to become her next meal. After determining the female is receptive of his attention, he quickly dominates her. By no means is he out of danger, he must make a hasty retreat before she changes her mind and decides he looks scrumptious. Males die shortly after mating, leaving the females to deposit an egg sac under the loose bark of a tree that she will guard until the first frost. Once the first frost comes the female will die often still clinging to the egg sac, making the ultimate sacrifice. Her life for the life of her offspring. Some species of funnel web spiders may live up to two years, but most only live one season.

Many people find their webs unsightly spread across a normally well-manicured lawn and would prefer they weren’t there. Because of the nature of the low-lying web and its tendency to collect debris like leaves and small twigs these webs can begin to look rather unkempt. So how do you get rid of them? There are several things a person can do to help control the number of webs you are dealing with. Make sure any food crumbs, or other sources of human food are picked up. Do not leave pet food out all the time. Mow your lawn more frequently, and trim back bushes, and overgrown vegetation. Eliminate brush piles and using an old broom to remove the webs. By cleaning up the environment the spiders are building the webs in, you are discouraging the prey insects they feed on. If there is no food readily available, the spiders will be encouraged to build somewhere else where there are more resources. Or if you are like me, appreciate the webs for the works of art they are, and rest assured they are helping control insect populations and providing free pest control.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Orange-tipped Leaf-Footed Bug

Nothing is more frustrating to a gardener than to discover a 6-legged invader has been dining on your prized produce. Those of us who have grown squash, melons or cucumbers have had the unfortunate experience of battling the leaf-footed bug (Acanthocephala terminalis) or as it is more widely known the squash bug. This true bug in the order Hemiptera has a piercing, sucking mouthpart called a proboscis that it uses to puncture the stems of plants to reach the more tender tissue underneath.

It will inject an enzyme into the plant which begins dissolving the tissue into something the bug can slurp up through their proboscis, much like we suck through a straw. They cannot digest solid food.  In most cases this does not harm the plant, but if you have numerous squash bugs present on your plants, it may mean the plants cannot produce sufficient fruit. These opportunistic feeders are known to feed on a wide variety of garden plants as well as blackberries, hickories, goldenrod, Joe-pye weed and other shrubs.  They have also been observed probing their mouths into bird droppings. It is not fully understood why they do this or if they even consume any part of the droppings. One could assume, like many other species of insects that do feed on these droppings, that they gain some level of mineral benefits. If this is the case, it would mean they do indeed feed on the droppings and aren’t just inserting their proboscis into the waste of our avian friends for the fun of it.

The name leaf-footed bug comes from the swollen leaf-like midsection of the hindlegs. All leaf-footed bugs have four segmented antennae, and this species is one of the largest found in the Eastern United States and may reach lengths up to one inch. They are typically black but may also be dark brown.

These insects aren’t known to bite, but they would have the mouthpart for such a defense if needed. However, their main defense is a chemical one. If severely disturbed, they will emit a foul-smelling secretion that has earned them another common name of stinkbug. The stinkbugs we are all familiar with are also true bugs in the same order as the squash bug, but they are not closely related, even though they share the same ability to release a nasty chemical defense to protect themselves. These bugs are easily disturbed and will readily fly away with a loud buzzing noise and land several yards away. They usually hide out among the plants they feed on or in the leaf-litter below the plants. The nymphs hide out under the leaves, out of sight of the prying eyes of potential predators. The adults are often spotted on the leaves out in the open. Get too close and they rapidly fly away.

After mating, the females will lay white eggs on the leaves of the host plant. The tiny nymphs hatch in several days and begin feeding. They must go through five instars (molts) before reaching their adult size. There is only one generation per season and the adults spend the winter in leaf litter or under the bark of trees. When spring returns the cycle will start all over again.

How does one protect their gardens from such an unwanted visitor? I am not a huge advocate for insecticides simply because they do not just kill or remove your target insect. They also destroy beneficial insects which can be counterproductive to controlling the very pest you are trying to get rid of. Many insects feed on squash bugs including stink bugs, feather-leg flies, and various assassin bugs. If you are not having any luck with natural predators controlling this pest, organic pesticides have been proven to help, but their residual effects are limited and may have to be reapplied more often and tend to work better against the nymphs which are not as mobile as the adults. As a last resort insecticides containing pyrethroids are effective against these insects. As always follow directions carefully, overuse of chemical control can and does create super bugs that are impervious to their usage.