Monday, December 18, 2023

Arabesque Orb Weaver


Charlotte’s Web, a cherished childhood story about a spider who befriends a friendless pig is, for many of us, our first encounter with a spider. Charlotte is often depicted as a black widow, but those of us who understand, and love spiders know she is actually an orb weaver.

Orb weavers are one of the most common spiders found throughout the world with over 2800 known species. They are primarily identified by their elaborate round or “orb-shaped” webs. They are believed to have first appeared on Earth during the Jurassic Period approximately 200-140 million years ago. With such a long ancestry they have certainly had enough time to perfect web building.

Webs are generally oblong in shape and can be quite large with dimensions well over three feet common. Many species of orb weavers add an intricate zipper-like pattern to the center of their web, called a stabilimentum. It is not completely understood what this zig-zag patterns function is. The most popular held opinion is that it acts as an attractant for insects by reflecting UV light, essentially drawing insects into the sticky web. Others believe it is a deterrent by providing a visual for birds and an echo for bats, keeping these winged creatures from flying into the web and tearing it to pieces. Still others believe it acts as a stabilizing mechanism to make the web stronger, and more able to withstand the impact and struggle of large insects. No matter what its intended function actually is, it is a fascinating phenomenon of nature. It is this “writing” in the web than lends us to understand Charlotte was an orb weaver. She was a skilled weaver of messages within the web, and while orb weavers are not going to leave “good pig” messages in their webs, they are going to build master insect traps.

So how does the spider build the web? She releases a strand of silk into the wind hoping it will reach a solid surface where it will adhere. Once attached she will begin creating the outer spokes of the web and then work her way to the center of the web in a purposeful fashion until all the strands of silk are placed in a perfect pattern. These strands are made up of several types of silk. Some have sticky globs of silk to capture her prey, and other strands are not sticky at all, allowing her to navigate her own web without being caught in her own trap.

Many orb weavers consume the remainder of their web each morning in a form of spider recycling. It takes a lot of energy to create silk, so by consuming their leftover silk they have developed a way to reduce the amount of energy they need to create a new one. Plus, the webs are often severely damaged by struggling insects. These shredded webs will not function as adequate bug catchers, so new webs must be formed.

One of the most common orb weavers in Missouri is the Arabesque orb weaver, they are found in a wide variety of habitats, but seem to prefer woodlands. Not as flashy as some orb weavers, like the black and yellow garden spider, she is still beautiful in her own right. Their color may vary from a rich golden-yellow, brown, orange or nearly black. She will have a series of black or dark brown comma-like markings on her abdomen, which are a distinctive identifying characteristic of this species. Like nearly all orb weavers the females are larger than males and will often be spotted resting head down in the center of the web of an evening. During the day, they will look for a retreat away from the web, often in the form of a rolled leaf.

Several years ago I was contacted by author and science teacher Larry Weber about borrowing one of my pictures of a this species for a book he was writing for spiders of the North Woods. I was happy to grant his request and honored to have my photograph featured on one of the pages of "Spiders of the North Woods" This is a great, full color field guide that is sure to help individuals identify whatever spider they happen to come across in the Northern regions of our country. To purchase this valuable guide click the link  Spiders of the North Woods Be sure to look for the arabasque spider on page 114.

The word arabesque describes a graceful ballet movement as well as a highly ornate design consisting of curves and swirls that sometimes intersect. I am not sure I would describe this spider as graceful, and I have certainly never seen one move like a ballet dancer. The second definition of Arabesque is, however, most fitting. The pattern on their abdomen is incredibly detailed and ornate, arabesque-like indeed.

All spiders use venom to capture prey. Orb weavers bite their quarry and inject a tissue dissolving venom before wrapping it up in a silken cocoon to save for later. If large wasps or bumblebees become entangled in the web, she will wrap first and bite later. No sense in risking a sting! The venom will begin dissolving the tissue for her, allowing her to digest her food more readily in the form of an insect slurpee.

I am often asked if these, and other orb weavers are harmful to humans. Beyond causing temporary heart palpitations when you unwittingly become entangled in the web, they are harmless. Will they bite? I always say almost anything with a mouth has the potential to bite, but you are only likely to be bitten by an orb weaver if you harass it or if it somehow becomes caught in your clothing. Bites are harmless, and no more painful or dangerous than a bee sting. If you are allergic to bee venom, definitely be watchful of any symptoms that could indicate a more serious reaction.

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Poison Ivy

Few plants in nature illicit as strong of a reaction as poison ivy, both figuratively and literally. This dreaded plant is native to North America and Asia and may grow as a vine, small shrub or a small tree-like plant. Leaves occur in a cluster of three arranged alternately from each other. This leaf arrangement explains the popular saying “Leaves of three, leave it be.”

Leaves may be elliptic or egg-shaped and the edges may be smooth, lobed, or serrated. In the spring tiny greenish colored blooms appear and by autumn small white berries are present, “berries white, run in fright.” Vines are rope-like and hairy. “Hairy vine, no friend of mine.” This is a more accurate way to identify the vine, as no other vines in our region are covered in hair, but there are many plants with three leaf configurations, and many are mistaken for poison ivy. 

So why the dread? If you have ever experienced a poison ivy rash, you would know the answer, but for the few who have not they cannot imagine. The sap within the plant tissue is made up of a compound of multiple chemicals, the most obnoxious of these is urucshiol (pronounced yer-OO-shee-all). This compound binds to the skin causing severe itching, which later develops into reddish inflammation, bumps, and often blisters. Large quantities of urucshiol has the potential to suppress the body’s production of prostaglandin, a fatty acid which aids in the body’s ability to battle inflammation. A full-blown immune reaction occurs, and white blood cells go to battle within the affected cells and cause the often-extreme contact dermatitis we experience. In extreme cases anaphylaxis may occur, requiring immediate medical care.

One of the most diabolical aspects of urucshiol is how little is required for a reaction. An amount smaller than a grain of salt can lead to a breakout. More than 90% of people are allergic to this compound and approximately 350,000 people annually experience reactions strong enough to require medical care. There is no way to know the accuracy of how many individuals are affected each year as most cases never get reported. A common myth individuals have in association with poison ivy is the notion they are not allergic to it. This simply is not true, or at least very unlikely. Just because you have been fortunate to not experience a reaction from exposure to the plant, does not mean your luck will continue. Poison ivy is one plant that breaks down your immune system, therefore the more you are exposed to it the more likely you are to have a reaction. I for one used to brag about not being allergic simply because I was arrogant enough to believe that because I had never had a reaction that I therefore never would. Did I ever learn a lesson the hard way! I had my first major reaction in my thirties and now find myself battling reactions multiple times each year. Lesson learned! 

Another commonly held belief is that your blistering, weepy sores will spread the rash. This is not the case. Your body is simply producing the fluid as an immune response to exposure. The appearance of a spreading rash instead indicates that some areas of exposed skin received more poison and reacted sooner than other areas of your skin. Or it may indicate a reinfection from touching something that came in contact with the oils. This could be a yard tool such as a hoe or shovel or perhaps a doorknob, faucet, or other surface you touched inadvertently and left the oils behind. This creates a real potential for repeated contact, thus extending the length of time of the rash. Wipe down surfaces with bleach wipes or other commercial cleaner if you know you’ve come in contact with poison ivy. Urucshiol has a long life on surfaces and may carry the potential to reinfect for many years after exposure to the oils. Even dead plants may infect individuals, years after they were killed. This is one determined plant!

Never burn poison ivy, this creates a serious health risk. The oils will rise with the smoke and may be inhaled, and a rash will appear in your lungs causing extreme pain and the potential for respiratory failure. Eating the plant has its own set of risks. One would think we should not have to even consider this warning, but there are individuals out there that swear by eating young, tender, newly developed leaves (one per week for nine weeks) you will build your immune system and give yourself protection from a reaction if exposed. Medically we know ingestion can affect the mucus lining of the mouth and stomach, causing severe stomach pain and may lead to serious digestive system issues. Is it worth the risk to your health to attempt such a daring experiment in the hope of building an immunity to this plant? Wouldn’t avoiding the plant be a better option?

Generally, the rash appears within a week of exposure, but for some it may happen in mere hours. I for one fall into the category of the latter. I can touch the plant and by the end of the day I have a rash! How do we find relief? If you know you have come in contact with poison ivy, wash with cold water and soap as quickly as possible. You may try rubbing alcohol too, as I have heard this works well. I’ve read jewelweed works well as an alternative for dissolving the oils on your skin if you find yourself away from a water source and know you’ve been exposed. Jewelweed almost always grows near poison ivy…coincidence? Maybe not.

Once the rash appears, try not to scratch the maddening itch, it will increase the potential for infection. Applying calamine lotion or a corticosteroid may provide relief. Another potential product to try is Burow’s Solution, made up of aluminum acetate.

You can also create your own treatment using natural elements. 


Recipe for Poison Ivy Rash Remedy

1 bottle witch hazel

5-10 jewelweed plants (depending on how much you want to make)

1 mason jar

Crush the jewelweed plant to release juice, then chop or tear and fill the jar loosely. Once in jar continue crushing with pestle or your fingers to release more juices. Add witch hazel and store in cool dark place for 3 weeks. Drain through a sieve to collect the liquid and throw all plant material away. Pour liquid into jar making sure no plant material remains. Apply liberally to ivy rash using a cotton ball, up to 5 times a day. It will greatly speed up your healing time.

These days we hear a lot about climate change with many individuals feeling very passionate about the effects humans are having on the atmosphere and weather conditions, still others call it hype. No matter what side of the aisle you fall on, we know through research that current higher levels of CO2 in our atmosphere is changing poison ivy. This plant is growing more vigorously and has doubled in abundance in the past fifty years. The very chemical balance of the plant is also changing in potency causing an increase in urucshiol which has nearly doubled since 1960! It will only continue to increase with more atmospheric carbon. 

With all the negative aspects attached to poison ivy, is there a positive? Many ask how is this plant beneficial? I personally think this is the epitome of human arrogance. This questions alludes to the presumption that all things in the natural world are designed to benefit humans. Nature does not work that way. We are but one component in the natural world. Deer, horses, goats, and other animals all eat the leaves of poison ivy with no ill effects. Crows, songbirds and raccoons feast on the berries and honeybees partake of nectar in the spring. If you could ask them you might get a more balanced answer to the plants benefits.

While avoiding poison ivy each time we venture outside may be an impossibility, it doesn’t have to be a deterrent. If nothing else, poison ivy teaches us to be observant of our surroundings. If you find yourself in the predicament of being in the middle of the dreaded ivy vine, simply take a deep breath, wash with cool water, and wait. Maybe it won’t be so bad after all.


Monday, October 23, 2023

Eastern Parson's Spider

With Halloween just around the corner, and autumn well underway, what better creature to write about than a spider. Arachnophobia ranks as the number one most recognized phobia afflicting people. With one in four women and one in three men experiencing some form of the often-paralyzing fear of being faced with a hairy, eight-legged arachnid. I myself am a recovering arachnophobe. Throughout my childhood and a large portion of my adult life I was deeply afraid and creeped out by spiders. I knew how irrational this feeling was, but seemed powerless to stop the overwhelming terror that would sweep over me at the sight of one making its way across the ceiling of my home. I made my husband kill each one I discovered, and he had to show me that he had killed it. I couldn’t bring myself to take his word for it. I needed proof that he had adequately disposed of it. No way could I sleep knowing a wayward spider was roaming my house and would end up sharing the warmth of my bed. What a difference time and education can make. Nearly twenty years ago I became determined to confront my fear and conquer it once and for all. It started with baby steps as I photographed spiders in my yard and then made myself learn about what I photographed.  Eventually I found my fear being replaced by fascination. It took four years, but I felt I had once and for all left the fear of spiders behind me, so much so I bought my first tarantula. I now own four tarantulas and deeply respect all spiders.

This week I am featuring a spider many may have encountered, but few will know what it is. The Eastern Parson’s Spider is common in woodlands throughout Eastern North America, but also finds its way into homes in fall. These are small to somewhat medium sized spiders with a velvety black appearance. The legs are typically chestnut- colored and the abdomen will have a white or pinkish marking that resembles the cravat worn by clergymen during the Victorian era, which earned them the common name of Parson’s spider.

Parson’s spiders are in the family of ground dwelling spiders and as such are generally found speedily moving among leaf litter on the forest floor actively hunting for food. However, being classified as a ground spider doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t climb, because they certainly will. While they can spin silk, they do not spin webs, instead they ambush prey and then rapidly run in for the kill. Nocturnal by nature they hunt for various insects and other spiders during the cover of darkness. In the daylight hours they are secreted away under leaf litter, stones, logs and even in our homes. 

It is these wayward individuals that end up in our home that we are likely to see and then question what this unusual spider may be. When approached they are little speed demons that move in a rapid zig-zag bob-and-weave pattern that leaves us wondering if we actually saw what we thought we saw as this spunky little spider disappears out of sight. You are not likely to find a web in the corner of your living room to advertise this little eight-legged interlopers hiding spot. Instead, it will hide in the dark recesses of our homes, including closets, basements, cellars, under our bed and sinks. Fortunately, they will not breed within our homes, instead these spiders are simply looking for a safe place to spend the winter with ample hiding spots and food supplies available for the taking. Very little is known about their breeding cycle, but it is known that the female will deposit a silken disc-shaped egg sac, usually under the bark of a tree that she guards from predators. This egg sac may contain as many as 170 spiderlings. Because these spiders are found in all seasons, and at all stages of development it is safe to say they are probably a fairly long-lived species.

I would hazard a guess that most people faced with a spider living in their home want nothing more than for it to NOT be there. Some will take the gentle route and escort the uninvited guest outside where it belongs. Others, take a more aggressive approach and apply a size 9 boot stomp to solve the problem. I understand both responses but would encourage the former rather than the later.

These spiders are considered harmless to humans and pets, but with that being said there are exceptions. Like all spiders they possess venom to subdue their prey and help liquefy it for digestion. This venom is almost always harmless to us, but it some extreme cases a bite from this spider may cause reactions that require medical attention. The bite is reported to be painful, with a typical reaction being mild itching, and slight inflammation at the bite sight. This usually lasts for a few minutes to a few hours with no other lasting effects from the unfortunate encounter. On the extreme end of the spectrum of reactions, individuals may experience swelling, nausea, nervousness, elevated temperatures, racing heartbeat, itching, inflammation and necroses of flesh at the bite sight as the venom dissolves skin tissue. If a person were to experience this type of atypical reaction medical care is required. Bites happen when the spider finds itself trapped between your skin and clothing or caught up in your bedding and rolled on. Any self-respecting spider is going to bite when finding itself being smashed. 

Because autumn is the time of year when spiders often move into our dwellings, it is always wise to shake out clothing, and bedding that has been stored, as these make great hiding spots for spiders. Always check shoes or boots before placing your foot inside. To help mitigate populations of spiders showing up within your home, controlling their food sources and hiding spots will go a long way in making your place inhospitable to them.

Halloween is the time of year when we celebrate all things scary, creepy, odd, and mysterious. Spiders seem to fall into each of these categories, and if you dare…… face your fear this year and see the spider in a whole new light.