The first question asked about any spider is usually, “Is it poisonous”? And the answer is always “yes, but not usually for humans.” No matter what method a spider uses to catch its prey – webs, traps, running it down, spiders rely on venom to paralyze their victims for future use or to carry out the digestive process. What we really mean by the question is whether the spider is harmful to people. According to Professor Donald Chandler, an entomologist at the University of New Hampshire, there are 350 species of spider in the State, and very few of them may cause a reaction in humans. The reaction varies depending on individual sensitivity but is generally not fatal and no more annoying than a mosquito bite.
If you see a spider that you would like identified, The Cooperative Extension of the University of New Hampshire offers an identification service. See their website: https://extension.unh.edu/Problem-Diagnosis-and-Testing-Services/Insect-Identification-Service for information on how to proceed and the forms to submit an insect, tick, or other arthropod for identification. If you have questions or do not have web access, call the Plant Biology Department at 603-862-3200 and talk to the secretary for the University of New Hampshire entomologists. If you use their services, be prepared to pay a small fee.
The two spiders that are most likely to strike fear in the New Englander’s mind and heart: the Black Widow (Latrodectus mactans) and the Brown Recluse (Loxosceles reclusa) are found in tropical climates and neither one would be able to survive a winter outdoors in this area. Nevertheless, Dr. Ross Bell at the University of Vermont has a confirmed Vermont record for the Black Widow that is thought to have come in on some recently bought firewood and in the summer of 2004 there were two confirmed recipients of a bite from a Black Widow spider here in New Hampshire. Both cases involved people who were unloading grapes from South America. There are also reports of probable Brown Recluse bites in New Hampshire and Vermont. It is surmised that they may be brought north in clothing or linens manufactured in a warmer climate. Given the increased number of goods that come to us from all over the world, it is possible that a number of unlikely species might show up. Therefore, it seems prudent to provide more information on these two even though they are not native to New Hampshire.
Black Widow (Latrodectus mactans).The name alone is enough to strike terror in every wife’s heart but it derives from the tendency of the female to eat the male after mating rather than from the result of a bite. In fact, this spider would much rather flee than fight. It is only when a female guarding an egg cluster is disturbed that she is apt to attack. The female can be three-eighths of an inch long. She is all black except for a red hourglass mark on the underside of her spherical abdomen. Sometimes there are two red lines separated by black instead of a true hourglass form. The male is much smaller, no more than an eighth of an inch long with an abdomen that is longer than wide. He sports white and red markings on his sides. The young, called spiderlings, are orange, brown, and white. They gain more black at each molt. The female makes a funnel-shaped retreat with an irregular mesh over the top usually among fallen branches or under objects and trash. As she is capable of storing sperm, she need only mate once and rarely leaves her web, preferring to stay close to her egg mass. The young disperse soon after hatching. As mentioned above, black widows need a warm climate.
Brown Recluse (Loxosceles reclusa). Also known as the Violin Spider because the top subdivision of this spider, which is called the cephalothorax and includes the head and thorax, is orange-yellow with a dark violin pattern. The base of the legs is also orange-yellow but all the rest including the abdomen, is grayish to dark brown without any obvious pattern. The male is one-quarter of an inch long and the female generally measures three-eighths of an inch. As the name implies, Brown Recluses tend to hide. They are not aggressive and only bite when disturbed. Its preferred habitat is outdoors in sheltered corners or among loose debris. Indoors it prefers to hide behind furniture or under or inside drawers and other objects. The web consists of loose irregular strands and eggs are laid in a loose sac hung inside the web. The female guards the sac until her death and the eggs hatch out in the spring. As it sometimes shelters in clothing or folded towels, there is danger of accidentally disturbing it and being bitten as a result. The wound usually turns red and forms a crust which leaves a deep pit when it falls off. Healing can be a long, slow process. Like the Black Widow, the Brown Recluse needs a warm climate.
If you are interested is learning more about spiders and the common ones of New Hampshire, please read on. Although they come in a wide variety of colors and life styles, there are certain characteristics spiders all share: two body parts and eight legs. Most usually have eight simple eyes but their arrangement on the head varies from genus to genus.
Beginning with Miss Muffit and her mysterious tuffit, then moving on to science fiction and horror films, it is not surprising that spiders invariably make the top ten lists of phobias in the United States. If spiders could be polled, we would most likely make their top ten list as well. This is too bad because when it comes to the battle against the insect world, spiders and people are on the same side. According to one estimate, the number of insects spiders devour worldwide in a single day outweighs the entire human population. In China, for control of some agricultural pests, farmers have abandoned the use of pesticides and rely solely on the use of spiders. The U.S. Forest Service in Maine uses spiders in the fight against spruce budworms. Each spider eats five or six budworms a day. In short, we need them while they could do very nicely without us. Learning to live with them, even for those of us who can’t learn to love them, is probably a good idea if only from the point of view of numbers. A British biologist once figured out that farmland in his locale was home to more than two million spiders per acre and it is said that no matter where we are at any given time, there is a spider within three feet of us.
Although both male and female spiders start out making webs, the males abandon the practice when they reach maturity and spend their time wandering around looking for females. Females, however, need the protein they obtain from insects to produce eggs so they weave webs throughout their lives. Most spiders have three pairs of spinnerets on their lower abdomens and each one is covered by hundreds of silk-releasing spigots. The spider is able to control the opening and closing of these spigots and different strands of silk are made for different purposes – draglines to bridge the gap between two spaces, web frames, egg cases, bug traps, or as a means of dropping down from a perceived threat. Threads may be thick or thin, wet or dry, sticky or woolly. Spider silk, more elastic than nylon and stronger than steel, is often taken by hummingbirds for nest building. In addition, the silk lacks allergenic qualities and is therefore an excellent, safe material for suturing wounds.
World wide, spiders come in many sizes with a variety of ways of snaring prey. Here in New Hampshire, the spiders we are most apt to come upon are:
The Black and Yellow Garden Spider (Argiope aurantia). This large (one inch) spider has silvery hairs on her head and thorax and a large black abdomen with striking yellow or orange markings. The legs are long and hairy and are black with yellow bands. It is one of the orb weavers which means it weaves the kind of traditional web most of us picture in our minds when we think of spiders. The web is large, about twelve inches in diameter and is usually constructed among plants in a sheltered, sunny spot. The center of the web has a distinctive zigzag pattern and the spider herself is usually found, head down, in that area.
The Carolina Wolf Spider (Lycosa carolinensis). This spider, too, is on the large side (one-and-a-quarter inches) and the body is as long as it is wide. Gray-brown in color, it sometimes has a central abdominal stripe. These spiders do not spin webs but hunt at night in leaves, rocks, and grass. They are found in meadows and woods and tend to be well-camouflaged.
The Funnel-Web Grass Spider (Agelenopsis naevia). Early in the morning when dew is still on the lawn is the best time to see the large fine webs that these spiders construct over grass with a distinctive horizontal funnel in one corner. This small (three-quarters of an inch) spider is dark brown with pale yellow bands. Lurking in the funnel, she dashes out after any insect that crosses her web.
The Daring Jumping Spider (Phidippus audax). This half-inch spider looks a bit like a miniature tarantula, being black and hairy with short, stout legs and large eyes. It uses its ability to make extraordinary leaps to pounce on its prey. The preferred habitat of the jumping spider is tree trunks, fallen limbs, and leaf litter.
The Crab or Goldenrod Spider (Misumena vatia). A tiny (three-eighths of an inch) and truly beautiful spider that spends its time hiding in goldenrods and daisies snatching insects. The female is yellow or white with red streaks on the abdomen and thick, pale legs; the male’s abdomen is white with two red streaks.
All of the above spiders live out their life spans from May through October. The species we are probably all too aware of, however, is year-round: The American House Spider (Achaearanea tepidariorum). Only one-quarter of an inch in length, this is the spider that builds irregular webs in the corners of ceilings and windows. The body is pale brown with the large abdomen mottled black and gray on the sides. The male’s legs are orange and those of the female are black and yellow. Two species of common house spider are capable of giving a painful, but not fatal, bite: Cheiracanthium inclusum and Cheiracanthium mildei. Both are light gray in color mixed with pale yellow. Spiders are not aggressive, putting up a defense only when feeling threatened. The kind of situation that might cause a bite is putting on a glove that has not been used for a while without shaking it out first.
The Parson Spider (Herpyllus ecclesiasticus) is a common outdoor spider that is sometimes carried indoors on firewood. Its bite may cause a small red inflammation on the skin that may itch much like a mosquito bite but, as mentioned above, reactions to spider bites vary.
According to Greek mythology, Arachne was a talented weaver who allowed the praise she received for her tapestries make her rash enough to challenge Athena, the Goddess of Weaving, to a contest and foolish enough to win. In a rage, Athena killed her. Fortunately, Athena was also the Goddess of Wisdom who instantly repented her impetuous act. She brought Arachne back to life as a spider. Given the good that spiders do, we too should let the wise side of our nature prevail. Instead of destroying every spider we see, we should capture them using a glass and card, and either put them outdoors or on a houseplant that might need protecting.