By the middle of October, the araneids in the brush have mostly packed up for winter. I mean the big black and yellow garden spiders who all summer long construct big symmetrical orb webs in the grass and asters, and catch everything from gnats to airplanes — or dragonflies, anyway.
But they live only one summer, according to the books, and by mid-October they’ve mostly finished binding up packets of eggs deep in the dead grass that will wait for winter to pass and then hatch out the next generation in April and May.
It’s been pretty mild this fall, though, so the spider population overall — at least in their haunts that I haunt — have thrived past their usual September peak. By mid-October most everybody who figures to survive frosts and to overwinter normally is likely to be settling deep in the grass, or deeper, to hibernate, and others who don’t hibernate might have found their way to warmer places, like kitchens and door frames, that are likely to harbor winter food items such as flies. Or so it usually goes.
On a walk around the loop of the Unity park this weekend, I casually surveyed the metal benches just to see who might be toughing it out. One tiny fellow on a seat back appeared to be sunning himself. It takes a few minutes for your eye to cross over to the miniature dimensions, and down under the bench back I spotted an even smaller spider, maybe one-16th of an inch, tending a thin network of web.
The place was still crawling with spiders. In the summer this is normal: There are so many spiders that there’s always one within about 3 feet of you, no matter where you are. You hardly notice them because humans and spiders live in different planes or currents of the universe. So with my transparent arachnological eyeball, I walked along to the green chain-link fence around the basketball court. Inside the fence is another world.
Into the linktop distance were coils of fine silk, delicate to a human eye but probably more like barbed wire to the gnats darting around in the air. Toward the sun, long strands of silk waved in the breeze like fishing lines in the ocean. They were so fine they glistened in the eye only when just the right angle of light bounced in from the October west.
Among the coils were more spiders, none more than about an eighth of an inch long. A few were sunning on top of the steel posts. Or my eye would pick up mini-movement in the links, where what I guessed were long-jawed orb weavers, long-bodied with long legs extending front and back, tended their nets upside down. A tiny jumping spider with a hairy bulldoglike body ran and stopped, ran and stopped along the steel rail. In the photo later you could see his two big middle eyes peering curiously out from between two smaller eyes. Even in the picture his four other, smaller posterior eyes were too small to see.
Along the fencetop and on the bench at least 14 species of spiders were still at work, far into fall. In the coils ran long ones with tan-colored bodies, maybe three-16ths of an inch from head to butt. Some were smaller yet, with round dark abdomens and black cephalothoraxes (or heads). On top of one post was a crab spider, whose front two legs resemble a crab’s front claws.
This one was yellow and longish — a white-banded crab spider, I think — though there are so many different kinds of spiders that identifying them is more like divination for amateurs like me. Around 175,000 species of spiders are thought to be crawling the Earth. About 42,000 of them have been named. Our local experts estimate about 680 species live in Maine.
I watched the little crab spider sun for 10 or 15 seconds, then leaned over to take a picture, when pop! he flew off on the breeze by sending out a line of silk for a sail.
Now, I never actually saw this happen before, though I’ve read that spiders can fly. In fact, many spiderlings first leave the nest by sending out a strand of silk and letting the wind take them to their fortunes. Huge bands of “ballooning” spiders have been reported by ships far out to sea.
A little while later, off the front gate another spider, no idea what family even, also popped onto the breeze, and this fellow I watched floated up and down for 15 or 20 seconds over the grass.
Spiders fly off in the sky on strands of silk, and backyard naturalists throw their own lines underneath the benches and among the chain-link coils and find tough survivors. There are worlds within worlds. Sometimes they cross over.
Dana Wilde lives in Troy. His writings on the Maine woods are collected in “The Other End of the Driveway,” available from Booklocker.com and online book sellers. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month. You can contact him at [email protected]