Northland Nature: Along came winter spiders
Retired teacher Larry Weber, of Barnum, is the author of “Butterflies of the North Woods" and “Spiders of the North Woods," among other books. Reach him via Katie Rohman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
January was considerably warmer than normal. These mild conditions brought out some happenings that maybe we would not have expected.
January thaws often happen, but rain usually does not. Not as snow, but it added to the precipitation, making this month the third month in a row of being wetter than normal. The warmer temperatures woke some of the winter sleepers.
Nearly every January has a thaw and it is not so different to see skunks waking and wandering from their cold weather sleep. And maybe some raccoons and chipmunks were out of their dens as well. These drowsy mammals will return to their winter world when the weather goes back to being colder.
Not as obvious, but still active, are a few kinds of insects that reach maturity in the winter. On mild days, a couple kinds of crane flies: some with wings (Trichocera) fly about and some without wings (Chionea) walk over the snow surface. Both reside in the subnivean space under the snow, coming to the surface when the temperature rises.
We may also see what appear to be grains of pepper hopping in the snow. These very tiny snowfleas, or springtails (Collembola), congregate on the snow as the temperatures climb above freezing.
Also in the subnivean area are some spiders that remain active all winter. Best-known of these are wolf spiders. Sometimes they take advantage of the mild days and climb to the surface and move over the snow, returning to the shelter of the subnivean. (Once the snow melts, they are easiest to see.) And some spiders are indoors.
Most of the web-making spiders are not to be found now, but two kinds can be seen in our barns, garages, basements and houses. Here, they will patiently wait during the cold and dark.
One, the cob-web spiders (Theridiidae) make snares that appear to be a mess, but are still effective at catching prey. In corners, we may see the web and spider of the funnel-weavers (Agelenidae). Both are harmless and seek insect meals. More active are the climbing crab spiders (Philodromidae). Holding front legs like that of a crab, these small spiders often go up on walls in their predatory search.
A couple days ago, I noted another active spider that moved about in the house. Seeing some movement on a countertop, I paused for a closer look and discovered a parson spider (Herpyllus ecclesiasticus). The spider was hunting for prey to be found in the house, but stopped long enough for me to get a close look.
About one-half-inch long, the spider was mostly black on all eight legs and the hairy sides of the body. Along nearly the whole length of the body on the dorsal side it had a white band. It is the shape of this white on the abdomen that gives the spider its rather unusual name. To some early naturalists, this pattern looked like the scarf (cravat) as worn by a clergyman. (Most of us are not likely to think of clergy when seeing a spider.)
Parson spiders belong to a group called ground spiders (Gnaphosidae). Fast running, they stay active all winter — no web making — under the snow and other debris in the woods. They will readily move indoors if they need to.
Besides the white markings on the back, parson spiders can be recognized by their long and robust spinnerets. They are beneficial to us as they seek insect prey in our houses, maybe spending all or much of the winter with us indoors, but usually not seen by us.