Weavers’ World

Though I was sad to send my daughter back to school earlier this month, I was looking forward to one thing:  walking her to the bus stop in the morning and scoping out the spider webs in my garden.

This shot was taken looking down into a patch of daylily leaves.  Look at all of those webs!  Whoever said you're never more than six feet away from a spider wildly underestimated the number of spiders in the world!

This shot was taken looking down into a patch of daylily leaves growing next to my front walk. Look at all of those webs! Whoever said you’re never more than six feet away from a spider wildly underestimated the number of spiders in the world!

The early morning dew glistens on all of the webs and makes them stand out.  They are everywhere.  Webs as small as your palm or wider than a basketball, all made by spiders so tiny that you could fit several on your thumbnail.

This beautiful orb web was made by that tiny glint of green in the center, an orchard spider.  There are many species of orchard spider which share the genus Leucauge.  It's pronounced LOO-COW-GEE (the last G is hard) and is fun to say!

This beautiful orb web was made by that tiny glint of teal green in the center, an orchard spider. There are many species of orchard spider which share the genus Leucauge. It’s pronounced LOO-COW-GEE (the last G is hard) and is fun to say!

My childhood fear of spiders was replaced long ago by fascination.  (No, Dad, I’m not too grown to remember the time I nearly gave you a heart attack by screaming at the top of my lungs in the bathtub.  Still not my fault.  I was seven and naked and the spider jumped at my face.)

One of the very best children's books ever written, Charlotte's Web is a must have!  The author, E.B. White, also wrote wonderful adult non-fiction about nature that I could read over and over.

One of the very best children’s books ever written, Charlotte’s Web is a must have! The author, E.B. White, also wrote wonderful adult non-fiction about nature that I could read over and over.

The more you know about spiders, the more friendly they seem.  In my house, we name any spider we find “Charlotte” to remind us of that wonderful arachnid that saved dear Wilbur the pig with her fabulous web writing.  We’re up to Charlotte XVI, I think, and we have loved them all.

Teaching this summer’s field camps, I got to spend some time with the graduate students at Virginia Tech who are studying the amazing characteristics of spider silk, learning along with the campers about our local orb weavers.   Again, the more I learned, the more awe I felt for these amazing little creatures.  Here are the highlights:

There are four main types of webs we see around here:  cob webs (I call them  messy webs), sheet webs, bowl and doily webs, and orb webs.

These are bowl and doily webs in one of my small holly trees.  It's easy to see how they get their name; there's a bowl shaped web on top, with a flat doily-like web underneath.  Bowl and doily spiders in my garden are tiny (less than half of my pinky nail), black, and have little white marks around the outside of their abdomen.

These are bowl and doily webs in one of my small holly trees. It’s easy to see how they get their name; there’s a bowl shaped web on top, with a flat doily-like web underneath. Bowl and doily spiders in my garden are tiny (less than half of my pinky nail), black, and have little white marks around the outside of their abdomen.

Tucked deep in the foliage and low to the ground I found this excellent example of a sheet (or funnel) web.  This is an averag-sized one; I've seen them covering bushes as large as four feet high, wide and deep.  The weaver of the web sits inside the funnel, waiting for lunch to announce its arrival by vibrating the strands of the web upon impact.

Tucked deep in the foliage and low to the ground I found this excellent example of a sheet (or funnel) web. This is an average-sized one, but I’ve seen them covering bushes as large as four feet high, wide and deep. The weaver of the web sits inside the funnel, waiting for lunch to announce its arrival by vibrating the strands of the web upon impact.

None of the orb weaving spiders here are dangerous. No, really!  They’re not!

Meet Micrathena.  With that large, spiky abdomen, she's enough to scare off even the toughest nature explorers.  Her cousins also come in devil-red and caution-yellow.  Yikes!  But she's completely, thoroughly harmless.  This picture is a bit fuzzy because I was trying to catch the shot while she was trying to get far away from me, and fast.

Meet Micrathena. With that large, spiky abdomen, this little orb weaver is enough to scare off even the toughest nature explorers. Her cousins also come in devil-red and caution-yellow. Yikes! But she’s completely, thoroughly harmless. This picture is a bit fuzzy because I was trying to catch the shot while she was trying to get far away from me, and fast.

The orb weaving spiders are all fairly small, but if you notice them at all, they’re usually female.  The males are tiny.  Girl Power!

Sitting in the center of her web, legs held out in a large X formation, sits the lovely Argiope, also known as a garden spider or writing spider. The extra weaving running vertically at the center of her web is for stability, scientists tell us, but I often wonder if an Argiope might have been the inspiration for Charlotte.

Sitting in the center of her web, legs held out in a large X formation, sits the lovely Argiope, also known as a garden spider or writing spider. The extra weaving running vertically at the center of her web is for stability, scientists tell us, but I often wonder if an Argiope might have been the inspiration for Charlotte.  This is a medium sized Argiope; check out a bib mama Argiope at the end of this post.

The long threads that anchor a web aren’t sticky, only the spiral threads that make up the circular portion of the web are.

The threads that radiate from the center form the frame for the sticky  spiral threads of the orb.  The long threads at the outside anchor the web to surrounding plants.  Neither of these are sticky.  The spider only deposits the sticky glycoprotein glue drops on the spiral threads.

The threads that radiate from the center form the frame for the sticky spiral threads of the orb. The long threads at the outside anchor the web to surrounding plants. Neither of these are sticky. The spider only deposits the sticky glycoprotein glue drops on the spiral threads.

If you walk slowly through the forest, you’re much less likely to run face first into a web.  If you do run into a web, though, you can be sure that the spider has run for cover and is not going to bite you in retaliation.  (Still, if when you walk into a web you feel the irresistible urge to immediately transform into a spider-fighting ninja, please come hiking with me; I’ll make you go first and it will be hilarious!)

This stunning web sat just about at eye-height in a young dogwood tree in my backyard.  I would have hated to destroy such fine work.  Then again, spiders rebuild and/or repair their webs daily, so the little lady that made this would have caught her next meal with no trouble, regardless.

This stunning web sat just about at eye-height in a young dogwood tree in my backyard. I would have hated to accidentally destroy such fine work. Then again, spiders rebuild and/or repair their webs daily, so the little lady that made this would have caught her next meal with no trouble, regardless.  Note the messy cob web behind this orb web – spiders have no trouble living next to one another and you’ll often find groups of webs situated close together.

If you’d like to see a spiderweb more clearly and don’t have the morning dew to help, fill a used sock with corn starch, tie off the end, and pat the sock softly to release fine powder that you can gently blow all over the web.  This works like a charm.  A flashlight also helps for low-light situations and under dense forest canopy.

Okay, here's the big mama Argiope I promised.  You can see she's protecting the egg sack she recently made.  She's a little larger than a half dollar, legs included.  She was gorgeous!

Okay, here’s the big mama Argiope I promised. I photographed her just a few days ago on a sunny afternoon walk.  She’s snacking on a cabbage white butterfly. She’s a little larger than a half dollar, legs included. She was gorgeous!  Don’t be startled if you happen upon a large Argiope in your own garden – they’re incredibly good to have around to eat up insect pests.

One last fun fact/nerd joke for the grown ups (children, avert your delicate eyes):

How do you know if a female spider doesn’t like a male suitor who’s come calling?

She eats him.

How do you know if she does like him?

She mates with him . . . and then eats him.

See?  These creatures are fascinating!

Looking Under Logs

I volunteer at the local nature center on Friday mornings, teaching preschoolers all about nature.  It is the highlight of my week, surrounded by the chaos of toddlers and tiny-legged runners, all ready to absorb and love whatever I enthusiastically share.

So, of course, in return for this love and mutual enthusiasm, I make them hold creepy crawlies.

Well, I don’t technically force them, but I do encourage and help (and cajole and convince) a lot.  In fact, I’ve gotten so many kiddos on board the “Creepy Crawlies are Cool” train that it’s become an expected part of our Friday mornings.  We play lots of different games in the nature center yard, but we never, ever forget to roll over a few of the logs and have a look underneath.

And here’s what we find:

Earthworms

A girl less than two years old holds an earthworm for the first time.  She was mesmerized!

A girl less than two years old holds an earthworm for the first time. She was mesmerized!

I love worms.  There, I said it.  Worms are amazing creatures not only for what they do – decompose organic matter such as dead leaves and turn it into rich soil – but also for their kid-friendly pick-up-ability.  (It’s my blog, I’ll make up whatever words I want.)  Worms do not bite or sting.  Worms do not even look like they could bite or sting.  They are not covered with scratchy scales or poky hairs; they are smooth and cool and wiggly.  And, when you put a worm in the hand of a little kid, it’s practically guaranteed that their eyes will grow wide and a joyous grin will spread across their chubby cheeks.  They’re doing it!  They’re holding a wild animal!  And it is awesome.

Wonderful worm facts:

  • There are hundreds of species of worms and they live in practically every environment on Earth.  The red worms we find in our backyard soil in North America are round, segmented worms, called annelids.
  • What’s that darker brown strip that runs through the middle of the worm?  It’s their gut!  You’re seeing through the body of the worm and all the way to those pieces of dead leaf that they’re turning into soil.  Yes, soil is made up of a lot of worm poo.  If you’re lucky; gardeners go dreamy eyed over high worm counts and will buy “castings” (that’s the science-y word for worm poo) to add to the soil because their plants will grow so much better.
  • Earthworms breathe through their skin.  This is why you often see earthworms on sidewalks and streets during heavy rain – the soil becomes saturated with water (soil is usually about 25% air) and the worms must tunnel up and out of the dirt to breathe.
  • Earthworms are hermaphrodites (I don’t usually share this fact with the preschoolers), when mating, two worms exchange sperm and both are fertilized.  Mating occurs on the surface of the ground, at night.  I think of it as “Earthworms After Dark” – cue the seductive lounge music.  Their “mommy and daddy parts” are located in the belt-like swelling around their body and eggs are produced there after mating.  The the eggs and sperm are later deposited into a vaguely lemon-shaped egg sac, from which tiny, fully-formed worms,

Ants

I have not yet captured a satisfactory picture of the ants we find under logs, so instead I'm sharing this photo I took of ants on a peony blossom.  Ask any gardener - if you want a peony bud to blossom, you'd better have ants attending it!

I have not yet captured a satisfactory picture of the ants we find under logs, so instead I’m sharing this photo I took of ants on a peony blossom. Ask any gardener – if you want a peony bud to blossom, you’d better have ants attending it!

Sometimes when we roll over a log we’ll find a colony of ants or termites busily moving around their underground nest.  Usually they are busy moving eggs.  Here in Virginia, we don’t have the invasive, biting fire ants that are common throughout much of the deep south, so we can feel fairly safe to squat down and observe the ants up close.  I would NOT have attempted that in our previous homes in Texas, Florida, or Louisiana!  A few amazing ant facts:

  • More than 10,000 different species of ants have been identified around the world.
  • Biologist Edward O. Wilson has made studying ants the majority of his life’s work, and his discoveries about ant society and behavior are mind blowing.  He’s also written an insightful novel centered around ants, Anthill, which I highly recommend for tweens and adults.
  • Ant colonies share some similarities with bee hives; both have just one queen who lays thousands of eggs and all of the workers are females, males have one job:  mating with the queen so she can keep laying those eggs.
  • Ants communicate with one another by means of chemical scent trails that can lead to a potential food source or alert the colony to danger.

Millipedes

This great close-up of a millipede on an adult hand was captured by Darkone and provided via Wikimedia Commons.  To hold a millipede, pick it up by gently pinching it between two fingers and place it on the open palm of the holder's hand.  The millipede may coil up, a natural defense mechanism, but will soon uncoil and walk all over the hand.  I like to have the preschoolers count seconds till the millipede opens.

This great close-up of a millipede on an adult hand was captured by Darkone and provided via Wikimedia Commons. To hold a millipede, pick it up by gently pinching it between two fingers and place it on the open palm of the holder’s hand. The millipede may coil up, a natural defense mechanism, but will soon uncoil and walk all over the hand. I like to have the preschoolers count seconds till the millipede opens.

The millipedes we find under logs in the yard are almost always much smaller than the millipedes featured in my previous post, A Moment for Millipedes.  They vary in size from about a half inch to one and a half inches, are about the width of a piece of acrylic yarn, and are so light that usually you can’t even feel them walking around on your hand.  Millipedes do not bite or sting, and are incredibly important to the ecosystem because they eat and break down dead vegetation such as fallen leaves and rotting logs. Some memorable millipede facts:

  • Though the Latin origin of the word millipede, milli for 1,000 and ped for feet would have us believe that all millipedes have that many legs, that’s a wild exaggeration.  Most millipedes have less than 100 legs (always two pairs per body segment, though) and the record-holder has just 750 legs.
  • Millipedes are long-lived among the arthropods.  They can survive up to seven years.  Sounds like a great pet – an aquarium with a lid, regular meals of rotting food, and you’ve got a friend for half of your childhood.
  • The fossil record leads us to believe that millipedes were the first animals to live on land.  A 428 million year old fossil of a millipede (Pneumodesmus newmanii) found in Scotland in 2004 is the oldest known animal to have body parts called spiracles (tubes that connect the inner body to the outside air) for breathing air.

Centipedes

This looks most like the centipedes we find under logs.  Not much bigger than the millipede, but with that orange/brown color and legs that stick out to the side.  This photo was taken by Thomas Quine and provided by Wikimedia Commons.

This looks most like the centipedes we find under logs. Not much bigger than the millipede, but with that orange/brown color and legs that stick out to the side. This photo was taken by Thomas Quine and provided by Wikimedia Commons.

What’s the difference between centipedes and millipedes?  There are many differences, but as a children’s nature teacher, the one I find most important is that centipedes can bite.  I have never been bitten, though I’ve had them crawl over my hand, but I still don’t advise picking them up.  The gentle pinch required to lift them may feel like an attack to a centipede (much like when King Kong picked up Fay Wray) and they may bite in defense.

Centipedes we find under logs also looked markedly different from the millipedes, so it’s easy to know which creatures to leave alone.  The centipedes have a decidedly orange tint to their exoskeleton, and their legs (one pair per body segment, if you’re counting) stick out from the sides of their bodies, whereas millipedes legs are neatly tucked beneath their bodies.

Centipedes are the hunters of the under-log world, and therefore move much faster than herbivorous millipedes.  (Carnivores need speed to attack.  A good comparison for centipede vs. millipede speed would be a wolf vs. a cow.)  Centipedes will eat small insects, snails, slugs, and worms.  A celebratory collection of centipede facts:

  • Just as millipedes don’t have 1,000 legs, centipedes don’t always have 100 legs,  though the number is usually between 30 and 360.
  • Centipedes can regrow legs that have been lost to birds or other predators with each new molt (shedding of the exoskeleton as they grow).
  • Over 3,000 species of centipede have been documented worldwide.

Slugs

In my greedy hand I hold not only a slug with partially-extended eye stalks, but also a light brown millipede crawling around the slug and a June beetle grub curled up next to it.  Yes, I am one lucky nature teacher!

In my greedy hand I hold not only a slug with partially-extended eye stalks, but also a light brown millipede crawling around the slug and a June beetle grub curled up next to it. Yes, I am one lucky nature teacher!

Ahh, the invasive leopard slug (Limax maximus).  Foe of the gardener and friend of the toddler who doesn’t mind slimy hands.  (The look on their parents’ faces when the tots joyfully hold up a palmfull of slug is excellent.)  We find lots and lots and lots of leopard slugs under logs.  These non-native creatures have done incredibly well here in the U.S., despite my mother’s valiant attempts at trapping them with old margarine tubs half full of my father’s Pabst Blue Ribbon.

I don’t grow veggies, so they don’t bother me much, and I have to admit to even liking them a bit after falling in love with the slug character Mub in the animated kids’ film Epic.  (Mub’s friendly insult to one of the human-like “leaf men”, calling him a “flat-face” was, in itself, epic.)  I encourage the kiddos to hold the slugs until they relax and extend their eyestalks.  Eyes at the end of long, antennae-like, telescoping appendages are just plain cool to kids of all ages.  Some super slug facts:

  • Slug eggs look like tiny tapioca pearls, and are frequently and easily found under logs or between the bark and core of a rotting log.
  • It’s plain to see that slugs and snails are related, but did you know that they’re also related to marine cuttlefish?  (Obviously the cuttlefish don’t react to salt the same way . . .)
  • Slugs are soil janitors, eating both live and dead plants as well as dead animals (omnivorous decomposers ain’t choosy) and digesting them into nutrient rich castings that enrich the soil.
  • The banana slugs that live in the Pacific Northwest of North America are the second largest slugs in the world, growing up to eight inches long!

Salamanders

Queen of the Salamanders holding three Eastern red-backed (Plethodon cinereus) salamanders in her hand.  She and her BFF, whose hands are just beneath hers, spent the morning catching the slippery fellows and sharing them with the younger kids.  They were very careful to put the salamanders back in the moist leaf litter before their skin dried out.

Queen of the Salamanders holding three Eastern red-backed (Plethodon cinereus) salamanders in her hand. She and her BFF, whose hands are just beneath hers, spent the morning catching the slippery fellows and sharing them with the younger kids. They were very careful to put the salamanders back in the moist leaf litter before their skin dried out.

In wet, cool weather, rolling logs and lifting the leaf layer on a forest floor may get you a glimpse of a salamander.  They are fast little creatures, and sunlight means danger in their world (a number of predators find them quite tasty, and to be seen is to be lunch), so it takes practice to snatch one up before it darts off and hides again.

I am, as I’ve said, very lucky when it comes to nature, though.  In this case, it’s because my daughter is a nature girl, too:  my daughter is Queen of the Salamanders.  She finds and catches them all over the place!  In one day at the Nature Center she caught a half-dozen!  I am one puffed-up, proud mama.

A selection of superlative salamander facts:

  • Salamanders are amphibians.  They breathe through their skin, and their skin must stay wet in order for them to breathe.  Though their cousins, the frogs, have lungs as adults, they also breathe through their skin when submerged in water.
  • Salamanders can regenerate limbs and tails that have been bitten off by predators within just a few weeks.  The hunter gets to eat the leg, but the salamander gets away.
  • Virginia is very special, salamander-wise, home to 49 different salamander species.  Many of these species are found in mountain woods, and the Virginia Appalachians are considered a salamander hotspot.  Check them out at the Virginia Herpetological Society’s website.

There are many, many more species to be discovered in and under rotting wood (this is why woodpeckers are always pecking holes in dead trees – there’s a buffet under the bark) but I think we’ll leave it here for now.  Today is National Get Outdoors Day, and that’s exactly what I’m going to go do!

A Moment for Millipedes

Just a quick post today – the sun is out and the pools are open!  I did want to take a moment, though, and write about millipedes.

Now, before you go “Ewwww, gross!”  You need to know the following things about millipedes:

  1. Millipedes are vegetarians, not hunters and, as such, they do not bite.  (Centipedes are the ones that bite.  They are not to be messed with.)  They will curl up in your palm as a defense mechanism – tough exoskeleton side out, soft underbelly in and protected.
  2. When you hold a millipede, after it uncoils, you’ll feel one of two things:  nothing, or tickling.  They do not have a thousand legs, as the prefix “milli” implies, but do have two sets of legs per body segment and that can add up to several hundred!
  3. Millipedes are incredibly important because they eat dead leaves and decaying wood and other dead plant matter.  Without them, we’d be up to our ears in fallen leaves from the past gagillion years.  Check out this quote:

“Since the [cyanide-producing] millipede crushes, filters and then recrushes its dead leaf diet, it increases the availability of nutrients 40,000-fold….The cyanide-producing millipede alone eats 33 to 50 percent of all the dead coniferous and deciduous leaves that come to rest on the forest floor. It is one of the most critical links in the entire soil foodweb.”

— From the article Small in Size, but Great in Importance by Dr. Andrew Moldenke

I lead a family nature walk at Falls Ridge Nature Preserve this last Wednesday, and though turnout was low – only one family – it happened to be the family of one of my favorite kids from the SEEDS – Blacksburg Nature Center.  We’ll call him Diego, not his real name, to protect his very important three-year-old privacy.

Diego is awesome.  He loves to be outside and is not afraid of anything.  He will hold any bug you give him and find it cool and/or cute.  Once he knows a bug is safe to hold, he will also go find them and pick them up himself.  This kid is an excellent log roller (one of our favorite activities at the nature center is rolling over rotting logs and checking out all of the tiny animals that live beneath them).

So, on our hike, though most of the spring flowers at Falls Ridge had past bloom and the butterflies were too fast to catch (or get decent pictures of), the universe rewarded Diego and me with millipedes.  Lots of them, and big ones!  (The ones we usually find under logs at the nature center are only about an inch long and skinnier than a piece of yarn.)

Here are the two coolest millipedes we found:

Bright colors, such as yellow and red, warn that an animal is likely poisonous, and this one is - it can secrete cyanide compounds.

Bright colors, such as yellow and red, warn that an animal is likely poisonous, and this one is – it can secrete cyanide compounds.

Apheloria virginiensis

This impressive little fellow has no common name, but is fairly common in southwest Virginia.  Though, again, not dangerous to humans, it is poisonous.  (Quick review:  “poisonous” = makes you ill if you eat it; “venomous” = can inject toxins into you that will make you ill.)  It can secrete enough cyanide compound to kill a small bird or mouse that tries to eat it.  It’s recommended that people wash their hands after handling this millipede so as not to rub any cyanide in their eyes accidentally.  The cyanide compounds it makes are what give this millipede its characteristic almond/cherry smell when it’s handled.  This particular little fellow, however, seemed to use speed in its defense – it crawled over our hands too quickly for me even to snap a picture; I had to photograph it back on the ground.

One more super cool thing about this millipede?  It glows in the dark.  The researchers at Marietta College in Ohio have documented this species as glowing blue under UV light (blacklight).

North American millipedes were all over the forest floor at Falls Ridge.  Several had been crushed by inattentive hikers' feet.  This one, though, was safe at the edge of a trail bridge.

North American millipedes (Narceus americanus) were all over the forest floor at Falls Ridge. Several had been crushed by inattentive hikers’ feet. This one, though, was safe at the edge of a trail bridge.

North American Millipede (Narceus americanus)

If we’re going to select one millipede for the whole continent, this one might as well be it, since it grows to twice the size of any other millipede living in North America.  They mate in spring and females will coil themselves around the one egg they lay in order to protect it; a lot more than other arthropod moms do for their broods!  These millipedes survive the winter inside rotting logs and can live up to 11 years.  When they’re born, they’re only three tiny body segments long, but each time they molt (shed their exoskeleton) they add new segments.

Once our eyes grew accustomed to seeing millipedes, we found them all over the trails and forest floor.  They must be out looking for love in the beautiful spring weather!

The North American millipede all curled up in Diego's little hand.

The North American millipede all curled up in Diego’s little hand.

The North American Millipede crawling on my hand.

The North American Millipede crawling on my hand.