Spiders, Spiders, Everywhere In towels, grass, and nooks and crannies

Ellen Keohane | October 19, 2006

During the early fall mornings, when the grass is wet with dew, hundreds of spiderwebs can be seen glistening in hedges and the grass along the shoulders of the roads. Usually these webs are not visible, but they are always there, said Larry Penny, the director of natural resources for East Hampton Town.

Spider populations tend to peak during late summer and fall, before they hibernate for the winter - or die. At least a few hundred species of spiders live in East Hampton, but they have never been documented, Mr. Penny said. Unfortunately, he said, there is not a single naturalist studying spider species in the area.

Land near water and fields tends to attract spiders, which may explain why they seem to like East Hampton so much. When inside, spiders prefer corners and other quiet places that are unlikely to be disturbed by vacuum cleaners or dust cloths. There, they can be found quietly catching their prey, and consequently greatly reducing the number of insects in East Hampton homes.

Grass spiders make most of the webs people see on the ground along the road and in shrubs. The grass spiders, which are brown or grayish with dark stripes near their heads, use their webs, which are funnel-like in shape, as a retreat.

Daddy longlegs, also called harvestmen, are also very common in East Hampton. As their name suggests, daddy longlegs have very small bodies and extremely long, thin legs. Although most people think daddy longlegs are spiders, they are not, Mr. Penny said. They may look like spiders and even make little irregular-shaped webs, but they are not technically spiders.

True spiders are arachnids - not insects - and generally have four pairs of legs, eight eyes, two small jaws, fangs, and two body segments: a fused head and thorax (called a cephalothorax), and an abdomen. They produce venom, which is used to paralyze or kill their prey. While some spiders spin webs out of silk to catch prey, others actively hunt for their food.

Like many insects and marine invertebrates, spiders often molt, Mr. Penny said. In general, female spiders tend to be more colorful than males: "Males are dull and nondescript."

Some spin funnel-like webs, while others weave circular "orb" webs, sheet webs, or cobwebs. Funnel weavers, like the grass spider, are hunters. Hunting spiders are good at jumping and very quick, Mr. Penny said, and they roam the countryside looking for food. "Most of the hunting spiders are also good jumpers; they can use a quick jump to pounce on their prey the way a lion springs on a gnu."

Hunting spiders are typically only perhaps a half-inch or one-fourth of an inch long. "Their front ends are higher than their rear ends - they look like army tanks," Mr. Penny said. "They're also kind of cute."

Spiders that make orb webs, which are generally large and suspended in midair, tend to be less active. Sitting in the center of their webs, they wait for their prey to come to them. Creating a circular web can take as long as two hours, Mr. Penny said.

Some circular web spinners weave a zigzag through the center of their web so birds and deer can see it and avoid hitting it. One of the most common of the circular web spinners is the argiope, or the garden spider. It is brown and yellow, and about the size of a silver dollar, Mr. Penny said.

Another common East End spider is the crab spider, which is smaller than garden spiders and has long front legs that curve backward, Mr. Penny said. Generally, crab spiders do not build webs. Instead, they sit in the center of flowers, waiting for insects to arrive, then ambush them.

The largest spiders living in East Hampton are wolf spiders, which are mostly brown with a white stripe on their backs. They actively hunt as well as use their funnel-shaped webs to catch prey.

Wolf spiders, as well as many other species of spiders, commonly enter living spaces. Often they can be found crawling across walls and ceilings, Mr. Penny said. Spiders are able to seemingly defy gravity by using a type of molecular bonding - van der Waals forces - between the tips of their legs and the surfaces they cling to, he said.

Spiders rarely bite humans unless provoked. However, there are two species on the East End that should be avoided: the black widow and the brown recluse.

Black widows are fairly easy to recognize. Female black widow spiders are about three-eighths of an inch wide, and black with red markings. Males are about are about one-eighth of an inch and have white and red markings. They are called black widows because a female spider will kill the male after mating.

Black widows can be found underneath branches and other objects, usually in dark, damp areas. If disturbed, they may bite humans. Their bites can be extremely painful, and victims may experience cramps, nausea, vomiting, and breathing difficulties, among other symptoms.

There has never been a black widow bite reported in the East Hampton area, Mr. Penny said, although black widow sightings have grown more frequent in recent years.

The brown recluse, also known as the violin or fiddleback spider, ranges in color from gray to light tan to dark brown and has a dark, violin-shaped mark on its back. Unlike most spiders, the brown recluse has six eyes, arranged in pairs, rather than eight. Because many other types of spiders look like the brown recluse, they are often misidentified.

The brown recluse likes to hide under rocks and wood, as well as in clothes and towels. Like the black widow, brown recluse spiders rarely bite humans unless disturbed.

A brown recluse bite can cause a deep wound that often takes several months to heal. For some, the bite simply stings, but for others it can be quite painful. Occasionally, people have more severe reactions such as fever, chills, or nausea. Locally, about two brown recluse spider bites are reported each year, Mr. Penny said.

If a person is bitten by a brown recluse or black widow spider and starts to feel sick, or if the bite itself becomes infected, he or she should seek medical attention. Children, the elderly, and those with medical problems are most vulnerable to the bites of black widows and the brown recluse. In extremely rare circumstances, the bites of these spiders have been fatal.

Again, spiders rarely bite people, being far more partial to insects. The best way to avoid getting bitten by one is to leave them alone.