Exciting! News! From the Spider Lab!

Well, I found it exciting anyway. One of the problems I’ve faced in my new research on local spiders is that I can’t tell two species apart, Parasteatoda tepidariorum and Parasteatoda tabulata. Even the expert sources I consult usually discriminate by dissecting their genitals, which is not useful for me, since I want to study live animals and embryos. There is one suggestive hint, though: P. tabulata builds funky little nests in their webs in the wild, while P. tepidariorum apparently does not. It’s a behavioral distinction, and I have no idea how definitive it is, but at least it’s an angle.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to see nest building in the lab. I’ve tried throwing in miscellaneous office debris, like stuff from a whole punch and a paper shredder, but they never pay attention to it. Maybe all of my lab animals are P. tep? Maybe I’m providing the wrong kinds of nest material? I dunno.

So yesterday, in a forlorn, half-assed try, I noticed all the fine wood shavings in the containers for wax worms, their food, and I sprinkled a few small shavings in the cage for one of the new generation of spiders, not yet named, and went home. I’d spread them around, and even avoided the place where she was currently nesting (spiders have preferred spots to hang out in).

Today, presto…she had gathered the majority of shavings into one central place, and had built a nest. Isn’t it beautiful?

You can’t see her in there, because she’s hiding. You can see her brown egg sac, near the top center of the nest. I’ve also highlighted the cobweb by misting it with water. I guess I was just failing to give them the correct home-building materials before.

This is excellent news! Now I have to give all of the spiders in my colony some wood shavings, and see if they fall into two groups, nest-builders and non-nest-builders. I have a student who proposed studying this distinction this summer, if that still happens in this age of pandemic, and one thing we’ll have to try is a nest construction time-lapse — that really was assembled overnight, so it’s speedy, but it was done in the dark, so we’ll have to play with cameras and lighting to see if we can observe it.

The bad news is that when Tabitha — she has a name now — dies, we’re going to have to dissect her and observe her genitals very closely, to independently confirm her species.

Otherwise, though, this is so exciting! Thrilling, even! All the spiders get wood shavings! Everyone gets wood shavings! You can have wood shavings! Come on, you’ve got to admit that complex nest construction behavior in an invertebrate is fun stuff, even if it’s totally unsurprising, given that spiders have always been elaborate builders.

P.S. You might actually be able to see a bit of spider anatomy poking out in one place, but I’ll leave it as an exercise for you to Find the Spider.

In other dismal news…

I just learned in their newsletter that the American Arachnology Society meetings are cancelled this year. Aw, darn — I was looking forward to that. The thing is, too, that they were scheduled to take place in early July, at UC Davis, so this is right now the most proactive cancellation I’ve encountered yet. Meanwhile, my university is pretending we’ll be back in business in 2½ weeks, which is rather absurdly optimistic. The other con I regularly attend in the summer is Convergence, around the end of August. There aren’t any whispers about cancelling that, at least not yet.

The AAS newsletter also has a nice article on teaching kids to be comfortable with spiders, so that’s a plus.

I think I’ll be spending the whole summer right here in Stevens County.

That’s a bad joke, I will never forgive myself

Over on the Patreon site, I posted a photo of a proud spider mama and her freshly laid egg sac, and I called her Parentsteatoda tepidariorum, rather than Parasteatoda tepidariorum, because that’s how degraded my sense of humor has become over the last few days.

Slap me. Slap me hard, I deserve it.

What do you get when you cross a dad joke with a scientist joke? You get me. I’m so ashamed.

Spiders gettin’ fat

I put some more spider photos on my Patreon account — last time I neglected to mention that I also post some on Instagram, where they are free and you don’t even need an instagram account to see them.

I fed everyone big ol’ waxworms yesterday, and today they’ve been turned into big ol’ spider bellies. The ones I photographed are all new additions, spiders that were born here in my lab as tiny little spiderlings, and have now been successfully raised to pulchritudinous maturity.

Common sense about spiders

Hey, this is the same thing I tell everyone: spiders are mostly harmless, and they’re there whether you like them or not.

Spiders are not out to get you and actually prefer to avoid humans; we are much more dangerous to them than vice versa. Bites from spiders are extremely rare. Although there are a few medically important species like widow spiders and recluses, even their bites are uncommon and rarely cause serious issues.

If you truly can’t stand that spider in your house, apartment, garage, or wherever, instead of smashing it, try to capture it and release it outside. It’ll find somewhere else to go, and both parties will be happier with the outcome.

But if you can stomach it, it’s OK to have spiders in your home. In fact, it’s normal. And frankly, even if you don’t see them, they’ll still be there. So consider a live-and-let-live approach to the next spider you encounter.

The author of that article is also one of the authors of a paper I’m citing in something I’m working on now, in which he and colleagues did a thorough, room by room search for all arthropods in houses in a North Carolina region. One of their observations is that 100% of the homes had Theridiidae (common house spiders, like the Parasteatoda I’m studying) living in them. They’re kind of unavoidable. In my own much more limited survey (we only examined garages and sheds, and only arachnids, here in the harsher environment of Minnesota), we saw some similar results: almost all garages housed spiders. The one exception was eerily meticulous, everything stored away in tidy boxes, and no cobwebs or even dust. There are people who dust their garages! Unless you are that thorough, though, they’re there. And even if you are, they’ll sneak in — later that summer, we did find a few spiders in a shed on that same property. They looked terrified. Don’t worry, I didn’t rat out that they were there.

(Note: we were pretty strict about confidentiality, all locations are encoded in a file separate from the data on spider populations. You’d have to go through two sets of paper records matching addresses with spider counts to pin an identity on the houses with the most, or least, spiders.)

By the way, I have in mind proposing a workshop to Skepticon this year, an effort to counter arachnophobia. What I was thinking is a series of staged tables, where the beginning is something like 1) coloring pages of spider drawings, with explanations of anatomy; 2) a table of photos (maybe in trading card format?) of real spiders; 3) some small, caged spiders where we could observe feeding and courtship; and 4) a few harmless spiders, like Pholcidae, where people could actually let them clamber around their hands. Participants could ease in gradually and stop where ever they feel comfortable, and see people actually interact harmlessly with spiders.

What do you think? Would you actually participate in such a thing, if you had the opportunity? What number would you stop at?