Environmental Almanac

Enjoying Spiders

A black and yellow spider hangs from a web

Rob Kanter

[In anticipation of Halloween and the spirit of throwback Thursday, this week's spot comes from 2005, when my kids were still young enough to do just about anything I asked of them.]

Halloween is upon us, the one time of year people put up spider webs at home instead of taking them down. It’s also a great time to celebrate and explore some of the things that creep us out. Like spiders.

Since children are usually a little more open to these subjects than adults, I’ve enlisted the young naturalists from my house, Jane and Will, to help out with today’s show.

Let’s start with the basics. Kids, are spiders insects?

Both: Nooooo.

How can you tell?

Jane: Spiders have eight legs; insects have six.

Will: Yeah, and spiders have only two body sections; insects have three.

Jane: Besides that, all insects have antennae, and most have wings.

Will: Spiders don’t.

There are more than five hundred species of spiders found in Illinois, more than three thousand in North America. The big ones like tarantulas, orb weavers, and wolf spiders tend to get the most attention, but they represent only a small portion of the spiders all around us.

And spiders are all around us. In an often-repeated bit of wisdom, which I pass along here without scientific confirmation, you’re never more than three feet from a spider.

Spiders thrive in and around buildings, on trees, in grass, under rocks, and in caves. There’s even a spider that lives most of its life under water, using air bubbles trapped in silk to breathe.

Kids, does this mean we’re in constant spider danger?

Both: Noooooo.

Very few spiders are aggressive toward humans. When they bite people it is usually because they have become trapped next to the skin, either in clothing or bedding. This is not to say a bite from a spider can’t be serious. In Illinois, both brown recluse spiders and black widows can deliver a bite requiring medical attention. As a rule, though, people greatly overestimate the likelihood and severity of spider bites. Spider venom is meant for spider prey, which is mainly insects and other spiders.

If it creeps you out to think of how many spiders there are around you, think of how many more mosquitoes, flies, and other pests we’d have without spiders on the scene to eat some of them. Or better still, enjoy some of these cool spider facts.

Jane: Some spiders with fierce names, such as the rabid wolf spider, are really harmless to people. Others, like the black widow, live up to their names.

Will: Trapdoor spiders live in burrows underground. At night they wait by the door and spring out to capture insects passing by.

Jane: Spiders can parachute. As you may remember from Charlotte’s Web, spider young send out a balloon of silk to be carried away in the wind.

Will: A bolas spider swings a strand of webbing like a sticky tetherball to catch moths out of the air.

Is your spider sense tingling yet?

Jane: We sure hope so.

All: This year, think spiders for Halloween.