Anyone who lives in or visits the Ozarks invariably notices that we have a lot of spiders. They’re in our gardens, fields, meadows, pastures and woodlands; and sometimes, they’re even in our homes. Love them or hate them, life in the Ozarks just wouldn’t be the same without a few wispy strands of spider silk brushing across your face on a woodland walk or the sight of a dewy meadow strung with thousands of glistening hammock-like webs strung by the Sheet-web spider (Linyphiidae). Of course, living in Missouri provides plenty of opportunities to encounter and learn about at least a few of the 300 species of spiders that call the Ozarks home.
Some of the incredible spiders found in the Ozarks include species like the Spotted Fishing Spider (Dolomedes triton), which walks on water and dives for prey. Triangulate Orb Weavers (Verrucosa arenata) and Spiny-Bellied Orb Weavers (Micrathena gracilis) are small, shy spiders whose carapaces are decorated with unusual and fantastic knobs, spikes and bumps. Some of these spiders are also quite colorful.
Wolf Spiders (Pardosa and Lycosa species) are among the most common spiders in Missouri and vary wildly in size and color. The interesting thing about wolf spiders is the female’s habit of carrying her egg sack aloft in her spinnerets. Once the spiderlings emerge, they climb onto the back of her abdomen where they will ride for a couple of weeks before dispersing on their own. Wolf spiders also have eyes that reflect light and the larger specimens, having larger eyes, are easy to spot in the dark using a flashlight.
Missouri’s largest and arguably, hairiest spider is the Missouri Tarantula (Aphonopelma hentzi), which is found right here in the Ozarks. This scary-looking, but quite shy spider lives primarily in the open rocky spaces provided by natural glades – special areas that are defined by thin soils overlying semi-solid layers of rock. Tarantulas prefer to hide during the day in silk lined burrows or abandoned rodent holes and come out at night to hunt a variety of insects. They are so shy that they are very seldom seen by humans except for occasional night sightings during the late summer and fall when tarantulas begin to wander in search of mates or winter hibernation sites.
The first thing I often encounter with visitors from states with low-spider populations is fear. They see the giant web of the orb weaver or garden spider hanging from the corner of my front porch and immediately assume I am being invaded by horrible creatures. I usually have to explain that I actually want the spiders to be there.
In fact, I prefer to have one of the big spiders – either a garden spider or an orb weaver - living on my porch in the summer. This is partly because they’re good at keeping the bugs down, but mostly because they are beautiful (nothing beats the garden spider for looks!) and entertaining (I love watching the orb weavers tear down their webs each morning and build them back again at night).
No, I don’t mind spiders. Especially if they stay outside where they belong. But even those that make it into the house are often captured and released. The usual suspects are jumping spiders, brown recluse spiders and the occasional rabid wolf spider (which, of course is not really rabid nor dangerous!). Of these, only the brown recluse is venomous and can inflict a potentially dangerous bite.
In fact, of the 20,000 species of spiders in the Americas, only 60 are even capable of biting a human and only 4 of those can inflict a bite dangerous to humans. (Source: e-Medicine Health) In Missouri, that list is narrowed down to 3 venomous spiders: the brown recluse, the black widow, and the very rare tarantula. Of the three, the black widow has the most dangerous venom. Unfortunately, the brown recluse gets the worst rap.
The Brown Recluse (Loxosceles recluse) is also called Violin Spider for the dark, fiddle-shaped marking found on the almost heart-shaped cephalothorax. The adults cannot climb smooth surfaces like bathtubs and sinks, which is why they are often found caught in these places. Their webs are small and haphazardly spun and unlike other spiders, they don’t spend all of their time in or even near their webs. I’ve heard some people refer to brown recluse spiders as “wanderers”, as it is their habit to wander in search of prey outside of their small, messy webs.
While these spiders are venomous, they are also shy. Their penchant for hiding in dark, undisturbed places such as closets and drawers presents humans with the real threat of being bitten when they accidentally grab the spider. Rarely will recluse spiders bite otherwise. Although recluse spider bites are notorious for causing large ulcerous wounds that are slow to heal, most people do not experience this type of reaction when bitten. Instead, the most prevalent symptoms are a slight swelling and itchiness at the site, common of many other kinds of spider bites. Most of the time the bites are so innocuous that they are often mistaken for bad mosquito or tick bites.
In general, spider bites are raised and have a hard bump in the middle that has a small, but visible crater in its center. These bites can often take several weeks to heal completely. After living here this long, it’s no surprise that I have been bitten by spiders many times. Many of these bites were undoubtedly brown recluse bites, yet I am still not concerned by their presence in my house. I once read a study in which the author sought to determine how common brown recluses were in modern homes throughout the U.S. They found participants who had never seen recluses in their homes, but who were willing to diligently search for them. The results shocked the participants as well as the studies’ author, finding the number and distribution of the spider more common than previously thought.
Whether you like them or not, all spiders – even the ones that bite – play a crucial role in the health of our environment. In the garden, spiders help keep the population of destructive insects and bugs such as moths, flies, grasshoppers, leafhoppers, caterpillars and even other spiders in check. Many spiders become food for other creatures, such as birds, lizards, frogs and parasitizing wasps. In fact, spiders eat more destructive insects than birds or bats combined!
It is the many varied species of plants, animals, birds, insects, spiders, fish and reptiles that makes the Ozarks what they are. And even the smallest of these can and do provide a service to humans. Our eight-legged friends should not be feared for their creepy crawly looks, but rather, honored and supported for the good work they do in our gardens!
Learn more about Missouri spiders at the MDC spider page.
A Journey of Seasons is a beautifully recounted story of life on a rural Missouri homestead. Based on the changing landscape of the seasons and filled with nature notes, botanical musings, back-woods wisdom and just a pinch of hillbilly humor, noted author, naturalist and organic gardener, Jill Henderson, spins a story of delight and enchantment. This is one journey you don’t want to miss!