A Tale of Two Spiders
by Ser Anderson
Broadcast 5.11 & 5.14.2021
I’d like to say I like spiders, but if I did it wouldn’t exactly be the truth.
For two weekends in May, I visited a pale yellow goldenrod crab spider living on a bright gold heart-leaved arnica flower outside my family’s cabin on Flathead Lake. The crab spider spent most of its time still and waiting for prey to come to the flower, but when I got too close, it would scurry behind the petals of the flower and wait for me to go away. I watched the flower start to wilt, but the spider remained. Every time I saw it, I felt like I was checking in with a neighbor.
This spider, and goldenrod crab spiders in general, I actually do like.
One of the very few spiders I have successfully identified all the way to the species level, goldenrod crab spiders (Misumena vatia) look a little like miniature crabs, with wide abdomens and two larger pairs of legs which are often held curved in front of their heads. They are usually lovely shades of yellow to white, sometimes with reddish patches on either side of their broad abdomens. Their pretty colors provide camouflage for them as they lie in wait on flower petals for pollinating insects to stop by.
I’ve never seen one attack and capture its prey, but recently, out hiking in the Missions, I noticed an odd shape at the edge of a flower. When I looked closer, the odd shape was a bee, dangling from the grasp of a goldenrod crab spider. My main reactions to this “gruesome” sight were curiosity and delight.
My reaction to simply seeing a different type of spider later that weekend was much different.
These large, black spiders are familiar because they live in the rocky beach between our cabin and Flathead Lake. Still, low-level fear and revulsion shivered up my back when I spotted one on a rock near me. I watched it waggle a pair of short, hairy, pointy appendages, called pedipalps or palpi, hanging down from the front of its head in a way I found completely unnerving, and I shuddered.
This one was just sitting near me, but I know from experience that these spiders are really fast, active predators. They hide under and between the rocks when I get too close, but they don’t necessarily stay in the place I last saw them. After almost 30 years of never being bitten by one of these spiders, I can’t shake the sense that they are going to run out and attack me.
At their largest, they are the size of a half-dollar coin when their legs are stretched out, but that is plenty big enough for me. They are black or dark brown and covered with dark hairs. Western society has very strong cultural associations of darker colors, black in particular, with evil. How strongly does that cultural baggage influence my reaction to these spiders?
They don’t have any noticeable patterns and they don’t look like any of the spiders in my field guide. They are members of the wolf spider family, Lycosidae, but beyond that, I have not been able to identify them.
I don’t know their common name, their species, or their genus. For me, that matters. Sometimes learning the name of a species can be the endpoint of our curiosity about them. But learning the name of a species helps me remember the observations I make and what I learn from them.
There is a power and intimacy in calling something by its name. Knowing the names of individual humans and of other living species makes them instantly more relatable: not just some spider, but a goldenrod crab spider or a black beach spider, as I have started to call these unidentified wolf spiders, hoping to reduce my fear and dislike by drawing them into my circle of named acquaintances.
Every week since 1991, Field Notes has inquired about Montana’s natural history. Field Notes are written by naturalists, students, and listeners about the puzzle-tree bark, eagle talons, woolly aphids, and giant puffballs of Western, Central and Southwestern Montana and aired weekly on Montana Public Radio.
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