Of all the creatures in natures’ menagerie, spiders and their relatives probably evoke more fear and loathing than any others, even including snakes. There is just something about all those legs and the fear related to the cryptic nature of spiders, their venom, and their abundance in nature and our houses.
One spider relative that we encounter periodically at the shore is the horseshoe crab, which is not really a crab at all. It is a xiphosuran arachnid related to spiders but a very ancient creature that is harmless and actually quite valuable as a source of a blood derivative used to assess the sterility of medical instruments.
Scorpions on the other hand are poisonous and some are dangerous. The fearsome looking but harmless whip scorpion or vinegaroon that is common on Manasota Key lives in the ground litter and eats small insects including roaches. It can only spray some acetic acid and has no stinger like the true scorpion. True scorpions are rarely seen in our area and the local species are not deadly. Indeed you are at a much greater danger from bee or wasp stings.
Our most impressive spider is the banana or golden silk spider. It is huge and hangs out in a large web made up a protein which is stronger than steel for its weight. Indeed research is underway at Utah State University to harvest this protein from goats which have the spider silk gene implanted in their genome ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BioSteel ).
Many of us have grown up with the familiar golden garden spider in our backyards and enjoy watching it catch insects in its impressive orb web. The large female is most often seen hanging behind the web. Webs usually have a zig zag pattern called the stabilimentum, the purpose of which remains unclear. It may attract insect prey by reflecting UV light and/or it may warn birds to avoid flying through the web and destroying it.
My favorite spider is the so-called fishing spider which runs on the water surface and catches small prey both above and below the water surface. This photo shows a fishing spider that has caught a damselfly. They do not make a web at all.
Some spiders catch prey while hiding in plants. The beautiful green lynx spider is well camouflaged and illustrates the strong parental care that many spiders show. During winter I sometimes find female green lynx spiders with their eggs or hatched young fasting for long periods while they protect and care for the babies. This female’s abdomen is quite shriveled by her long period without food.
The most engaging arachnids are the jumping spiders which have large forward facing eyes and seem quite interested in humans. They could even be considered pets if you are willing to go that far. They have no web except for a drag-line they trail behind while they walk and jump around looking for insect prey.
While spiders are consummate predators, they do have some serious enemies, especially wasps. You are likely familiar with so-called dirt dauber wasps which collect spiders, sting them, and place them in their dirt tubes with a wasp egg on them. This “living death” while being eaten is pretty strange but is a common strategy for wasps. I watched this rusty spider wasp catch and paralyze a large wolf spider which will be used for larval food.
So try and get over your arachnophobia and appreciate the diversity and remarkable habits of spiders and their relatives.