I sensed the panic in their voices when several family members informed me there was a spider near my face.
I had just knelt down in a stream to find a crayfish when the warning came. I looked up and saw a small spider dangling down from a web. It looked harmless enough so I went about looking for crayfish and disregarded the small spider.
But it wasn’t the one they were trying to warn me about.
A few inches away, perched on a rock hanging over the stream was a large fishing spider. I noticed it as I stood up, and while the spider looked ominous, almost imposing, I had to get a closer look.
For a predator, this particular species of fishing spider was well-suited to hunt. Its thick, long legs culminated in an abrupt, pronounced point and two large pedipalps (fangs) alongside the mouth, which are used to aid in capturing prey. Six yellow dots highlighted the abdomen, which was swollen with legs and gave the spider a larger appearance.
In reality, this particular fishing spider was an inch-and-a-half in length and is one of the largest spiders to inhabit the state.
As I inched my finger closer to the spider, it quickly scrambled to safety underneath the rocks, moving its eight long legs with expert precision.
According to Steve Jacobs, an entomologist with Penn State University, fishing spiders get their name from their ability to stand on water. They feed on small fish and aquatic insects and are one of the “hunting” spider species that don’t rely on a web to capture prey.
Despite their threatening appearance, Jacobs said fishing spiders aren’t aggressive and are actually shy. While all spiders have venom, a bite from a fishing spider isn’t medically important, he said, comparing it to a bee sting.
Since that encounter with one of the state’s largest spiders I’ve paid attention to the arachnids that can be found in the area. I was surprised to learn there’s quite a few and they are vastly different.
Recently I noticed sheets of webs covering the stone foundation of an old barn. In the middle of each sheet was a funnel-like opening and tucked deep inside was a spider. There must have been hundreds of web sheets plastered over the stones, the work of appropriately-named spiders called the barn funnel weaver.
As I leaned in to study the webs, the spiders instinctly darted back into the funnel to hide. Wisely deciding not to stick a finger in the web to get a closer look at the spider, I left them alone in their stone dwellings.The wolf spider, which grows a bit larger than the fishing spider, hunts at night and will bite to defend itself.
The woodlouse hunter — a medium-sized spider with a reddish cephalothorax and a dull, white abdomen — preys exclusively on pill bugs (roly poly) under rocks.
On a house porch I noticed another variety of spider, and this one was pretty opportunistic. With its web anchored to a porch railing and a post, a few feet from a light, the cross orbweaver spider had no problem capturing plenty of insects that were attracted to the light at night.
Fortunately, there is only one species of spider in Pennsylvania whose bite we have to worry about — the black widow. Jacobs said they aren’t very common in the state and the fear that people have with spiders is comparable to that of snakes — it’s an overreaction.
“All spiders have fangs and venom, but are their bites medically important? No,” Jacobs said. “Most bites have little or no effect.”
If anything spiders, like snakes, are more beneficial to people than harmful. Just like snakes prey on rodents, spiders do a pretty good job of cleaning up nuisance insects. But that doesn’t mean I’d welcome them any closer than the front porch of my house.