Peter Passi column: Boundary Waters spider spins impressive web
An eight-legged camp visitor wowed us with its engineering prowess.
PIERZ LAKE, Minn. — Sure, many of us venture into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness seeking a dose of quietude, a sense of connection to the natural world and perhaps a coveted wildlife sighting or two. Our family has enjoyed memorable encounters with moose, bears, eagles, pine martens, spruce hens, loons, turtles, owls, beavers, Canada jays, along with other camp opportunists, and even an oddly nonchalant woodchuck.
But a relatively low-key and rather rainy trip up the Gunflint Trail this August caused us to slow our pace and take greater note of the Northland’s often-overlooked little critters. One of the unexpected highlights of our journey occurred on Pierz Lake, where the late-afternoon sun shone a perfect spotlight on a boldly marked spider constructing a massive, intricate web.
Over the course of a few hours, we observed and documented the spider’s progress with photos only to learn afterward that the object of our fascination was a specimen called the giant lichen orbweaver. Its scientific monicker is Araneus bicentenarius, so named because it was publicly displayed as part of a collection at Philadelphia's 1882 bicentennial.
Upon my return to civilization, I contacted local naturalist, educator and Northland spider expert Larry Weber to pick his brain about the impressive web we had watched take shape, probably close to 4 feet in diameter.
Weber, who regularly shares his wealth of knowledge with News Tribune readers as a columnist, has written extensively about spiders and expressed his mutual admiration for the lichen orbweaver.
As its name suggests, the spider is a master of disguise, blending in almost imperceptibly with parts of the northwoods’ lichen-laden terrain.
But this eight-legged creature isn’t afraid to strut its stuff when it comes to web building. Weber said he has seen the spider construct its sticky net around a framework of basal threads sometimes stretching 10 feet from point-to-point. We, too, encountered a similarly impressive spread of its wind-borne support lines.
With these base threads secured, the work began in earnest, and it’s a bit of a marvel to see so much web come out of a single spider, Weber acknowledged.
“It is all liquid inside the spider’s body, and then as soon as it leaves on the spinnerets, it turns into a thread,” the aptly named Weber explained.
“Once you see that spider and you see its web, you’ll be amazed,” he said.
For all the work involved in creating a web of such size, it often survives little more than a single evening. Weber said the lichen orbweaver actually has been known to consume its own web after use.
I wondered if this enabled the spider to recycle the web in a sense, but Weber suggested it was likely for another purpose.
“I think the reason they consume it is because if the web stays out there, it can alert predators to the presence of the spider,” he said.
Weber said spiders are often underappreciated for their amazing abilities and skill in preying on insects we often consider a nuisance.
Nevertheless, he said he understands that some people have a natural aversion to spiders.
“I have no problem with somebody having a fear of spiders. But what I don’t appreciate is when they take the next step and hurt them or kill them,” Weber said.
So, no matter what ick-factor may afflict you in terms of spiders, the next time you encounter one, I’d encourage you to step back for a moment and admire its role in the world of nature. Of course, it helps if you're not taken by surprise by one crawling across the back of your neck as you're mid-stroke in a canoe.