Monday, November 26, 2012

200 baby spiders...

A juvenile huntsman spider waits for prey atop a bar of Kiss My Face soap.

Simply Living
November 26, 2012

The huntsman spider that lives in our bathroom just had babies.  About 200 tiny brown spiderlings hatched out of the silky white, quarter-sized egg sac that their mother had carried on her belly for weeks. 

In our house, we hold huntsman spiders in high esteem.  As their name implies, these large, long-legged arachnids are excellent hunters but instead of spinning a web to capture prey, Heteropoda venatoria stalk their victims with patient vigilance.  After establishing a territorial claim, in this case the bathroom, the spider waits for its meal ticket to appear.  When prey is sighted, the stealthy spider springs into action with a speedy attack and fatal injection of venom.  Cockroaches are a favorite food and the huntsman’s effectiveness in capturing these pests is the main reason we welcome the spiders into our house. 

Our family has been coexisting with huntsman spiders for over 20 years.  
Over that time, we’ve seen many adult females carry around an egg sac and, on a few other occasions, have been around when the newly hatched babies leave the sac to live on their own.  While the thought of welcoming 200 new spiders into the house may strike some as daunting if not completely insane, the reality is, most of the young will not survive.  Like other creatures that bear multiple offspring, the majority falls prey to other predators or fails to thrive for one reason or another. 

That seems to be what happened with this latest population.  A few days after my husband noticed the mass of small, brown babies clustered around the mother spider and her abandoned egg sac, I can only find two spiderlings in the bathroom.  One seems to have taken a fancy to the sink while another has gravitated toward the shower.  Both choices make sense since many bugs (including cockroaches and mosquitoes) are attracted to moist environments.  Now that I’ve noticed the young spiders, I’m careful to check before turning on the water so I won’t inadvertently flush one of our latest little bug-eaters down the drain.  

Although baby huntsman spiders begin life at about the size of freckle, they grow quickly.  Mama spider watches out over her babies for their first few weeks, during which time they progress through several molts while consuming minuscule insects.  The spiderlings in our bathroom are now each about the size of thumbtack, still on the small side but definitely larger than they were initially. 

The leg span of a mature huntsman spider has always reminded me of a toddler’s splayed hand.  Its brownish-grey body is about two inches long but is closer to five inches wide if the spread of its eight legs are included.  Large spiders like the huntsman can be intimidating to the uninitiated and downright terrifying to people who suffer from arachnophobia.  Because of their size, and often simply because they are spiders, many are killed.  That’s unfortunate because despite their tarantula-like appearance, huntsman spiders pose no danger to people. Quite the opposite.  These beneficial creatures provide an invaluable service by devouring pesky bugs.  Welcoming huntsman spiders into your home is like having a team of round-the-clock in-house pest-control professionals working for free.

A huntsman "hides" on a roll of paper towels
Although commonly found throughout Florida, Huntsman spiders are native to warm-weather Australia.  Their inability to survive outdoors in the cold prompts many of these large-bodied, shy spiders to seek indoor habitats.  Numerous huntsman spiders live in our house, barn and sheds but because they are mainly nocturnal hunters, I see them infrequently.  When I do, I’m always awed, not just by their size (substantial) but by their obvious unwillingness to be observed. 

If I chance upon a huntsman at night by turning on a light, the previously mobile spider stops moving.  It freezes in place while telepathically telling me, ‘Look away.’  When I do look away, it scurries out of sight, behind a picture frame or a piece of furniture.  Huntsmans are shy spiders that do their best to stay away from human interaction.

It has been interesting watching this latest batch of young spiders develop, stake out territories and integrate themselves into our household.  Since a huntman’s lifespan is about two years, I like to think we’re just beginning a long and mutually satisfying relationship.   

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