Friday, August 13, 2010

Micrathena gracilis: Heavy Metal Spider!

She’s got venom! She wears black, and she’s spiky like a demon! She’s a maiden of death, leaving behind her vicious fangs a string of hideous, staring corpses. Yeah! She delivers APOCALYPSE!

. . . Well, if you’re a leafhopper, that is.

This little predator is often called the “spined micrathena,” but then all three of our micrathenas are spiny, so you might as well learn its proper name: Micrathena gracilis (my-cruh-THEE-nah grah-SILL-us). Like people do with plant names (impatiens, gladiolus, forsythias . . .), we’ll just lowercase the genus name and turn that into a common name: micrathena.

By the way, I’m not being reverse-sexist by calling her a “her.” In almost all cases, when you see a spider living in a web, it’s a female. As a general rule, spider males are quite small, rarely spin webs, and have a single goal in life. And they, um, don’t tend to live very long.

This particular micrathena has been hanging around our backyard all summer. We first “noticed” her when she strung her early orbs in a busy passageway between a tree and some lawn furniture. I kept walking through her webs. (Yes, it was rather traumatic for both of us.)

Micrathenas, by the way, are notorious in these parts for being one of the spiders that commonly builds webs across hiking trails. If you want to go hiking this time of year and not collect webs and their occupants on your shirt, you must twirl a stick before you as you walk. (Or, let someone else go first on the trail!)

Micrathenas create beautiful and delicate orbs. There’s nothing clumsy about their webs. They’re shimmery and full of parallel lines so closely spaced that a mosquito cannot sneak through, and the spiders (which prefer to rest belly-up) move about their homes with grace, walking forward with their front three pairs of legs and using the back pair as a smooth-sliding hanger for the giant hind end.

Usually, when seriously harassed, micrathenas plummet straight to the ground for safety. But sometimes you’re clomping along too fast, and “eensy-weensy heavy-metal spider” ends up on your shoulder, neck, hair . . . (Yeah, I know: Ugh!)

Okay, relax; remember, they're hardly even a half inch long. Brushing off a micrathena, you’ll notice her body feels like a sharp little piece of gravel. Or a Grape Nut.

So, with a little “encouragement” from us, the one in our backyard moved and is now living by the mock orange, in a flower bed, so she’s no longer in a trafficway or in the path of the lawn mower. The only harassment she gets now is from our cameras.

She’s pretty neat, huh? I love her pointy little tubercles. You could almost put tiny strings on her, plug her in, and turn her into an eensy-weensy headbanger’s wicked little electric guitar.

Rock and roll!


Cedar said...

I have seen these little girls before but never with such great close-up photography! Loved your little blog on her.

Julianna Schroeder said...

Thanks! You know, I used to be pretty arachnophobic, but when I started teaching myself spider names, and learning about their various ways of life, that fear diminished a lot. But I still don't want them "on" me!

Sometimes I think I write these entries just so other folks can start taking steps away from fear and toward understanding and appreciation.

And it helps to have a nice close-up picture; they are strangely beautiful creatures, and fun to try to photograph!