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Nests of the nursery web spiders

Nursery web spider guarding its egg sac. (Photo by Larry Weber)

During the first week of August, we reach the time halfway between the summer solstice of June and the autumnal equinox in September. Daylight that was well over 15 hours for the last two months now goes below that number and as we go through this month, we have less each day. By the time we exit August, daylight will be only about 13 1/2 hours.

These shortening days affect the Northland wildlife. Each day there is a movement of family units of warblers that nested in the region. As the time goes by, these families will merge with others to create what we refer to as warbler waves, several species travelling through the trees together. They start out small, but these bird groups grow as we proceed through August. Other birds, such as shorebirds, also reveal their migration. Soon raptors will start their southbound flights.

There is still plenty of summer left. As I walk and bike at this time, I see grasshoppers and their locust cousins hopping and flying about. Katydids' creaking calls in the grasses and cicadas buzzing from the trees take the place of the bird songs that are now mostly silent. Large darners and small meadowhawks show us that dragonflies are still active. Monarch butterflies that we see now may be preparing for the long flight to the south or may be of the previous generation, feeding and laying eggs among the milkweeds and not migrating.

Milkweeds that began blooming in early July are likely to still be flowering with their spherical clusters of purple florets. Meanwhile others that started to flower last month — fireweeds, evening primroses, Michigan lilies and black-eyed susans — are beginning to wane. But August still has plenty of plants and now we can find an abundance of three kinds of flora, sunflowers, goldenrods and asters. They will be with us for at least the next several weeks and show much yellow, white and purple in the open spaces of late summer, going beyond the autumnal equinox.

My walks during early August will nearly always take me into patches of three kinds of plants, raspberries, milkweeds and goldenrods. The time spent in the raspberry bushes is to collect and taste the delicious red fruits. Despite the seeds within, they are worth the picking. As we move through these weeks, raspberries will fade, but in my region, they get replaced by larger and darker blackberries.

My time in the patches of milkweeds and goldenrods is spent watching the activity of many other critters that come here for a visit. The purple clusters of milkweed are filled with flies, bees, wasps, beetles and butterflies. Fragrant nectar attracts them and some carry off the unusual pollen sacs. (A few of the smaller insects may get caught in the notches on the flowers.) The long floral growths on goldenrods are crowded with insects as well. There is never a moment that I do not see flies (many of which mimic bees), bees, wasps, beetles, butterflies and more. Opportunistic predators, dragonflies and spiders, are here, too.

The spiders deserve a special mention. Crab spiders are small and with outstretched front feet, they superficially resemble crabs. Hidden in the flowers, they let insect food come to them. Others spin elaborate circular orb webs, using sticky snares to catch insects. By afternoon, many of these webs are down, but are reconstructed and visible in the morning dew the following day.

As I wander among these patches I find others here, too. Gray tree frogs (in their green phase) will also hunt here. A chipmunk comes by to gather raspberries. And I disturb sleeping nocturnal moths. But what I am seeking is a spider web of another sort.

Often in the raspberries, milkweeds and goldenrods, I'll find spider webbing that covers branches, leaves and flowers, bending them down. This is not a snare to capture insects, but a web that hides a nest of spider eggs and young. Mid- to late-summer is when many spiders lay their eggs. Usually eggs are put in ball-shaped structures called sacs. Sacs may be left in webs, hidden in cracks, under leaves or sometimes carried by mother. The spider nest that I found here was made by a spider appropriately called the nursery web spider.

She places her egg sac in folded-over leaves and then proceeds to wrap webbing threads all over this part of the plant. Being the good mother that she is, she then sits nearby to guard as her family hatches and moves about on the plant. I have frequently seen these nursery webs in raspberries, milkweeds and goldenrods. When looking into the web, I see many spiderlings. Mother stands by to protect them until the young have grown big enough to take care of themselves. They eventually disperse from this nursery web site, but as I come by on this early August day, I see both mother and young still within this protected place.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

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