Bugfest 2011 was a great time for all

Published 4:37 pm Friday, September 30, 2011

“The Spider Lady” made an appearance at Crosby Arboretum’s Bugfest this weekend, and are being laid for a future “Spider Day” program. Breanna Lyle, a Mississippi State University entomology student, is smitten with the world of spiders, and she “spun” some enthusiastic tales of children whose hearts were won through learning about her pet tarantula at Bugfest.

Several grown-ups also reported that they shed their arachnophobia after a chance to spend time with Breanna and observing her pet spiders. Although she arrived with her favorite tarantula, she discovered a brand new friend on the Arboretum grounds – a female golden orb weaver spider. On Saturday afternoon, we sat mesmerized as Breanna calmly held her new friend in her hand and described the spider’s behavior and some interesting facts about the species as it began a journey up her arm. As she calmly continued, the arachnid walked across her shirt, up her neck, and into her hair. Finally, the spider clambered across Breanna’s cheek, where she was retrieved by the student, who gently returned the critter back to her hands and continued with her discussion.    

As we looked more closely, we realized the spider had been laying down a “drag line” while it traveled across Breanna. The line functions as its secure tether, in the event that the arachnid becomes dislodged from its intended perch. We observed the collected remnants of golden orb weaver spider web that were placed in a vial. The silk is a beautiful gold color, hence the name for this spider. Another name for the golden orb weaver is “banana spider”.

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Although classified as arachnids and not insects, spiders are often included when talking about the creepy crawly world of insects. Because they have an additional pair of legs to the insect’s six, a spider’s eight waving appendages unfortunately gives them a rather spine-chilling appearance to many of us. But species like the golden orb-weavers are non-aggressive, and seldom will bite.

The silk that the golden orb weavers use to create their webs is incredibly strong, and the spiders build in an “orb”, or circular shape. Webs can be quite large, measuring six feet or more, and have even been known to occasionally capture small birds, although these are not eaten by the spiders. The birds can cause quite a bit of destruction to the webs by thrashing around.

If you look closely at the spider webs built by orb weaver spiders, which include the “crab” spiders, you will often see pieces of insects or opaque areas of web toward the center of the web. These objects function like the stickers that you might put on a plate glass window or door to avoid collisions, serving to keep large creatures from flying into the web and destroying it.

Spiders spin two types of silk: Sticky and non-sticky. Their silk-producing glands in their abdomens exude the substance. Anchoring strands are non-sticky, and the insect-catching strands are obviously sticky. If you want to adjust your perspective a bit, take a look on the Internet for scanning electron microscope images (abbreviated “SEM”) of spiders’ spinnerets, and also of spiders’ themselves.

Local participation and interest at this year’s Bugfest was outstanding. We were fortunate to have so much help from our area teachers and volunteers. Children enjoyed visiting the craft activities on the “Buggy Midway”, organized by Master Naturalist Mary Cordray.  Night collecting – gathering insects that were attracted to lighted sheets – was a favorite activity of the event. Nicholson teacher Maureen Pollitz brought her celebrated brood of Madagascar hissing cockroaches for our “Roach Races”. Quite a few visitors decided to adopt a roach, and took home an exotic new family member.

Breanna and her sister Deanna hail from Aberdeen, Mississippi, and have attended Mississippi State’s entomology camp for several summers now. Although the twins share a love for insects, Deanna has recently become intrigued with plants and has enrolled in horticulture at MSU, now fast soaking up knowledge about all aspects of the plant world. She is particularly fascinated with carnivorous and poisonous species. During Bugfest, I came across Deanna sitting cross-legged on the ground, appreciating some sparkling bug-eating sundews. Matthew Thorn, also a veteran of MSU’s summer “bug camp”, brought along his extraordinary insect collections to display. These are ever-increasing in quantity and complexity. He was a great help with the insect I.D. and pinning station on the Pinecote Pavilion. Andrew Sanford, another bug camp participant, came down for the event, and had fun entertaining us in the Visitor Center with a walking stick insect he had discovered. For more information on MSU’s summer entomology and wildlife camps, visit http://www.cfr.msstate.edu/wildlife/conservation_camp/.

You don’t need to wait until next year’s Bugfest to learn more about insects and spiders. The Crosby Arboretum has an educational trunk on insects that can be checked out for one to two weeks by area teachers and homeschool educators. Or, visit the Arboretum on a collecting trip with your class, Scout group, or family. Teachers or Arboretum members can call ahead to reserve insect nets and collecting jars. To learn more, download the 40-page 4-H insect collecting manual from the Arboretum’s website at www.crosbyarboretum.msstate.edu. The publication contains insect history, tips on collecting and identifying insects, how to make your own collecting supplies, and web links for supplies and other information. Go to the Arboretum’s program calendar page, and click on the bug to download this manual.  

For more information, call the Arboretum office at 601-799-2311. The Arboretum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is located in Picayune, off I-59 Exit 4, at 370 Ridge Road (south of Wal-Mart and adjacent to I-59.)

For further exploration:

1) What is a sundew plant? Where is it found? What does it “eat” and why?

2) Why do spiders not get caught in their own webs?

3) Which spider species in Mississippi pose the greatest threat to humans? Learn to identify these, and what to do if you are bitten by a spider.