The mystery of the “Bowl and doily” spiders

Published 4:55 pm Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Have you ever experienced a moment when you suddenly feel as if you have landed in another dimension, having encountered a formerly mundane feature, one that has certainly existed right below your nose all along, but has suddenly been brought into a sharper focus? Sometimes, your perspective can change permanently in the blink of an eye, when you see something common from a completely new angle.

Images that were sparked in the last Arboretum Paths column have stayed on my mind over the past week. A mention had been made of the fine layer of dust that had settled over the thousands of formerly unnoticed spider webs covering the forest floor of our Woodland Exhibit, the result of weeks of dry weather.

Earlier in the year, on cool spring mornings when the air was heavily saturated with moisture, this same type of small-scale web had been evident in great abundance throughout the Arboretum. On some days, it looked as if an army of mice had floated to the ground the previous night, discarding tiny gossamer parachutes that had lodged, upside-down, in the tips of pine tree branches and the plumes of grasses.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

When I first noticed these unusually shaped webs, I began a search on the Internet to learn about the type of spider which had created them. Nothing I could find described their appearance. But on Spider Day at the Arboretum, student Breanna Lyle, who is studying entomology at Mississippi State University in Starkville, solved the mystery by reporting that these arachnids are known as “bowl and doily” spiders because of the configuration of their webs.

Later, I learned a bit more about the spider, which was identified by entomologist Dr. Blair Sampson as being a member of the family called Linyphiidae. Blair and his biological science technician Chris Werle, who are with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Poplarville, were at the Arboretum setting out some vinegar traps last week, attempting to trap a specific type of undesirable fruit fly called the Spotted Wing Drosophila, which has been found in Miss.

Armed with name of the spider, I returned to the Internet and soon discovered that many other persons had been equally awed by their webs. The top web structure is bowl-shaped, and below it sits a “doily”, attached with a complex system of tethers. One photographer, I discovered, had captured images of a variety of rainbow patterns made as sunlight was refracted from the silken strands.

One interesting fact is that the spider will spend its time below, not in, the bowl. Here, it waits for prey to appear. When a “catch” is made, the spider will inject its venom into the unlucky insect from below, rather than above, the bowl, and then wrap it up for later dining. By staying below the bowl structure, the spider enjoys a cozy little room that provides protection, while waiting for insects to “drop by”.

In my reading, I learned that this spider is not considered very attractive. “Non-descript, uninteresting, nothing special,” writers commented. Although, I couldn’t help noticing that a few described the spider as fascinating and beautiful, proving that it is all simply a matter of perspective, and “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

Fortunate are those who have chosen to see the beauty, the awe, and the interesting in the things that others wouldn’t give a second glance.

It struck me that the lives of insect enthusiasts such as Blair and Chris are such a case in point. A comment was made last week during a Mississippi Master Naturalist class at the Arboretum that entomologists are some of the nicest and most fascinating people to spend time with. They certainly do know some interesting stories. I’ve personally observed Dr. Sampson hold our Pearl River County Master Gardener group riveted for a much, much longer presentation than originally planned, simply because one captivating story would lead to another, and someone would be reminded of yet another story, or question, and somehow he just never made it through the entire collection he brought in for “show and tell”.

Much like the many interesting layers that lie in wait for visitors to discover during their time exploring the Crosby Arboretum, the more you get to know the typical “bug man”, the more talents are revealed.

We recently learned that Dr. Sampson enjoys creating insect-based art, and has illustrated a delightful children’s e-book called “Lemon Trees and Bumblebees.” The book was written by Diane Sherrouse of Diamondhead. The book is not only charming, but educates the reader on the value of pollinators. We learned that Chris enjoys playing music, and I suspect these hobbies are only a few of the many interests in the bag of skills that belong to these two multi-faceted researchers.

Visit a website such as for strange but true photos and stories of “insect ways,” or find one that explores how insects have inspired man throughout history. Beetles certainly provided inspiration for creating body armor, or design automobiles. And the breeding habits of parasitic wasps certainly inspired the idea for films about the reproduction of extraterrestrials. This wasp injects its eggs into the bodies of other insects, such as caterpillars, and they will hatch and feed upon the tender insides of their living host. Many terrifying images can be found on the Web of parasitic wasp larvae riding on the backs of their victims. Research this topic further, if you dare.

For more information on the Arboretum, please call the office at 601-799-2311, or see our program schedule on our website at Social media links can be found on our homepage. We are open Wednesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and located in Picayune, off I-59 Exit 4, at 370 Ridge Road (south of Walmart and adjacent to I-59).

For further exploration: Visit the internet for an image of the “bowl and doily” spider as well as its web, or check with your local library for a book on spiders that illustrates this species.