into the season of spiders

I blame these guys for continuously having to wipe webs off my face the last few days

We are currently suffering though a late summer heatwave. If I hadn’t recently melted my thermometer in a tempeh disaster (I kinda forgot the tempeh was incubating in the oven, along with plastic thermometer, when I turned it on to make pizza), I’d give an exact temperature. My guess is that my house is ten billion degrees as a result my brain is melting.

On that note, and considering around here we are in the season of spiders, meaning I can’t walk through by back yard without walking through dozens of spider webs, I thought I’d resurrect a post from when I started blogging


I’ve been reading Rachel Carson‘s ‘The Sea Around Us’ after discovering it among my books during my recent move. My grandfather gave it to me when I first expressed interest in ocean science many years ago. The book was presented to him in the 1950’s in recognition of meteorological measurements he took as a mariner. When I first was given the book I started reading it, but didn’t finish so when I found it this time I thought it was time to sit down and read the whole book.

In her chapter on island formation, this intrigued me:

So bare and desolate that not even a lichen grows on them, St Paul’s Rocks would seem one of the most unpromising places in the world to look for a spider, spinning its web in arachnidan hope of snaring passing insects. Yet Darwin found spiders when he visited the Rocks in 1833, and forty years later the naturalists of H.M.S. Challenger also reported them, busy at their web-spinning.

Spiders? How did they get there? St Paul’s Rocks are near the equator right in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Discovered by the Portuguese navy in 1511 by accident, that is by crashing into them, these islands are now part of Brazil. They jut up from the ocean floor 800 km off the coast of South America, and are made up of 15 small islands and rocks with a highest point of 17 m. This group of islands is one of the few places (Iceland is another) where the mid-ocean ridge breaks the surface. Currently, the Brazilian Navy has a science station and a lighthouse on the islands.

On the 16th of February, 1832 the H.M.S. Beagle stopped at St Paul’s Rocks and Darwin had an opportunity to explore. His inventory of life included: 2 types of sea birds (boobies and noddies), a type of large crab, a fly, a parasitic tick (preying on the birds), a moth that survived by eating feathers, a beetle, a woodlouse and lots of spiders. He also observed that not a single plant or lichen could be found, since that time mosses and grasses have found their way to the island, probably helped by people.

Not including the crab, the only life form on the island that can’t fly or hitch a ride is the spider. No spider can fly, even though there is an Australian spider called the flying spider. Flying spiders are tiny with pretty blue and green iridescent colouring. Their abdomens have flaps that can be extended allowing them to glide when they leap, increasing their range. But even an ability to glide wouldn’t help spiders colonize remote islands.

Young spiders are forced to move away from their parents and siblings to avoid competing for food and other resources with them. To begin their journey, a spider climbs to a high point, and then point its abdomen into the air. It releases a long filament of silk that is picked up by the wind, taking the little spider up into the sky. Drifting spiders have been found thousands of meters above the remote Hawaiian Islands. Or according to Rachel Carson:

Airmen have passed through great numbers of the white, silken filaments of spiders’ ‘parachutes’ at heights of two to three miles.

Drifting is a great way to travel as it requires no energy expenditure from the spider. I wonder how many of these drifting spiders eventually find a suitable home?

at the plum tree hangout

Ladybugs

The ladybugs are busy

I took a closer look at what was going on in my plum tree the other day. It turns out the tree is hosting the entire ladybug circle of life (cue Lion King music here). It’s good thing I didn’t get around to doing anything about the aphid infestation.

ladybug eggs

The orange circles are ladybug eggs and the clear insects (aphids) are food for when the ladybug larvae emerge

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Here’s an aphid about to be dealt with by a ladybug larvae.

Ladybug larvae are my favorite backyard predator – they look so nasty, reminding me of the alien insects Kahn put into Chekov’s ear to control him (From the 1982 Wrath of Kahn).

Ladybug cocoon

Ladybug cocoon

something weird…

white maple leaves

While out walking today at lunch I spotted this odd group of leaves – each one completely white. The leaves higher up were normal, as were all the leaves on the other maples around. Something fantastically botanical was going on, but I have no idea what.

Perhaps, the explanation lies in the location – the area is called Mystic Vale.

Arachnophobes beware!

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A garden spider (Araneus diadematus), one of the most common web-spinning spiders in my area, originally introduced from Europe. This one had set up shop in my backyard.

In the spirit of the season, it’s time for some creepy crawlies…

So far we’ve identified more than 10 species of spiders living in the garden and no doubt there are many more types. I love seeing spiders in the garden because they eat the animals that are eating my food. In one English study, in late summer one hectare of meadow was found to contain roughly 5 million spiders which suggests these predators are consuming way more harmful bugs than birds do (ref).

All spiders are venomous – venomous means that if that animal bites or stings you a toxin will be put in your system while a poisonous animal will make you sick if you eat it. As far as I know you could eat a spider if you wanted to (I base my spider edibility knowledge off of seeing people eating roasted tarantulas in a move once instead of actual fact). Most spiders are incapable of biting through human skin, especially around here. There are some exceptions, black widow spiders for example but I’ve never seen one in real life.

Spiders fall into two general categories – those who spin webs to catch their prey and those who don’t opting for ambush or stalking techniques instead. I have to admit that I absolutely despise walking into spider’s webs – when I roamed the forest as a kid I would always wave a stick in front of my face where ever I went to prevent accidentally getting web on my face. Now I try to avoid wrecking spider’s webs, leaving the spiders to catch their dinner in peace – mostly. Occasionally, when my daughter asks, I’ll ’tickle’ a web so the spider rushes out to investigate.

Beyond being protectors of my food, spiders are amazingly diverse and often quite beautiful. So to any arachnophobes out there, who’ve made it this far into my post – take a look at these links and check out how fantastic spiders can be (go on I dare you):

Here are 10 beauties.

This one is my favorite.

And here is a roundup of local ones.

And, for any arachnophobes still with me, I thought I should mention some spiders have figured out how to soar in the sky. They can’t fly, but using a strand of their silk like a kite they can drift with the wind. More here.

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Another garden spider – but this one had an abdomen roughly the size of my finger nail.

Happy Halloween!

Revenge on the Wasps

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One of the villains hanging out in the cilantro

“It’s a trap!” – Admiral Ackbar from Return of the Jedi

Sadly, summer is clearly winding down, days are noticeably shorter and dew has returned in the morning. Our calorie dense winter crops are starting to mature (more on that later). Spider webs appear over night across seemingly impossible divides and I despise walking into spider webs. I suspect all the spiders will migrate inside the house for the winter – the spider equivalent of heading to Florida. I don’t mind spiders inside the house as long as I don’t see them – the ones I see get evicted. Wasps are a different story.

The wasps started getting desperate for food early this year swarming around the yard and house looking for grub. They rely heavily on smell to find food, their noses leading them directly into the kitchen (unfortunately, we don’t have screens). Regularly, we were swatting one or two yellow-and-black banded bandits. Their bold colouring a warning of their sting. Unlike a bee, a wasp can sting more than once and they don’t hesitate to do so (a bee’s stinger gets ripped out when it stings, which is fatal to the bee). Plenty of animals eat wasps like other wasps, spiders, dragonflies, beetles, moths, crabs, badgers, frogs, fish, birds, skunks, bats, rats, mice, etc. So wasps do fill a ecosystem niche – but I have limits to my tolerance of them.

While making applesauce with my little helper, I counted twelve wasps buzzing around her head – that was the last straw. I hate the idea of poisoning my yard or home, so we settled on using a wasp trap. Within a day we caught dozens (I’m stunned there were that many around). Now the trap is so packed, wasps have to force their way in – and we are still catching them.

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The trap after about a day

As a tangent – people also eat wasps, or more specifically, wasp larvae. I’ve read (as I’ve never met anyone who eats insects) the larvae taste great fried in butter, further support to my theory that butter can make anything taste good.

What is wilderness? or a world in a bubble

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Miniature wilderness at the base of a bonsai tree

Thinking about lettuce in space combined with the general laziness associated with late summer, reminded me of this post which I originally wrote for the sustainable collective.

Magenta fireweed flowers under a blue northern Alberta sky – a stunning backdrop for oil company propaganda (I don’t remember which company). The oil company claimed this was restored land after oil drilling had finished – but northern Alberta isn’t a homogeneous field of fireweed. Fireweed, a pioneer plant, is part of the first step in a succession, that, if conditions are right, might result in the northern Alberta ecosystem that was originally stripped away. Maybe the oil company is doing more to restore these ecosystems and just chose to film in a swath of fireweed because it is pretty. I don’t really know, but it did get me thinking about our meddling in the natural world.

Meddling with our environment is what people do, yet we maintain an idealized view of an untouched nature out there somewhere. Emma Marris in Rambunctious Garden suggests, “We imagine a place, somewhere distant, wild and free, a place with no people and no roads, and no fences and no power lines, untouched by humanity’s great grubby hands, unchanging except for the season’s turn.” She goes on to point out that if such a place ever existed, it no longer does.

Thinking hypothetically, if we have crossed a threshold where we’ve damaged the earth so badly that it can no longer support a natural ecosystem, can we recreate wilderness? … well not from scratch. Closed biospheres have been an active area of research since humans first ventured into space and still is. The experiment conducted in Biodome 2 in the early 1990’s demonstrated that we can’t yet create a complex, human-sustaining world in a bubble. As Rebecca Reider describes in Dreaming the Biosphere, Biodome 2, “ …is not simply a garden in a greenhouse; it is, perhaps, the most highly engineered wilderness in the world.” To create this wilderness, several working ecosystems were carefully crammed into a small space. Everything from rainforest trees to buckets of swamp dirt to hummingbirds and more were sourced and shipped in. Then eight humans stepped inside and sealed the door, becoming stewards of this created world.

The eight humans were necessary because without constant human intervention the engineered ecosystems would evolve into something else. Within the sealed bubble of Biodome 2, growing pains included acid rain from high carbon dioxide levels to low oxygen as curing concrete bound to it. While the Biodome 2 sealed experiment ran, it never became stable, and ultimately doors were opened because toxic gases were building up inside. Maybe, eventually, someone will figure out how to build a stable ecosystem in a bubble big enough to include us, for now, we need to work with the wilderness we have.

Since we’ve meddled in every ecosystem on the planet, perhaps we can take a step back and plan our meddling to leave space for nature. Ecosystems change; that’s always happened, but change needs to happen at nature’s pace – and there needs to be room for nature to be complex, as complexity is the path to resilience. Emma Marris argues that we need a new way of seeing nature that includes everything from old growth forests to the weeds that push up through asphalt. With this view, the mossy ecosystem erupting from a concrete crack counts as wilderness.

In my view, a solution (as there are an infinite number of possible solutions) is to make more space for nature – let a pocket of lawn go wild, plant berry producing bushes for the birds or flowers for the bees. Nature can flourish in little spaces.

Things to do with chives plus a surprise

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Chives past their pretty stage

As I’ve mentioned before, I have happy chives. Come early spring, these chives burst forth with new growth before most everything else. All it takes is a few moments outside with scissors and I’m ready to sprinkle my scrambled eggs with chivy goodness. I’ve gone so far as to stop growing green onions and use chives instead. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), since they tend to spread, the amount of chives currently growing is way more than the amount of chives I use. So what should I do with my excess chives?

Digging all but one small clump up and adding them to the compost pile appeared to be the winning solution for a while – but I never got around to it (occasionally laziness pays off).

With their puff balls of purple on stalks of green, chives do have their moment of beauty. And as soon as they bloom, they are swarmed with pollinators which I consider a good thing. But, their flowers don’t last long, soon they dry out and resemble yellowed tissue paper – not so pretty.

A few days ago I went out to dead head the chives with the hope that I’d get more harvestable leaves. With the first flower plucked, little black chive seeds spilled out (into my strawberry patch so no doubt I’ll be weeding out new chive plants later). I have no need to start chives from seed as they easily divide into new plants, but come mid-winter I like to grow sprouts and chives make lovely sprouts. Their seeds are only viable for a year or so and often hard to come by for sprouting purposes.

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The black chive seeds are ready to be shaken out

By the fist-full, I shook the flowers over a large bowl resulting in 75g of seeds (ironically, my last bag of chive seeds for sprouting was 75 g). Now I’m set for a winter of chive sprouts – and I’m still hoping they will put out new green growth for me to harvest.

Now for the surprise:

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A baby goldenrod crab spider amongst the chive seeds

It also turned out that the chive patch was home to lots of little spiders. I kept having to stop shaking chive flowers to rescue spiders out of the bowl, then I spotted an adult – a goldenrod crab spider laying in wait for an unsuspecting honey bee. She was one of the prettiest spiders I’ve seen in the yard and patient enough to let me get some good photographs.

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An adult goldenrod crab spider (probably female) waiting for pollinator prey

This is not the mother of the little spiders I found as after a female lays her eggs she stands guard over them, without eating, until she drops dead. As a cool piece of trivia, depending on the flower a goldenrod crab spider is waiting in ambush on, they can change colour between white and yellow, albeit much slower than a chameleon changes colour as the yellow pigments have to be fabricated taking 10 to 25 days.

Waking to a martian sky

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Guilty of causing a ruckus

I was rudely woken by a chicken kerfuffle this morning. The hens were going on as though Stumpy our resident raccoon (he’s missing his tail) was inside the coop. Sadly it was just after 5am. I stuck my head out the window, not a racoon to be seen and the chickens were showing no sign of abating the ruckus. I’d prefer not to annoy my neighbours, so I went outside and tossed some chicken chow in the run to distract them. It worked, the hens quieted down so I went back to bed.

I closed my eyes and relaxed – moments later the cacophony resumed banishing any hope of further sleep. Grumbling under my breath, I went back outside to see what I could do to shut chickens up.

As I got near the coop a Cooper’s hawk emerged from the cedar hedge. The raptor took flight, barely generating enough lift to miss the raspberries. The hawk must have roosted only a metre or so from the hens – and had been closer than that to me when my sleepy self tossed in the chicken food and I didn’t notice. Clearly the hens noticed the predator lurking near by.

As soon as the hawk was gone all the resident little birds, Bewick’s wrens, chipping sparrows and such, burst into song. Thankfully, the hens fell silent and got busy eating the extra food. I didn’t intend to be out in the garden that early, but it felt magical as though I’d been transplanted to a different planet.

For the last few days our sky had been blanketed with a yellowish haze – high level smoke from near by forest fires (not a Russian conspiracy of dumped toxic gas from the cold war that a random stranger I encountered on a hiking trail insisted). The weather man on the radio forecasted that winds will take the smoke away over the next few days. But for now it looks like we are under a martian sky.

While on my early morning garden tour, I looked straight at the just risen sun (yes I know I shouldn’t do that). The sun was deep red and muted enough it didn’t hurt my eyes to look at it. Pretty neat to see, assuming we’ll be back to our normal summer blue sky soon.

purple puff-balls and their pollinators

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purple puff-balls on the move

The chives are almost done their spring-time race to re-seed themselves – part of what I suspect is a cunning chive-y plan to take over my entire garden. Innocent-looking purple puff-ball tops are threatening to over run the strawberries and basil I planted either side of them.

I have more chives than I could ever expect to use – but that’s okay because the pollinators love their flowers. As I approach the chive domain I can hear the buzz of insects collecting their lunch. A traffic jam of honey bees, bumble bees and mason bees visit flower after flower. Other insects with odd shapes (that are probably bee flies) add even more diversity. One category of visitor is so small and fast I can’t really tell what they look like.

More than once by daughter (two and a half) has followed the buzzy cacophony to the chives. She is fascinated by them. If I look away for a moment, she’ll climb among the chives to get a good look. I love that her curiosity drives her to discover more about the world going on right under our noses – reason enough to spend time in the garden.

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A honey bee collecting pollen (they are hard to take pictures of because they never sit still)

I tell her that the pollinators have important work to do and that she is to look and not touch them (so far she hasn’t been stung). I point out the names of the ones I know – no doubt in a few years she’ll be telling me the names of the rest.