BANGOR, Maine — “Lets keep looking for spiders,” said 3-year-old Remy Houssel as he hurried past his mother.
Clutching a plastic container, Remy was one of 16 people searching for creepy crawlies in Bangor’s West Penjajawoc Grasslands on Thursday for a nature program hosted by the Bangor Land Trust.
“Spiders are intriguing, and we’re always interested in anything having to do with nature,” said Remy’s mother, Emily Bragg. She, her husband and their three children live in France, but they’re spending the summer visiting family in Bangor, her hometown. She heard about Bangor Land Trust’s family-friendly programs from her father.
Founded in 2011, the Bangor Land Trust is a nonprofit organization that currently owns and conserves more than 700 acres of land in the Bangor area. In addition, the trust hosts monthly community events on its preserves, including a variety of free nature walks and talks.
“The goal is to educate people about the outdoors,” said the land trust’s office manager, Donne Sinderson, who led the spider program on Thursday. “Once you tune into it, it’s hard to tune out.”
Like many people, Sinderson used to fear spiders. But her attitude about the eight-legged creatures began to change when she took the time to watch a marbled spider carry a grasshopper across its web on the railing of her friend’s porch.
“The spider was getting the grasshopper back to her retreat,” Sinderson explained. “To me, it was a remarkable engineering feat, the way she was manipulating the web with her legs. It was just amazing.”
Sinderson recently graduated from the Maine Master Naturalist Program, a year-long course on natural history and teaching skills. The program — founded in the spring of 2011 by a group of like-minded naturalists as an independent 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation — requires participants to complete a capstone on a specific nature topic. Sinderson chose spiders.
“I know a lot of people who have fears about spiders,” said Sinderson, “but I thought it might be a good subject, even though maybe it’s not so popular.”
Sinderson was pleasantly surprised at the number of adults and children who showed up to the program on Thursday.
“Spiders are very beneficial to human beings,” Sinderson told the group as she passed around photos of spiders she’s taken with her macro lens over the past few months. “Not only do they eat insects, their venom is showing promise in medicine and developing pesticides, and the chemicals in their silk has been used to make things like bulletproof vests and parachutes.”
Spiders have been around for millions of years, preceding and outlasting the dinosaurs. In that time, they’ve evolved into approximately 35,000 species with some seriously impressive capabilities. Some spiders can walk on water, while others can leap up to 50 times their body length. Certain species emit deceptive odors to confuse their prey, while others can remain underwater for up to an hour while catching fish and amphibians.
What’s more, you don’t need to delve into a tropical rainforest to find these amazing creatures. Some remarkable spiders live right here in Maine, Sinderson said.
Maine’s crab spiders hide in flowers and can change color from yellow to white for camouflage. The six-sided fishing spider hunts on the surface of ponds and lakes and can dive underwater to catch food or avoid predators.
“The more you learn about all of these things — it doesn’t matter if its spiders or lichens — when you realize it’s an actual living thing out there trying to survive just like you, you gain a new perspective,” Sinderson said.
After presenting some interesting facts about spiders (such as most spiders have eight eyes but can’t see very well), Sinderson led the way into the grasslands. It wasn’t long before the group had captured several grass spiders, as well as a jumping spider, which was found sitting at the edge of the field on a rock.
“I love jumping spiders,” said Sinderson said. “It has two big eyes, so they look more like us.”
These two large eyes — along with its other, smaller six eyes — enable the many species of jumping spiders to have excellent eyesight. In fact, some jumping spiders can see into spectrums of light not visible to humans, according to the Smithsonian Institute.
Placed in a small container with a beetle, the jumping spider was continuously crawling to and fro, as if trying to escape the larger insect. Yet after a few minutes, it became clear that the spider was actually building a web to capture the beetle, which it did successfully.
As the program came to an end, participants released the spiders they’d collected. Remy, who appropriately wore a Spider-Man baseball cap for the outing, knelt by his 5-year-old brother, Luke, and they both opened their containers, however reluctantly at first.
“I let my spiders go,” Luke said. “I think they were thankful for it.”
To learn more about Bangor Land Trust programs, visit bangorlandtrust.com.