This story was originally published in October 2019.
Maine is home to hundreds of types of spiders, and some might catch you by surprise.
With long, spindly legs, these creatures often inspire fear and disgust, especially in the fall, when many spiders are at their largest size. Furthermore, some spiders seek shelter from the cold by sneaking indoors. And to top it off, mainstream Halloween decor reinforces the idea that spiders are something to be feared.
But at closer inspection, are they really that scary?
In Maine, spiders are relatively harmless to people, said Jim Dill, a pest management specialist for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. While the bites of some species can cause allergic reactions, none of Maine’s native spiders is considered to pose a serious threat to humans.
On rare occasions, two of the country’s most poisonous spiders — the black widow and brown recluse — have been accidentally transported to Maine from southern states in produce shipments and construction materials, Dill said. But these species are unable to gain a foothold in the state because of the cold winters.
How many spiders live in Maine?
The exact number of spider species that live in Maine isn’t known. In a 2007 study, two Maine spider experts — Frank Graham Jr. and Daniel T. Jennings — collected more than 300 different species of spiders from various habitats in Milbridge, a small coastal town in eastern Maine. And in 2012, a study found 145 species of spiders on and around Mount Katahdin, Maine’s tallest mountain, including five “new” species.
On a smaller scale, a few years ago, researchers found 39 species of spiders inhabiting the ferns that border the Orono Bog Boardwalk.
“There’s a tremendous variety of species and how they make their living, so to speak,” said Jerry Longcore, one of the authors of the Orono Bog Boardwalk study. “Some of them are hunters, and some are not. Some are web weavers and so forth.”
One Maine spider species is camouflaged to look like a flower blossom, while another is capable of walking on water. Here are just a few of the many varieties, and a bit about what makes them unique.
Maine’s largest native spider, the fishing spider (also called a dock spider) ranges from 1 to 3 inches in size. It walks on water to snatch up insects and even small fish. However, it’s also frequently found in the woods and is a typical household invader.
“They can dive under the water to capture fish or tadpoles or aquatic insects, and to hide from predators,” said Catherine Scott, an arachnologist and PhD candidate at the University of Toronto.
Fishing spiders can stay underwater for up to 30 minutes, Scott explained, breathing from a bubble of air trapped in the hairs on their bodies.
They aren’t known to be aggressive to humans, but they will bite if provoked, and their bite hurts — much like a bee sting, according to an online fact sheet by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. However, their venom won’t cause a problem unless a person is specifically allergic to it.
These spiders resemble crabs because they have large, wide abdomens and hold their legs out to the side. In addition, their front legs are notably larger than their back legs and are used for grabbing prey that comes within their grasp.
This spider uses camouflage as defense as well as offense. For example, in Maine, the golden-rod crab spider waits inside flower blossoms to attack insects. It’s believed that these spiders can actually change their coloration to match certain flowers. Yellow and white are most common.
Small and springy, Maine’s many species of jumping spiders are known for their ability to catapult into the air at a moment’s notice. They’re also sometimes referred to as “cute” or “charismatic” because of their vibrant colors and large, goggle-like eyes.
“The current theory theory of how they get the power to jump is that they’re actually using their blood pressure to store energy and then releasing it,” said Sebastian Echeverri, an arachnologist and PhD student at the University of Pittsburgh.
Maine is home to a variety of jumping spiders, including the bold jumper (which has bright green mandibles), the zebra jumper (which is striped) and the beautiful paradise jumping spider (which is metallic pink).
This large family of spiders was named after its tendency to chase and pounce on prey. Generally dark in color, they often blend into the ground and move quickly, startling gardeners.
While most Maine spiders only live for about a year, some wolf spider species are capable of surviving the winter and can live for several years, Dill said. As the temperature drops, they search for shelter under fallen leaves and other debris. For this reason, be careful when cleaning up your yard in the fall. It’s common for wolf spiders to bite people when disturbed.
Also known as funnel weavers, grass spiders spin a sheetlike web with a funnel or tunnel off to one side where they hide and wait for their prey. This sheet web isn’t sticky, according to the PennState College of Agricultural Science. Instead, it features a network of threads above it that impedes the flight of insects and causes them to fall on the sheet. The fast-moving grass spider then darts out and bites.
In addition to using their webs to capture prey, grass spiders use webs to communicate through vibrations.
“The males do a courtship dance on the female’s web [announcing their presence],” Scott said. “They also have a pheromone they emit that knocks the female out to avoid being cannibalized.”
Many female spiders eat their mates.
Maine is home to a wide variety of orb weavers, which are spiders that spin elaborate webs with circular patterns. These sticky webs are used by the spiders to capture their prey.
One of the flashiest orb weavers in Maine is the black and yellow garden spider, which is large (with its body sometimes exceeding an inch long) and covered in a symmetrical pattern of black and bright yellow. In addition, its web is showy, with a clear zig zag pattern down the center.
“Most people have run into those, especially in the fall,” Dill said. “They put their web right across pathways. You might be out in the garden or out in a field and all the sudden a black and yellow spider is crawling up your chest.”
Other orb weavers found in Maine include the banded garden spider, which is striped; the marbled orb weaver, which displays an intricate pattern on its large, round abdomen; the barn spider, which looks especially hairy and is gray or brown; and the long-jawed orb weaver, which has an elongated body and prominent jaws.
Turning fear into fascination
“Even among entomologists (scientists who study insects), there are many who are afraid of spiders,” said Scott, who shares her fascination with spiders on her blog SpiderBytes. “There’s something about that extra pair of legs and the way they move, something about spiders that creep people out.”
Nevertheless, spiders can easily be viewed as “beneficial” to humans. Feasting on a wide variety of insects, they lower the number of mosquitoes and other biting flies in our environment. They also eat insects that damage crops and flowers and invade homes.
“Spiders are just a part of the ecosystem,” Longcore said. “They’re filling a niche. And when there are a lot of blackflies out, I wish there were more of them.”