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Science and the Environment

Been Smacked with a Spider Web Lately? There's a Reason Why

Ballooning Spider (Credit: Breanna Drixler; Flickr)

Chances are, if you’ve been outside in the last few days, you’ve had to wipe a spider web or two off your face.  You may have even seen spider webs flying through the air. 

While you may have been annoyed by the webs up to this point, you might have new respect for what made them after you find out more. 

Chris Barnhart is a biology professor at Missouri State University.  He says this fall is when baby spiders or “spiderlings” are doing what nature intended for them to do.

"This is the time of the year when some spiders disperse.  They've laid eggs, and the eggs have hatched, and the small spiders have to fly away from home and find a place to set up housekeeping next year," he said.

The spider dispersal is referred to as ballooning.  Spiderlings spin a web and let the wind take them where it will.

"The little spiders climb up to a high point, which for them might only be, you know, a few inches high, but it might be the top of the tree and then they release a plume of silk and any little breeze will carry them away, and they might only drift a few inches, but they might drift for hundreds of miles," he said.

The reason they do this, according to Barnhart, is to exploit available habitat.  Even humans do this, he says, when they move away from home. 

While many times, it’s spiderlings that disperse via ballooning, adult spiders with small bodies use the method, too.  And it’s not without risk, Barnhart points out.  He says they can land almost anywhere—from on top of a building to in your hair, places that aren’t conducive to survival.

"There's lots more little spiders than will ever survive to reproduce," he said.

He reminds us that spiders are important and deserve our respect—they’re the main predator of small insects and, in turn, are food for other insects and for birds, amphibians and reptiles.

Another species that’s on the move this time of year is monarch butterflies.  While Barnhart says spiders are at the mercy of the breeze, monarchs are direct in their movement.  They’re headed southwest to Central Mexico.  But he says you likely won’t see as many this year—numbers on the wintering grounds last year were the lowest ever recorded since scientists started keeping track in the 1970s.

For KSMU News, I'm Michele Skalicky.