No, you don’t get a “trigger warning”
Here’s a peek inside the nursery of a local Steatoda grossa mom, who has wisely walked away from this clutch of little ankle-biters. No, not terribly maternal — but she does usually stick around with the egg sac for a while, even if she doesn’t go in for college savings accounts or after-school enrichment. The only reason she’s not in view here is that I let her go after a few days’ captivity. This is another of my clumsy attempts to take macro photographs (I hope to take a class this summer and really figure out what I’m doing.)
Steatoda grossa, as I’ve written about before, is a common garden species around these parts and well-traveled elsewhere. She’s related to the black widow and looks similar enough that you might have hopped around in a panic if you upended an old flowerpot or pair of garden gloves and sent her scurrying out. Well … “scurrying” is pushing it. She’s slow and awkward on foot, graceful only on the web. And she’ll be trying like hell to make for the nearest crevice or hole. If you catch her out in the open and she decides all is lost, she’ll crumple up and look dead, a technique that works for much bigger creatures, up to a point … let’s call that the “possum on the yellow line” point. Let her be and she’ll slowly unfold and skitter off. (Skittering, scurrying … what’s your favorite spider verb?)
There’s a very specific place in my domain where Steatoda likes to hang out, and I find it interesting. We have a mealworm ranch in the basement. They started out as gecko fodder, then they were for the songbirds, and now my entrepreneurial boy — Steve Jobs 2.0 — is launching a mealworm business and is hounding a local pet store to take us on as a supplier. Locally sourced food is all the rage, do we not know? He’s designed the containers, come up with a name, and launched on Facebook. I never realized mealworms, technically larvae of darkling beetles (Tenebrio molitor), were both so universally delicious and so astoundingly fertile. Or maybe we’re just good at invertebrates . . .
Anyway, though the larva is all Chez Panisse to everybody, the adult form, the beetle, is not. Clumsy little black bugs, easily overturned, spared an early death because of being so darkling … or something. Neither gecko nor bird will deign to try them. But Steatoda, as it turns out, does love the beetles. Every time we tidy up the mealworm ranch or change containers there’s a cobwebby superstructure in and around the boxes, occupied with lots of fat glossy spiders and the leftovers of recent meals. It was scary the first time, since it appeared we were breeding black widows and even our placid neighbors would have arisen with flaming torches if they’d known that. But a closer inspection showed them to be Steatoda, who is more accustomed to misidentification than the average arachnid, and who does not bother us.
Still, I like to gather up these false widows and put them outside, where there are old pots and leaf litter aplenty. The brood pictured above were placed in the corner of a raised planter bed to fend for themselves. I expect to see them again.