Crab Spider Tent

A crab spider and silk webbing at our family last weekend.

A few of us took a short trip out to our family prairie last weekend.  My daughter was back from college for the weekend and wanted to see what was happening in the prairie, so we did a little canoeing (tight circles in the small pond), hiking, and exploring.  Later, I found myself photographing dotted gayfeather seeds, and while I was looking for more of those plants, I stumbled upon a grass leaf that was bent funny with some kind of white silk holding it in that position.  I had actually walked past the grass leaf before my brain finally registered the fact that I should go back and examine it.

Looking more closely, I could see enough of the creature inside to identify it as a crab spider.  It had been raining quite a bit during the previous couple weeks, so my first thought was that the crab spider had made itself a little rain shelter.  (Crab spiders don’t make webs, but like all spiders, do make silk and use it for various purposes.).  However, my better guess was that it was a nest and that it might contain a bunch of spider eggs.  I photographed it for a few minutes, taking lots of photos, since the breeze was making it hard to keep the spider in focus.

A tiny spiderling, accidentally photographed.

Later, when I was looking through images at home, I was culling all the photos of the spider that weren’t in focus (dang that wind) when I happened to spot something that confirmed my guess.  Right above an unfocused crab spider face, a tiny spiderling appeared – just in one photo, not in any others.  Apparently, this was indeed a crab spider nest, and at least one egg had already hatched.  

The crab spider eventually shifted around and showed its face.

Crab spiders aren’t the only group of spiders that take care of their kids.  Frequent readers of this blog will, of course, remember a previous post of mine showing a mother wolf spider carrying her brood around on her body, and even if you don’t, you may have heard that wolf spiders lug both their egg sacs and newly hatched babies around with them.  Wolf spiders aren’t alone, though, and we’re still learning more about how well various spider species care for their young.  If you’re interested, you can read more in this nice blog post from Biome Ecology.  Otherwise, you can just join me in wishing this particular crab spider’s brood good luck as they disperse and try to find safe places to overwinter.

Photo of the Week – June 8, 2017

In several of our prairies right now, poppy mallows are among the most prolific flowers.  Purple poppy mallow (Callirhoe involucrata) and pale pink poppy mallow (Callirhoe alcoides) are not only great tongue twisters, but also pretty flowers and important food sources for pollinators.  Earlier this week, I watched a monarch moving from flower to flower in a big patch of pale pink poppy mallow, but I didn’t manage to get a picture of it.  Yesterday, I paused to photograph a poppy mallow blossom and noticed something funny about the underside of the flower…

Those of you who have followed the blog for a while know of my affinity for crab spiders.  They’re just so stinking cute, and once you start looking for them, they are everywhere, especially on flowers.

This particular long-legged friend and his relatives were on several kinds of flowers in our prairies this week, including pale pink poppy mallow (above) and yarrow (below).

At our family prairie, I found a different crab spider (below) hanging out on yarrow with its long front legs cocked and ready to spring shut on unsuspecting prey.

As I photographed the spider, a fly landed on the flower and started feeding on pollen and moving about the flower.

It got closer and closer to the spider, so I just kept shooting.  A few moments later, it turned its back on the spider…

…and the spider GRABBED it.  The fly buzzed loudly and drug the spider around a little, but was no match for the strong grip and venomous bite.

For a few seconds, the spider stood vertically, holding tight to the fly.  Then as the fly’s struggles subsided, the crab spider repositioned itself to start feeding.

Apparently, the spot right behind the head is the best place to puncture a fly if you want to suck out its liquefied insides.  A little tip for all you fly sucker wannabes out there…

Seeing the number of flowers with crab spiders, and the ease with which this crab spider caught its prey is a reminder of how dangerous it is to be a pollinator.  Every flower is a potential source of nutritious food, but a fair number of them also host lurking crab spiders, waiting to snag careless insects.  As someone who spends a lot of time trying to photograph pollinators, I’m keenly aware of how quickly they move from flower to flower.  Of course they do – the longer they stick around each flower, the better chance something will catch and eat them!

Photo of the Week – July 1, 2016

I often tell people, “I’m not an insect expert, I’m an insect enthusiast.”  I don’t spend nearly enough time immersed in the vagaries of invertebrate taxonomy and biology to know much more than some interesting trivia about most species.  This week provided a couple great examples of my lack of expertise.

Early in the week, I was at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  While walking one morning, I noticed a longhorn beetle on a white prairie clover flower.  I felt pretty good about recognizing it as a longhorn beetle, and was even able to remember part of the genus (“Typo something, I think”).  I also noticed a small weevil on the same flower.   “Cool!”

Longhorn beetle (Typocerus confluens or Typocerus octonotatus) and a weevil on white prairie clover (Dalea candida) at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.

A few steps away, I saw another white prairie clover flower, and sure enough, there was a longhorn beetle on that one too.  And another weevil.  This second longhorn beetle had a different pattern on its back from the first one, so I assumed it was a second species.  “Nice,” I thought, there’s a good example of insect diversity – two different beetle species feeding on the same flower.

Another longhorn beetle on another white prairie clover flower.

A few steps away from that second flower was a third one, and it had a longhorn beetle on it as well.  The third beetle looked different than both the first and the second ones.  (Oh, and there was a weevil on the third flower too.)

A third longhorn beetle.

As I walked away from the white prairie clover patch, I started composing a blog post in my head about insect diversity.  Something about how important it is to have lots of different species within each group of animals so that if one species suffers from a disease or some other malady, there are others that can cover the role it plays in the natural world.  Blah blah blah.

When I got back to WiFi, I emailed my longhorn beetle photos to Ted MacRae (an ACTUAL insect expert) who is generous enough to help me with identification of beetle photos.  (Check out his fantastic blog here.)  I asked him what species these three beetles were so I could name them in my upcoming blog post.  When I got his reply, my blog post idea went out the window.  They weren’t three different species at all – they were all the same one!  (By the way, Ted couldn’t tell for sure from my photos which of two possible species they were.  He said he’d need to see the “last ventral abdominal segment” of each to be sure.)

Now, how is an insect enthusiast supposed to keep up when three beetles of the same species don’t even have the common courtesy to look like each other??   I’m ok with the occasional oddball.  With flowers, for example, it’s not uncommon to see one white flower out of a big patch of purple spiderwort or vervain flowers.  Fine.  Genetics provides a few quirks now and then.  But I only saw three longhorn beetles, and none of them had the same color pattern on their back??  I give up.

Oh, and the weevils?  Don’t even ask.  I don’t know.  They all look the same to my eye, but what does that mean?  They’re probably three different species that just happen to be feeding on the same flower.  That would be about right.  Geesh.

So then yesterday, I was in our Platte River Prairies and noticed a crab spider on a black-eyed Susan flower.  It was a pretty spider (you have to admit that) so I stopped and photographed it.

crab spider
Crab spider on black-eyed Susan flower.  The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies.

After I photographed the spider, I gave the other flowers nearby a quick look, and sure enough – there were crab spiders on several of those too.  Now, here’s the thing: the other crab spiders might have been different species, or they might not.  I’m not even going to guess.  They had different patterns on their abdomens but were generally the same color.  The first one was much broader, but that’s likely because she’s a female, and that’s how it works with spiders.  The other two might be different species or they could be from different growth stages and the patterns might be different for that reason.  Or, apparently, THEY COULD JUST LOOK DIFFERENT FROM EACH OTHER FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON OTHER THAN TO BE CONFUSING.

crab spider
Another crab spider.  

One more crab spider

I could email photos of the crab spiders to a friend who occasionally identifies them for me, but I’m not going to.  I’m choosing instead to simply admire the aesthetics of these fascinating little creatures, and appreciate some general trivia about crab spiders (for example, their front two sets of legs are extra long for capturing ambushed prey, and some species of crab spiders can change color to match the flower they sit on).  After all, I’m an insect enthusiast, not an insect expert (or a spider expert).  So there.

Photo of the Week – April 22, 2016

Carolina anemone, aka windflower (Anemone caroliniana), is one of my favorite spring wildflowers.  Like many early bloomers, it’s beautiful but inconspicuous.  Despite its gorgeous flower color(s), it can be really hard to see unless you’re within a few feet of it.

The tiny, but beautiful windflower (Anemone caroliniana).
The tiny, but beautiful windflower (Anemone caroliniana).  It’s hard to enough to find it when it is blooming.  When it’s not, the leaves (foreground) are so small and inconspicuous, they are nearly impossible to spot.

Earlier this week, the Fellows, Nelson, and I spent a couple hours hiking our Platte River Prairies, practicing some plant identification and talking ecology and management.   I’d mentioned the anemone as a species we might see if we were lucky, but we didn’t find it.  After our hike but before I headed home, I decided to revisit a hill we’d hiked earlier because I wanted to photograph some groundplum (Astragalus crassicarpus) flowers there.  After I finished with the groundplum, I stood up and walked a few steps downhill, and there, not 10 feet from where the four of us had stood a few hours before, was a small patch of Carolina anemone.

There were only five plants and they were in various stages of blooming – and in various shades of blue.  I spent a few minutes photographing them and then called Evan (one of our Hubbard Fellows) in case he wanted to come see and photograph them too.  Evan said something about a friendly little contest…  After describing the location to him, I drove back to town.

Last night, Evan sent me four of the images he came away with from that little patch of windflowers.  Have I mentioned that he’s an excellent photographer?  Also, he cheated by finding and photographing a crab spider on one of the flowers WHICH IS TOTALLY UNFAIR!

Anyway, without making it an overt competition, here are four photos each from Evan and me.  It’s always fun and interesting to see how different photographers interpret the same subject matter.  In this case, notwithstanding Evan’s crab spider, WHICH HE PROBABLY PLANTED, we were working with the same five flowers.  I put my four photos first, followed by his four.

My photos…





And now Evan’s photos…





It sure is nice to be back in wildflower season again.  I’m glad to live at a latitude where we have a true winter dormant season, but part of the reason I like winter is that it increases my appreciation of the return of the growing season each year!

The Gluttonous Crab Spider

The following post was written by Evan Barrientos, of our two Hubbard Fellows for this year.  Evan is a talented writer and photographer, and if you enjoy this post, I encourage you to check out his personal blog as well.  …For the record, I did not in any way encourage Evan to photograph or write about crab spiders.  This is despite my well-known affinity for them and my personal inability to walk past one without taking its portrait.

Over this summer I’ve tried to focus on photographing the prairies with a wide angle in order to show what the landscape looks like, but sometimes it’s just impossible to resist delving into the tiny details and dramas of prairie microfauna. One morning in June I was admiring the spiderwort flowers when I stopped to photograph a crab spider (Thomisidae sp.) sucking the juices out of a hoverfly (Syrphidae sp.) that she had caught.


If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know that many crab spiders hide on flowers and ambush insects as they stop for a drink of nectar (similar to ambush bugs). Some crab spiders can even change their color to yellow or white in order to match the flower they are on, but this spider didn’t seem to need that trick. To my great surprise, a second hoverfly was brave, hungry, or stupid enough to land on the same flower while I was taking photos. Maybe it thought the spider would be content with the hoverfly already in her fangs. It was wrong.


The spider quickly honed in on the intrepid visitor, even though her fangs were already more than full. What she planned to do with the second hoverfly, I don’t really know, but  watch what happened when the clueless hoverfly strayed a little too close:


Apparently, this hoverfly liked adrenaline, because it continued to gorge itself on delicious spiderwort nectar for a few more moments and eventually flew off to safety. Thinking the spectacle had ended, I started to pack up my camera gear, but before I could, another fly landed on the flower!


As you can see from the photo sequence, the spider was once again too slow to catch the visitor. I watched her for a little longer, but eventually left to photograph a bird singing nearby. I came back a few minutes later to check on the spider and found yet another surprise.


In the five minutes I was away, the crab spider had finished eating the first hoverfly and caught another one. I don’t know if spiderworts are irresistible to flies, or if hoverflies are terrible at spotting white crab spiders on purple flowers, but this spider sure was lucky that morning!

Encounters like this remind me how important it is to pause every once in a while and notice the little details. When I do this I’m often amazed by how much is going on around me and how much I would have missed it if I hadn’t stopped. Wide-angle views certainly have their place too, but to fall in love with prairies you really need to stick your nose in them at times.

Life on a Weedy Plant

Daisy fleabane (Erigeron strigosus) is considered by many people to be a weed.  It’s a biennial with very pretty, albeit small, daisy-like flowers that flourishes when the dominant plants around it have been weakened.  As a prairie manager, I’ve always appreciated daisy fleabane as an indicator that we’ve created conditions for new wildflowers (short- and long-lived) to insert themselves between the grasses in our sites.

Daisy fleabane (erigeron strigosus).  Lincoln Creek Prairie.  Aurora, Nebraska.
Daisy fleabane reaches toward the sky. Lincoln Creek Prairie. Aurora, Nebraska.

Last Friday evening, I took my camera for a walk in a small prairie here in town and found quite a few daisy fleabane plants growing along the trail.  I wasn’t the only one enjoying them – I saw numerous small bees and flies feeding on the pollen, and a few crab spiders hoping one of those pollinators waiting to ambush those same small pollinators.

Daisy fleabane (erigeron strigosus).  Lincoln Creek Prairie.  Aurora, Nebraska.
Daisy fleabane flowers and small fly.

Fly on Daisy fleabane (erigeron strigosus).  Lincoln Creek Prairie.  Aurora, Nebraska.
A closer look at the fly.

The first crab spider I noticed slipped over the edge of the flower to hide when it spotted me coming toward it.  I turned away to photograph something else nearby.  When I looked back, the spider was back on the flower.  I adjusted my position very slightly and the spider slipped back to its hiding place.  Argh.  Stubbornly, I decided I was going to photograph that spider if I had to wait all evening to do so.  I didn’t have to wait quite that long, but it felt like it.  I got my tripod positioned so that I could take the photo when/if the spider reappeared.  Holding perfectly still, (with sweat running down my nose and mosquitoes feeding on my neck) I stayed in position for at least 5-10 minutes until the spider finally showed itself again.  Got it!

Crab spider on daisy fleabane.  Lincoln Creek Prairie.  Aurora, Nebraska.
This spider photo is nice enough, but will always be memorable to me because of the effort it took to get it.  I hate to think how many mosquitoes got a free meal while I sat still waiting for my little spider buddy to make itself available for a photo…

A little further up the trail, I saw another crab spider that had caught a fly.  I figured it too would make a run for cover when I got close, so I came in low and slow.  I’m not sure it would have mattered – this spider showed none of the anxiety of the first one, and sat very still while I set up the tripod and waited for the breeze to pause long enough to get a good shot.  Maybe this spider was too distracted by its meal to care about me (though that’s not been my experience in the past).   I wasn’t sure whether to be grateful to the second spider for its cooperation or mad at the first one for all the mosquito bites on my neck.

Crab spider on daisy fleabane.  Lincoln Creek Prairie.  Aurora, Nebraska.
This crab spider seemed happy to have its photo taken with its hunting trophy.

I can understand why people might think of daisy fleabane as a weedy little plant, but its just filling an important role.  When the grasses are weak, something has to take advantage of the temporarily available resources around and between them.  There are numerous species that can do that, including a few that can cause real problems if they become established.  Given the choices, I’m always happy to see the pretty little daisy flowers and the diverse tiny creatures they attract.

Photo of the Week – January 29, 2015

Ok, I admit it – I’m a sucker for crab spiders.

A crab spider on Flodman's thistle (Cirsium flodmanii) at the Helzer family prairie.
A crab spider on Flodman’s thistle (Cirsium flodmanii) at the Helzer family prairie.  July 2014.

As much as I enjoy looking at prairie flowers, I enjoy them even more when there’s a crab spider lying in wait among their petals.  I must have more than a hundred photos of crab spiders on flowers, but when the lighting is good and I see those long hairy legs and cute little face… I just can’t help myself!

Do you suppose I need some kind of intervention?

“Hi, my name is Chris Helzer and I really like crab spiders.”  (Hi Chris…)

“It’s been three weeks since I last photographed a crab spider…”  (Applause)

In Celebration of Black-Eyed Susans

Before I begin this post, let me say thank you to all of you who voted on the photo choices offered up in last Friday’s post.  This time, there was no difficulty in determining the winners.  About 90% of the voters chose A over B and C over D, and about 75% chose E over F.  I appreciate both the votes and the very thoughtful explanations many of you included along with your choices.  Thank you.

The black-eyed Susan may be the quintessential wildflower species.  If you asked a young student to draw a picture of a wildflower, chances are the result would look something like a black-eyed Susan – a ring of petals around a dark circular center.  As a photographer, I certainly appreciate the flower’s aesthetic appeal, and find myself drawn to photograph it frequently.  This July was no different, and I ended up with quite a few black-eyed Susan photos, some of which are included below.

What is more wildflowery than the black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)?
What is more wildflowery than the black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)?  The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

This inchworm is apparently attracted more by the forage value than the aesthetic value of this flower.
This inchworm is apparently attracted more by the forage value than the aesthetic value of this flower.

I don't think this plant hopper was feeding on black-eyed Susans - it flew in and landed while I was admiring the flower, so i photographed it.
I don’t think this plant hopper was feeding on black-eyed Susans – it flew in and landed while I was admiring the flower, so I photographed it.

As with the plant hopper, I think this grasshopper nymph simply used the flower as a landing pad when I flushed it as I walked up.
I think this grasshopper nymph simply used the flower as a landing pad after I flushed it as I walked up; I don’t think it was feeding on it.

This crab spider would be glad to have a meal while on the flower, but it's hoping for more protein than the flower can provide.  Flower visitors beware!
This crab spider was definitely looking for a meal on this flower, but it was hoping for more protein than the flower can provide.  I believe this is one of the crab spider species that can change color (white to yellow and vice versa) to match flower color.  Watch out pollinators!

Even before they bloom, black-eyed Susans are attractive.  (They're also very attractive when they're done blooming - especially in the early fall when their brown dried petals are still hanging on.
Black-eyed Susans are attractive even before they bloom.  (They’re also very attractive when they’re done blooming – especially in the early fall when their brown dried petals are still hanging on.)

As with many of our showiest wildflowers, black-eyed Susans are most abundant a year or two after an event that weakens competition from dominant grasses.  Drought and grazing are both good candidates for that kind of event, and many of the black-eyed Susans we’re seeing this summer benefited from the 2012 drought and the grazing we used as a management tool that year.  As short-lived perennials, they can germinate and bloom quickly when provided with a little open space, light, and moisture.  They are also an easy flower to grow in my yard, and they generally produce enough seed and new plants that I don’t ever have to replant them.

Most of the black-eyed susan flowers in our prairies will be done blooming within the next couple of weeks, though some stragglers will probably continue on through the end of the month.  When they’re done, we’ll venture out to harvest seed from them (wearing gloves to protect the thinner-skinned sides of our fingers from the sharp hairs on the stems) and spread them in some of our degraded prairies where we’ve weakened grasses with this year’s grazing.  Many species we overseed in that manner take a few years to bloom, but black-eyed Susans usually don’t make us wait very long.  I look forward to seeing an abundance of them next year!

“Should I Stay or Should I Go?”

It’s good to be back in the prairies after spending last week in the mountains.  The mountains were beautiful and daytime temperatures were pleasantly cool, but I sure enjoyed the chance to catch up with the goings on in our prairies yesterday.  As if to welcome me home, the weather provided about an hour of bright overcast skies and light winds around lunchtime – perfect weather for a little close-up photography.

As I wandered, I found a crab spider perched atop an upright prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera) flower.  I’m a sucker for crab spiders, so I crept up and snapped a photograph of it.

Crab spider on upright prairie coneflower.  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.
Crab spider on upright prairie coneflower. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

I was surprised the spider was sitting so high on the flower – it seemed awfully visible to predators, and poorly placed to capture pollinators coming to visit the blooming portion of the flower below.  Just as I was wondering what it was up to, the spider answered my question for me.  It popped itself up on its “tiptoes” and let loose a long silk trail.

If you look closely, you can see a long silk thread emerging from the abdomen of the spider.

The spider was attempting a technique commonly called “ballooning”, though “kiting” seems a more appropriate term.  Small spiders use ballooning to travel long distances by releasing long silk threads into the breeze and floating off to wherever the wind carries them  Often, the spider only goes a short distance, but it’s still a faster mode of transportation than walking on short little legs!  Sometimes, if the wind is right, a ballooning spider can go many miles.

In this case, the light winds were apparently insufficient to carry the spider off, and after it failed to launch, it detached its silk thread and sat back down (dejectedly?).  I imagined the spider’s disappointment at having steeled itself for a potentially long trip only to find that it wasn’t going anywhere after all.

Oh well...
Oh well…

As I walked off, I left the spider with good wishes that it would catch a better breeze in the near future, but also with a silent warning.  It’s great to go to new and different places, but sometimes travel just helps you appreciate how nice it is to be home.

Photo of the Week – June 12, 2014

While I was in Iowa last week, I took advantage of some free time just before sunset to return to one of the restored (reconstructed) prairies we’d visited earlier in the day at the Kellerton Wildlife Management Area.  As I walked into the prairie, I could hear a few straggler (desperate?) prairie chickens booming on their lek and I flushed a pair of northern bobwhites from the fenceline.  Bobolinks, dickcissels, eastern meadowlarks and grasshopper sparrows were noisily announcing themselves across the prairie, and upland sandpipers were whistling and chattering above.  The insects were less noisy but were abundant, once I started looking closely for them.

Tall white indigo in restored prairie at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources' Kellerton Wildlife Management Area.
Tall white indigo in restored prairie at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ Kellerton Wildlife Management Area.

As the sun lowered itself toward the horizon, I reflected upon the various ways the success of this particular prairie restoration effort could be measured.  It was certainly aesthetically pleasing, plant diversity was high, wildlife and insects certainly seemed to be responding well to it, and by replacing cropland with prairie, the Iowa DNR had – at least incrementally – defragmented the grassland landscape.  Seems like success to me!  …I decided to focus on the aesthetics for a while, and took advantage of the golden evening light until the sun disappeared completely.

A stinkbug on purple coneflower.
A stinkbug on purple coneflower.


Crab spider on Ohio spiderwort.
Crab spider on Ohio spiderwort.


A bug (Hemiptera) sits perched in the late day sunlight.
A bug (Hemiptera) perches in the late day sunlight.


Ohio spiderwort.
Ohio spiderwort in the afterglow of the sunset.