PIERZ LAKE, Minnesota – Of course, many of us venture into the wilderness of Boundary Waters Canoe Area in search of a dose of tranquility, a sense of connection with the natural world, and perhaps a bit of peace. one or two coveted wildlife sightings. Our family has had memorable encounters with moose, bears, eagles, pine martens, spruce hens, loons, turtles, owls, beavers, Canada jays, as well as other camp opportunists and even a curiously nonchalant groundhog.
But a relatively low-key and rather rainy trip on the Gunflint Trail in August forced us to slow our pace and take more note of Northland’s often-overlooked little creatures. One of the unexpected highlights of our trip occurred on Lake Pierz, where the late afternoon sun shone the perfect spotlight on a boldly marked spider constructing a massive, intricate web.
Over the course of a few hours we observed and documented the spider’s progress with photos only to learn later that the object of our fascination was a specimen called the orbweaver giant lichen. Its scientific nickname is Araneus bicentenarius, so named because it was publicly displayed as part of a collection during the Philadelphia Bicentennial in 1882.
Upon my return to civilization, I contacted local naturalist, educator and Northland spider expert Larry Weber to get an idea of the impressive web we had seen taking shape, probably nearly 4 feet in diameter. .
Weber, who regularly shares his wealth of knowledge with News Tribune readers as a columnist, has written extensively about spiders and expressed his mutual admiration for the orbweaver lichen.
As its name suggests, the spider is a master of disguise, blending almost imperceptibly into parts of the lichen-laden terrain of the northern woodlands.
But this eight-legged creature isn’t afraid to strut its stuff when it comes to building websites. Weber said he saw the spider build its sticky net around a framework of basal threads sometimes extending 10 feet from point to point. We also encountered an equally impressive spread from his Wind Support Lines.
With those basic threads secured, the work began in earnest, and it’s a bit of a wonder to see so much web coming out of a single spider, Weber acknowledged.
“Everything is liquid inside the spider’s body, then as soon as it comes out on the spinnerets, it turns into thread,” explained the aptly named Weber.
“Once you see this spider and see its web, you will be amazed,” he said.
For all the work involved in creating a website of this size, it often only survives little more than an evening. Weber said the orbweaver lichen has actually been known to consume its own web after use.
I wondered if this allowed the spider to recycle the web one way, but Weber suggested it was probably for another purpose.
“I think the reason they eat it is that if the web stays there, it can alert predators to the spider’s presence,” he said.
Weber said spiders are often underestimated for their incredible abilities and skill in preying on insects that we often consider a nuisance.
Nonetheless, he says he understands that some people have a natural aversion to spiders.
“I have no problem with someone being afraid of spiders. But what I don’t appreciate is when they take the next step and hurt them or kill them,” Weber said.
So whatever factor may be plaguing you in terms of spiders, the next time you come across one, I encourage you to step back for a moment and admire its role in the natural world. Of course, it helps if you’re not startled by someone crawling on your neck while you’re halfway through a canoe.