Charlene the Crab Spider

October 16, 2016

Charlene the Crab Spider

October 16, 2016
Posted in: Nature | Reading Time: 6 minutes

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Charlene, the flower crab spider, sits contemplatively upon the black midnight basil plant. Normally found on goldenrod or other flowers, the flower crab spider (genus Misumena) is generally white in color but camouflages itself by secreting a liquid yellow pigment to match the flower it lives on. Crab spiders don't spin webs to catch food, they hunt by camouflage, then grab their prey as it comes near to feed on the nectar of the flower. Bees and wasps are a crab spider's favorite meal. While Charlene's yellow camouflage doesn't do much to disguise herself on the pink and eggplant-colored basil plant, I do often see bees enjoying the nectar of this particular flower at dusk when I'm watering. Her hunting location is not such a bad choice after all. At a mere 5 mm in size, Charlene sits, and waits. She has ALL the time in the world to wait for her favorite cuisine. With a beautiful sun set to enjoy, it's worth the wait.

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With her eight eyes in two horizontal rows of four, Charlene spies my camera. She's been discovered and she doesn't seem pleased about it. She freezes hoping I'm not a predator.

Found all over North America, the flower crab spider is also known as goldenrod crab spider because they are commonly found hunting in goldenrod sprays. Like many female crab spiders, Charlene's body is like a rounded triangle (white or yellow) with red striping and can be up to 10 mm in size. Males are smaller, up to 5 mm, more elongated, and are creamy white or yellow with brown bands.

Charlene can camouflage herself by changing color at will. Normally white, her yellow appearance took nearly a month to create from by secreting a liquid yellow pigment into the outer layer of the body. It will take only a week for it to return to white.

Charlene's front legs are longer and stronger than the short rear legs so that she can easily hold her take-out order, err, prey. Her legs have a "laterigrade orientation" which rotate at the base so she can walk sideways like a crab or forward and backwards as well. The top of each leg has 2 claws, which also makes it easy to hold her chow. That's better than chopsticks!

Charlene will sit patiently on a flower waiting for her "take out" order to be delivered. She has her preferences but she's not picky, she'll use her front legs to grab whatever happens to pass by and inject venom with her small fangs to paralyze it and liquefy the inside. Instead of wrapping it in silk and eating it later, crab spiders suck the body dry upon catching it. Charlene is able to feed on invertebrates even larger than herself because of her venom, such as butterflies, grasshoppers, flies, wasps and bees. On the other hand, her predators include wasps, ants, other spiders, birds, lizards and shrews. Her venom is useless against the much larger predators. Since she eats pests as well as beneficial insects, she is a welcome insect in the garden. Plus, she's as pretty as she is useful. Her bite, unlikely as it is, is not harmful to humans. She's not just another pretty face!

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Charlene is irritated with me. She shrivels up her legs and turns away from the lens. She's been found out and she doesn't have a way to defend herself against large predators. I'm sure she considers my big lens one large revolting predator. The same method she uses to catch food, camouflage, she uses to evade predators. Most spiders hunt or look for mates, but with Charlene's camouflage capability, the pressure of predation and hunting for food is handled in one stroke, so she conserves all her energy for growth and mating.

Male crab spiders will be seen scampering from flower to flower in search of females. They are often seen missing one or more of their legs, likely due to near misses by predators or fighting with other males. When a male finds a female, he climbs over her and gets busy. The female is literally helpless to the advances of the male due to the pheromones after she comes of age. But if she is not of age, the boy spider better watch out! She will devour any spider who comes near her. There sure is no confusion of the word "no" in the spider world! #nomeansieatyou

The crab spider can spin webs but it's only to hold eggs, which is usually found in a leaf folded over to secure and hide the eggs. The mom will guard the eggs until they hatch (3 weeks). When they open the sack, she moves on and finds her own new home. If the baby spider wanders into his mom's new home, she will likely give him a good ass-kicking, or perhaps even "exterminate" him, as the crab spider is very territorial and will even attack her own young.

"Get out and stay out and don't come around asking for a free hand out either," yells Charlene to her brats,  "Empty nest means empty. No kids. Nadda. Now GIT!"

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Charlene's species of crab spider is of the family Thomisidae (crab spider), but of the species Misumena vatia which refers to the goldenrod or flowering crab spider. In Greek, misumena translates to a feminine "object of hate" or "being hated." In Latin, the word vatia means bowlegged. I get the Latin word, but the Greek word for "object of hate?" Who could hate such delightful creature? Well, maybe a wasp or fly that she happens to catch and liquefy might have a nanosecond to muster up an ounce of hatred. But I doubt it. Nature doesn't work that way. Insect taxonomy is mind boggling.

I run into Charlene often in my garden, but she'll do whatever it takes to avoid me. Here she is telling me to bug off as she runs for cover. One of her male suitors made his way into our kitchen one night after I clipped some basil for dinner. At 5-10 mm, the crab spider is so small, any person wouldn't think of squashing it or washing it down the drain. But I just have too much respect for its unique evolution so I had Scott return him to the garden where he is much more useful.

Nobody is too small to make a valuable contribution to the world.

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One comment on “Charlene the Crab Spider”

  1. That is one nice-looking spider - who would ever think a spider could be that impressive? Angel Puppy Pants sent Lightning a special bundle of joy:)

    Woos - Lightning and Misty

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