Single male spider seeking mature female. Must have pitted carapace, be between 6 and 7 mm, and have white “T” marking on the front of the abdomen. Likes to hang out, do ropes courses, and enjoys romantic insect dinners at twilight.
I was visiting family in the Jefferson Hills area south of Pittsburgh over the winter holiday in December. In the corner, where the white wall met the white ceiling, a black spider with huge palps stood out like a piece of coal in the snow. Palps are the short, leg-like appendages near the face of the spider. If the palps are swollen, like boxing gloves, the spider is male. The huge palps and his other unique spider characteristics, helped me ID him as Steatoda borealis. Steatoda is a genus in the Theridiidae family (comb-footed or cobweb spiders). There are nineteen different kinds of Steatoda spiders found in North America and the borealis species is common around Western Pennsylvania, yet, this guy seemed to be all alone in that giant continent of a house wandering for a mate. Not any ordinary spider female would do…he was looking for the right type, a Steatoda borealis lady!
On a mild January day at Round Hill Park near Elizabeth, PA, I caught a small (5mm), blackish cobweb spider and guessed her as Steatoda borealis. Richard Bradley’s Spiders of North America lists them as 6-7mm for adults She was immature and not ready to start dating. Aside from that fact, she had all of the qualities of a fine, female S. borealis with her pitted carapace, and light “T” mark on the front of her abdomen. I fed her well hoping to prompt her to molt into maturity. I also hoped the male wouldn’t keel over of old age before I could introduce them!
I dropped the male into her container. Lady borealis was in her house. He landed in one corner, a good bit away from the house and didn’t move. I started on something else thinking he would need to acclimate and cautiously announce his presence, like any polite spider would do. This could take awhile. I checked in about thirty minutes later and he was IN her house! The female seemed to be cool with it – she had her legs pulled close and sat motionless while the male walked in circles just millimeters away, adding his own silk to her web. I thought this might be moving a little too fast… he was already decorating! The male seemed to be confident turning his “back” to her. She could’ve attacked, but didn’t. Apparently, she liked him! This went on for almost forty minutes. Every few minutes, the male looked like he was stumbling. Since it was a repetitive motion, I thought it might be intentional. I dug for some info about this and found out there are stridulating organs on the front of S. borealis abdomens which they rub against their carapace to make noise. The silk “decorating” behavior has also been documented in a few scientific papers (see below) and is part of this spider’s mating ritual. Both males and females have stidulating organs. He was decorating and making lovely spider music to lull his lady! It must have been the Borealis Exclusive mix because it was inaudible to me. Finally, he approached her face to face with front legs tapping hers. She tapped back and then all of the stars aligned – they mated! An hour later, I called it a night leaving the two alone. It is interesting that these spiders are usually very shy darting into a retreat at the slightest bump. While they were mating, they were oblivious to my intrusions as I documented, photographed, and yes, filmed.
The spiderlings emerged in April and not long after that, a second egg sac appeared. From this ONE successful date, there could be close to one HUNDRED Steatoda borealis babies! Thankfully, human dating does not end up this way.
Although the hero of the story died, there is still a happy ending. He did find the mature female was looking for. I’m sure at least one of his spiderlings will live to perpetuate his original post in the spider personals. The Steatoda borealis romance continues here in Western Pennsylvania!
Dondale and Redner, Evidence for displacement of a North American spider, Steatoda borealis (Hentz), by the European species S. bipunctata (Linnaeus) (Araneae: Theridiidae) Canadian Journal of Zoology, Vol. 64 #
Lee, R.C.P. / Nyffeler, M. / Krelina, E., 1986, Acoustic communication in two spider species of the genus Steatoda (Araneae, Theridiidae)
Levi, Herbert, 1957, The spider genera Crustulina and Steatoda in North America, Central America, and West Indies. Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Vol 117, No. 3
Thanks, Amy! What a wonderful romantic story 🙂
Is there anything (known) which tends to make the female eat the male, or versa-visa, that is, anything (known) that tends to cause the female to not chow down?
Great question! I haven’t delved deeply into reading research about if there’s a chemical response or anything like that. Maybe there is! In my observations, it’s been unpredictable and I’m guessing if the male gives the wrong approach, or signal, the female attacks. Or maybe she’s just hungry? The post called “Frick Park Sampler” has a link to my video showing a female orb weaver eating the male. I’m not sure what he did wrong!
Some (admittedly very quick) searching found two hypothesises:
(1) “Creepy Cannibalism: Why Female Spiders Eat Mates”, claims there is a direct correlation to size difference. The larger the female (relative to the male), the more likely the male is eaten: “It’s all about size. If males are small, they’re easier to catch and therefore more likely to be prey, say Shawn Wilder and Ann Rypstra from Miami University in Ohio. Big females eat their puny mates simply because a) they’re hungry and b) they can.” (2008) https://www.livescience.com/7555-creepy-cannibalism-female-spiders-eat-mates.html
(2) “Food vs. Sex: Why Some Female Spiders Eat Males Before Mating”, claims “[N]ew research shows that a female spider’s ‘personality’ could influence whether she chooses to immediately cannibalize or instead copulate with potential partners. […] ‘While docile females attack inferior males and prefer to mate with superior males, aggressive females kill males regardless of their condition, which demonstrates their inability to distinguish males as sources of sperm or food, indiscriminately cannibalizing them,’ study author Rubén Rabaneda-Bueno [at Spain’s Experimental Station of Arid Zones (EEZA)] told the Spanish news agency SINC this week. [&helllip;] ‘We reached the conclusion that there are aggressive genetics which vary among females and make them act aggressively, both when they feed off prey, and when they approach a male in courting,’ study director Jordi Moya Laraño told SINC. ‘Others are docile in both contexts, highlighting the existence of different personalities.'” (2014) https://www.livescience.com/45066-virgin-female-spiders-eat-males.html
Those hypothesises are obviously not mutually incompatible.
This is great! Thanks!
Thanks for this wonderful post. The entire story, romance with a happy ending, what could be better?