~ Kentucky Pollinators & Backyard Wildlife ~
As the fields turn yellow with goldenrods, it is fun to watch all of the pollinators that are attracted to these abundant sources of late-season nectar and pollen. Goldenrods are a great place to watch butterflies, bees, wasps, beetles, and many other pollinators. They are also a great place to watch predator-prey relationships in action, because the abundant pollinators make goldenrods the perfect place for predators to hunt.
The goldenrod crab spider (Misumena vatia) is one of the predators that can often be found hidden among the goldenrod flowers, but you may have to look close to see one. The goldenrod crab spider is among a group of crab spiders known as flower spiders because they hunt on flowers. They are what is known as “sit and wait” or “ambush” predators. Instead of spinning webs to catch their prey like many spiders do, flower spiders rely on their camouflage to blend into their surroundings while they wait for their prey to come to them.
Goldenrods are obviously one place to look for goldenrod crab spiders, and it seems like that is where I see them most often. However, goldenrod crab spiders can also be found on other flowers like daisies. You might think, “How can a spider that blends in with goldenrods, also blend in with daisies unless it sits right in the middle?” Well, goldenrod crab spiders have a trick up their sleeve.
Goldenrod crab spiders can be yellow or white and can change back and forth. Their default color is white. When they want to change to yellow, they flood their tissues with a pigment that they produce. It can take 10-25 days to change to bright yellow but when they decide to change back to white, it only takes approximately a week to complete the change. They often have reddish stripes along their sides, but these can be hard to see when they are yellow. There are other flower spider species that look very similar, but lack the red stripes.
Female crab spiders are larger than the males. Female goldenrod crab spiders are typically between a quarter and a third of an inch long, not including the legs. Males, on the other hand, are only approximately a tenth of an inch long. Young goldenrod crab spiders look like their parents, but are much smaller.
While it may be tempting to view goldenrod crab spiders in a negative light because they prey on pollinators, they serve an important role in nature. In addition to pollinators, goldenrod crab spiders also prey on other insects that eat the flowers and plants, like grasshoppers and katydids. Goldenrod crab spiders, like other predators, help to keep the populations of their prey in check. So, this fall as you enjoy watching the many butterflies and bees visiting goldenrods and other fall flowers, I encourage you to take a minute to look closer, see if you can find a goldenrod crab spider or other flower spider hidden among the flowers, and appreciate not only their superb ability to blend in with their surroundings but also the role they play in the natural ecosystem.
Shannon Trimboli is a beekeeper, farmer, wildlife biologist, and author. She owns Grassy Roads Farm and Busy Bee Nursery & Consulting. Busy Bee Nursery & Consulting specializes in plants and habitat consulting services for honey bees, native pollinators, and wildlife conservation. In 2018, her first book, Plants Honey Bees Use in the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys, was published. Shannon also blogs about Kentucky pollinators and backyard wildlife, tips for attracting pollinators and wildlife, highlights of different plants for pollinators and wildlife, and life on the farm and nursery. You can sign up to have her blogs emailed to you.