In search of eight-legged beauties. Kids discover the secret world of spiders

THEY were up at 4 a.m. that Sunday morning. Not to tee off early, or attend sunrise service, or go on a bird walk. But - for crazy sakes - to look at spiders. The moon and sun hadn't even switched places yet when the moms, dads, children, and singles yawned their way into North Park Village nature area, 46 acres of green amid the urban Chicago milieu. As stars melted into morning light, the 15 hikers set out, seeking spiders in woodland and meadow. The job was simple, because the sun touched dewdrops on the webs. All anyone had to do was follow the razzle-dazzle road through the open-air Tiffany's.

Dan Joyce, a spider buff who teaches telescope-making at the Village nature center, led the group. During the year, he volunteers his services for three dozen star watches plus a few spider walks now and then.

Mr. Joyce starts the morning off on a positive pitch, telling hikers that of the 35,000 spider species named to date, only a few are poisonous to man. He cites the black widow (red markings, often shaped like an hourglass) and the brown recluse (fiddle markings). ``And, of course, if you see a spider with a red face crawling out of your bunch of bananas, look out. That baby has a nasty bite,'' he says. ``But we're not going to see any of these today.'' And all the kids moan in instant disappointment.

Let's face it, spiders have never rated with butterflies in nature's beauty pageant, and for centuries they've been plagued with a bad image. Who can adore a creepy thing that scares Miss Muffet or keeps crawling onto James Bond's coverlet? With a reputation like that, Joyce has to work hard to boost spiders' popularity.

``Look at 'em,'' he says. ``They're beautiful. That coordination. How can they keep all those legs working together when they run? And they won't harm you,'' he tells the kids. ``They harm the insects that harm you.''

His enthusiasm is catching. Before long, ``icky'' and ``awful'' fade from hikers' vocabulary, and they start to tag spiders with adjectives such as ``colorful,'' ``beautiful,'' and even ``gorgeous.'' The spiders, mind you, not their webs.

Even a dull brown thing, which - at best - is a plain Jane among the spider set, was called ``a beauty'' as it huddled at the narrow end of a funnel web.

``Hey, how about this lovely?'' says Art Lyons, an economic researcher. He pointed to a yellow crab spider sitting on a blossom. Because these spiders hold their legs out at the sides, they look like crabs and can scamper forward, backward, and sideward. During his school days, Mr. Lyons had a pet jumping spider. Unlike many varieties, the jumpers have keen eyesight. And they're big eaters in captivity, so he was kept busy catching flies for his bottled-up companion.

While telling spider tidbits to the group, Joyce skips the scientific lingo and talks in everyday terms.

``That's a ray spider,'' he says, pointing to a dark creature with web that spreads like a fan. Nearby, six-year-old Mary Armstrong opens her book on insects so she can pair the real ray specimen with its picture. But there was no illustration of the ray. Or the crab, garden, wolf, jumping, and comb-footed varieties that everyone was finding. Understandably so, because spiders aren't insects; they're arachnids with eight legs instead of an insect's six. It was a big lesson for a little girl burdened with the wrong book.

When the trail turned a corner, the group came upon a mass of orb webs crocheted like grandma's doilies between limbs and leaves. And one garden spider breakfasted upon a fly, a phenomenon that drew the group in close.

``Don't touch the web,'' Joyce cautions, explaining that spiders are timid creatures. ``And they can read the vibes,'' he says. They can tell if a mate is knocking at the web; if a prey has blundered in; or if it's time to hide because an enemy is near.

``They must really freak out when there's an earthquake, right?'' says nine-year-old Steve Neil, who learned it's also tough to be a spider in the rain. With leaves as their umbrellas, spiders wait out the storm. And more often than not, downpours rip away their webs and they must spin new abodes.

The kids found daddy-long-legs everywhere. Of course, they're not really spiders. (Well, the Pholcidae are, and the Phalangiidae aren't, but let's not get into that.) Suffice to say, the kids had daddy-long-legs crawling down their arms and sitting on their shoes.

The walk had its fringe benefits, too. Some of the strollers glimpsed a buck circling in the predawn, and all saw purple martins catching nits, gnats, and ``skeeters'' in midair, and honeybees buzzing through waist-high sweet clover.

These hikers probably won't get up at 4 a.m. next Sunday. But one thing is almost certain. Now, when they find a spider inside the house, they won't squish it. They'll ignore it. Or they'll plop a glass or cup over it and slide a paper beneath the container to keep the spider inside. And they'll carry the eight-legged ``beauty'' to the outdoors.

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