The worst beekeeping day of my life had little to do with bees and everything to do with a spider. Cross spiders are everywhere in North America, from Newfoundland to British Columbia and from California to the southeast. They are orb weavers, meaning they spin a web to catch food. The species was introduced from Europe and found our continent much to its liking.
Cross spiders get their name from the series of white dots on their abdomens that form a cross. Although their official name is Araneus diadematus, they are also known as European garden spiders, diadem spiders, or cross orb weavers. For years I called them September spiders and everyone seemed to know what I meant. They live for a whole year, but by September they are fat and juicy and filled with mustard-colored goo.
Since cross spiders eat other invertebrates and are completely harmless to humans, there is no reason to fear them. In fact, you would never guess that I don’t like them except for the fact that they make me scream and run.
One September day a few years ago I needed to do hive inspections in preparation for winter. We were at the tail end of a long nectar dearth and the bees were testy, so I dressed accordingly—complete suit, veil, gloves, and thick socks. Deciding I was a hazard, the bees were brutal, head-butting into my veil, stinging the fabric of my suit, and searching for that sweet spot just above my shoes.
I was buttoned up tight, but suddenly I saw movement out of the tail of my eye. Once again I checked my zippers and Velcro strips. Finally, satisfied I was bee-proof, I went back to work. But soon it happened again, that subtle movement.
I pulled the veil away from my face for a better look. Then, OMG, I saw it—a September spider big as a grape and looking grim. I tried to scrape it away with my hive tool, but it didn’t budge. I kept flicking at it while it slowly dawned on me that the spider wasn’t on my veil, but in it. With me. I was in kissing distance of an eight-legged, eight-eyed September spider that was stealing the oxygen from my lungs. I freaked.
At the moment I realized the hive tool wouldn’t do me any good, I did what many other red-blooded American females would do—I screamed and ran.
The bewildered spider came with me, of course, causing me to forget about the hordes of stinging insects in hot pursuit. I flailed down the path, tossing gloves, veil, bee suit, and shirt into the brush, leaving a trail of clothing like a teenager in lust. By the time I reached the house I was half naked and covered with painful red welts, stingers still pumping. The spider was never seen again.
In the years since, I’ve tried to be philosophical about those meaty brutes. I’ve read about them, photographed them, attempted to make peace with them. But still, since that day I never don a bee suit without first shaking it, turning it inside out, examining the hood, the pockets, and the bunched up elastic. It has become just another part of my beekeeping ritual, regardless of the month.