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Reflections on Big Bugs, Part 1

As the BugWeek Web Team prepared the FAQ document that you can read here, one question in particular sparked discussion — what are the biggest bugs in Florida?

We’ve already published a consensus opinion here, but in the BugWeek blog we have space for our contributors to offer a few anecdotes, additions, suggestions for species that deserve an honorable mention, and so forth.

So, here’s one team member’s contribution:

In the category “heaviest bug,” we mentioned the Carolina wolf spider, Hogna carolinensis.

I asked to include this species, for a couple of reasons:

One is, H. carolinensis is the largest wolf spider native to the U.S., which makes it a good candidate for the heaviest spider in Florida.

(Brief digression – in terms of mass, the Carolina wolf spider might get some competition from the non-native Mexican redrump tarantula, Brachypelma vagans, but that species is found exclusively in one part of St. Lucie County. It’s believed that this population was established in the 1970s or 80s as a result of an accidental or deliberate release and, for whatever reason, the population hasn’t spread. Because it’s so localized, we opted not to mention this species. But you can read more about it here.)

The other reason is, I’ve seen some very large specimens of H. carolinensis.

One example: I was in an old wooden building in downtown Gainesville and what should come ambling toward me but a female wolf spider — I’m assuming it was an H. carolinensis — that was so big that you could hear it walking across the wooden floor. Tappitty-tappitty-tappitty-tappitty. That was a disturbing thing to me, that I could actually hear a spider’s footfalls. People are not supposed to experience this. Crickets, maybe. People, no.

More recently, I got a good look at a female that appeared to be about the size of a 45 rpm record. You know, an old-time single, with the big hole in the middle.

Those are seven inches across.

At the time, I was a guest at an older wood-frame home that harbored big populations of well-fed huntsman spiders (Heteropoda venatoria) and what I took to be Carolina wolf spiders. One afternoon, I happened to walk out to the front yard and glanced up at the roof, where there was a cupola. (A cupola is a decorative structure that looks like a small tower). I realized there was an enormous spider perched on the side of cupola that faced me, just below some vents.

Because it was up so high, I walked around the yard, trying to get a better view of the spider. I didn’t get any closer than maybe 20 feet away, but I stood there a good long time staring at it. My eyesight’s sharp, and this spider was so big I kept asking myself “can that be real?”

The spider remained motionless, so I decided to throw something at it. I wanted to incite it to move and convince myself this wasn’t a rubber toy somebody tacked up there for Halloween.

So I went into the house and got a couple of paper towels, wetted them with a hose and wadded them up tight.

My throw was accurate, and struck the side of the cupola near the spider. It ran into one of the vents. Check, real spider.

Even though I don’t have exact measurements to relate, I feel confident stating that H. carolinensis can grow to very impressive size given a big food supply, harborage and successful evasion of larger predators. And it’s a safe bet I didn’t see the two biggest examples in the state.