Wild Ideas: A tiny, elegant orb weaver shines in the sunlight

 Two views of a tiny, jewel-like orchard spider Pam Owen found on her deck. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News

Two views of a tiny, jewel-like orchard spider Pam Owen found on her deck.

In taking a break on my deck one evening after a busy week, I spied a tiny new visitor on a chair I normally use as a footrest.

I first spotted my guest, a slender spider with a body only about an eighth of an inch long, by the glint of the fading sunlight on its shiny green legs. It was hanging upside down in the middle of a web it had woven between the deck railing and the arms of the chair. As I looked closer at the spider, with the help of a magnifying glass, I saw that its emerald-green legs, elegantly long for its size, were attached to a lozenge-shaped, jewel-like body marbled in yellow, green, white and black.

Once again bemoaning the lack of a decent macro lens, I tried to get as close as possible with my camera to photograph the spider as it lay in wait for prey in the center of its barely visible, horizontal web. When I got too close, it skittered away from the web’s hub, but returned to its position as soon as I backed off.

This arachnid was new to me and, with all the spiders out there and my lack of knowledge about their taxonomy, I figured it would take forever to nail down the species. Before I turned to experts for help, I decided to first try searching online on my own. While I’d like to think I’ve developed some skill in choosing the right search terms in such situations, I’ll have to admit that it’s pretty much a crap shoot every time. Without overthinking my mission, I put “tiny green yellow spider virginia” into Google, hoping just to find some photos to point me in the right direction.

When the search results came up, I clicked on “images” and started prowling through them. I quickly realized how many green-and-yellow spiders there were. I also found that my inexact characterization of the spider’s size hadn’t helped, judging by the many shots of the huge black-and-yellow garden spider (Argiope aurantia) that were included in the results.

I went back to look at search results other than images and saw near the top of the list a website I often use to try to ID local invertebrates, insectidentification.org. Billed as being “for the casual insect observer,” this site lets users search by state. By my putting “virginia” in my original search terms, the site had already narrowed its search to the commonwealth, but I was dubious about finding this one tiny spider in the website’s list of 315 invertebrates native to Virginia. I started searching on the page of results for “spider” to see if my tiny denizen of the deck would be there.

After looking at the first 42 species of spiders, I finally struck gold (or green and gold in this case): Leucauge venusta, more commonly known as the “orchard spider,” “venusta orchard spider” or “longjawed orbweaver.” Although I was unfamiliar with the species, it is quite common in Virginia, according to the website. Likely the spider’s tiny size lets it go unnoticed by the casual observer, which I can be at times. In the orb-weaver family (Araneidae), the spider’s “capsule-shaped” abdomen is quite different from the more spherical ones of most orb-weaver spiders, the website notes.

To learn more about this species, I headed over to a Spiders.us. This site lists 39 spider species for Virginia, “drawn from numerous scientific publications and online spider submissions,” according to the site. It says the orchard spider’s genus name, Leucauge, is the only spider genus name created by Charles Darwin himself and is Greek for “with a bright gleam.” This is a great fit for the orchard spider, as is its species name, venusta, which is Latin for “charming, elegant or beautiful.”

One of this spider’s common names, longjawed orbweaver, harks back to its family name, Tetragnathidae, which comes from the shape of its chelicerae (mouthparts), commonly called “jaws.” However, even by using a magnifying glass, I couldn’t make out this distinction on the tiny spider on the deck. I imagine some scientist with better equipment is responsible for the name, which goes back to the mid-19th century.

Tom and Kaye Johnson, in Old Hollow, found this beautiful little hooded warbler on their deck, apparently stunned from crashing into a window. The Johnsons checked on the bird every few minutes for about a half hour, when it disappeared. This species is one of many warblers that migrate into to this area from the south to breed in the summer.Aaron Johnson-Woods
Tom and Kaye Johnson, in Old Hollow, found this beautiful little hooded warbler on their deck, apparently stunned from crashing into a window. The Johnsons checked on the bird every few minutes for about a half hour, when it disappeared. This species is one of many warblers that migrate into to this area from the south to breed in the summer.

Spiders.us confirmed, and showed through the many photos of the orchard spider on the site, what I had suspected by the longish shape of the abdomen, that this spider was a female. According to the website, females create their sole egg sac in late spring or early summer, so likely this gal is done for the year — actually for her life, as this species only lives one year. If she did reproduce successfully, her young should overwinter, so I’ll be looking for those next spring.

While some orb weavers hide at the edge of their webs, waiting for prey, the orchard spider waits upside down in the middle of its web, as demonstrated by the one on my deck. Also like many orb weavers, orchard spiders first immobilize their prey by injecting venom into it through their hollow mouthparts, then wrap the meal in silk for later consumption.

Although the website characterizes this species as “timid,” dropping to the ground quickly if disturbed, the little lady on my deck, as I noted above, did not quite fit that mold. The orchard spider can be found in a variety of habitats, the website says, “but they seem to prefer low bushes and lower portions of trees in relatively moist, wooded areas.” Although my house is surrounded by such habitat, why the white chair on my deck — one of the few dry, sunny spots here — attracted this one is a mystery.

Whatever took her fancy, this orchard spider seems quite content with her choice — as am I, taking care not to disturb her or her web when I put my feet up on the chair.

© 2015 Pam Owen

Print Friendly

Share this post