The difference between utility and utility plus beauty is the difference between telephone wires and the spider web. – Edwin Way Teale, American naturalist, photographer, and writer
Spiders are arthropods in the arachnid (Arachnida) class, named for the Greek mythological character Arachne. According to the myth, as related in John Compton’s “The Life of the Spider,” Arachne wove fine fabrics, which challenged the authority of Zeus’s daughter, Athena, goddess of female arts and industry. Athena was so enraged she tore up a perfect tapestry Arachne had woven. The latter became so despondent that she hanged herself.
Athena was so filled with remorse – “or pretending to be, for there still seems a certain amount of spite in what she did,” writes Compton – that she “changed the rope from which the dead girl hung into a web, and the girl herself she changed into a spider, a creature surpassing all others in the art Arachne practiced.”
I’ve been struck lately by a spider on my deck who builds a new home pretty much from scratch every night. Her web is in the other side of a window in the living room, so I often watch her sitting in the middle of her large, circular web – typical of those made by the orb-weaver spider family, Araneidae. Commonly called “garden spiders,” their webs are the ones we most associate with spiders, although not all orb weaver species build webs, and among those who do, the females are the spinners.
According to BugGuide.net, while the spider typically sits in the center of her web, she may also hide under cover nearby. Upon feeling a vibration, she investigates and, if the catch is meal-worthy, bites it, immobilizing it with her venom. While effective on insects, the venom of Araneids is mild and unlikely to harm a human.
Once the spider has immobilized her prey, she wraps it in silk to keep it subdued while she eats it, or to preserve it for a later meal. If the trapped prey is not meal-worthy, she ignores it or ejects it from the web.
I saw a dead brown marmorated stinkbug in what was left of the web the day after the spider first spun it, and I was soooo hopeful that at last I’d found a predator that would eat this destructive, invasive import. However, the spider has still not wrapped it, nor a hapless cellar spider (Pholcus phalangioides) who must have also blundered into the web. She also has ejected the growing number of stinkbugs that get tangled in the web as they try to get access to the house through the window.
The Araneidae family includes approximately 3,500 species worldwide, according to the Golden field guide, “Spiders and Their Kin.” The species in it are nonaggressive and vary widely in appearance. Many are brightly colored with spectacular markings. The genus Argiope includes some striking species. Argiope aurantia – commonly known as the black and yellow garden spider, writing spider or corn spider – is one of my favorites. It has long legs and yellow and black markings on its large (up to about one inch) abdomen.
It’s always a challenge to try to figure out which species any one spider belongs to, so I’m pretty happy just to get to the genus level. The orb weaver outside my window has a body that is about a half-inch long, fat, and hairy with lighter markings in the shape of a cross, and orange-and-black legs. When she extends her legs, she’s fairly elegant. When she’s threatened, as when I tapped her web close to her to see her reaction, she contracts into a squat little thing with legs bundled together in front, reminding me of a hermit crab (a distant cousin).
After much research, I came to the conclusion that my spider is most likely a barn spider, or Hentz’s orb weaver (Neoscona crucifera, from the Latin for cross, crux). This species is common in moist woodland areas and consumes a variety of insects. Generally nocturnal, mature females can become diurnal in the fall. While some orb weavers are large enough to prey on frogs and birds, the hummingbirds enjoying the feeder a foot away are unlikely to have trouble with this little lady.
Spiders are more active in cool, damp weather, and this year, after a wet spring and wetter late summer, they and their prey are abundant. Since I spotted the her, several more barn spiders have made their webs around the outside of the house, so I’m getting the know the species a lot better every day.