Wild Ideas: A tiny, vibrantly colored spider abounds this spring  

This spring, a tiny, vibrantly colored spider that spins a round web seems to be everywhere in my yard and on the exterior of my house.

This jewel of an arachnid is the venusta orchard spider, often called “orchard orb-weaver,” or just “orchard spider.” Its scientific name, Leucauge venusta, suits it better than its common name. The genus name, Leucauge, was proposed by Charles Darwin, the only spider name attributed to him. It comes from two Greek words, which together translate as “with a bright gleam.” Venusta, is Latin for “pretty,” “charming,” “elegant,” beautiful” or — most appropriate — “vibrant.” The venusta belongs to the spider family Tetragnathidae, the “long-jawed orb weavers,” named for the males and females interlocking their elongated jaws (chelicerae) during mating. Their fangs are also proportionately longer than most spiders.

Female venustas are only one-fifth to one-fourth inch long; the males are half that size but have longer legs. Their smooth bodies are also elongated, twice as long as they are wide. Despite their size, the bright coloring on their bodies — yellow, orange, green and silver-white — make them relatively easy to spot. A black circle, with a branching line running through it, covers the top of the abdomen. Some venustas, particularly those farther south, have two bright orange-yellow, copper-red or white spots at the end of that line. The first segment of the female’s legs is bright green, while the males’ can vary in color.

A female venusta orchard spider builds her orb-shaped web. By Pam Owen

Rainer F. Foelix, in his book “Biology of Spiders,” notes that “the orb web is often considered the evolutionary summit of web-building spiders.” Another family, Araneidae, the “true” orb-weavers, also constructs round webs. Several species in this family, especially the marbled orbweaver and the barn spider, take over my house’s exterior in the fall to breed.

While both spider families have round webs, the tetragnathids’ webs don’t usually have as many radii, or “spokes,” as those of the araneids. Tetragnathid webs also have an open center and are often oriented diagonally or horizontally, while those of araneids have densely woven centers and are more vertical. In both families, it is the female that weaves the web, to hold her egg sac, and to snare food for the young that will emerge from it.

Most sources say the venusta’s preferred habitat is moist woodland, such as where I live. This spring, I’ve found many venustas weaving their webs under the eaves of the house, between the rails on my deck and porch, on lawn chairs and on a variety of vegetation, usually only two to three feet off the ground. I have yet to find an explanation for how “orchard” got into their common name, but a well-watered orchard could fit their habitat preference, and perhaps they were first found there.

I sit under the eaves of my deck most mornings and evenings to see what nature is up to. In late April, two venustas stretched their gossamer threads from wind chime to wind chime hanging from the eaves. Occasionally, one of the venustas would drop down and dangle in front of my face. Not wanting the tiny spider to drop into the beverage I was holding, I’d gently touch her, which triggered her hasty retreat to the top of the thread. After a few rounds of this game, she seems to have learned that it’s best to explore in another direction.

To catch their prey, venustas lie still in their webs. When they feel the vibration of a small invertebrate hitting the web, they quickly pounce on the hapless prey. They incapacitate it with mild venom, then wrap it up and store it in the web for later consumption. Trying to document this drama on film has been challenging, since venustas move lightning fast when capturing their prey, see a slideshow of my venusta photos below.

As with araneids, venustas usually cut out anything landing in their web that is too big or otherwise not suitable as prey, or ignore it. When a brown marmorated stink bug got tangled in the web of one venusta on my deck, the spider showed no interest in it. The next day, the bug was gone, and what was the web’s owner was traversing a line of silk from the web to a potted plant on the other side of the deck.

Mating is a dangerous game for the much-smaller male venusta. To avoid being eaten immediately by a female he approaches, he “partakes in specifically coordinated courtship rituals that often include inducing exact vibrations on the female’s web that will allow him safe passage,” according to the Barrier Island Ecology website.

The female venusta produces her sole egg sac in late spring or early summer. Constructed of “loose, fluffy orange-white silk,” she places it in a rolled-up leaf off to the side of the web, or attaches it to a twig, according to SpiderID.com. Although I’ve yet to see any males or egg sacs, I’m checking the webs often for both.

© 2019 Pam Owen

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 346 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”

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