The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Spiders are Garden Friendly
by Ro Wauer

It seems that every year at about this time spider webs become a real nuisance. Going out each morning to retrieve the newspaper can become an obstacle course with spider webs hanging from almost every tree, and sometimes between tree branches and adjacent structures. Especially early in the mornings before it is light enough to see well, I can end up with webbing all over my face. And occasionally one of the weavers as well. A face to face encounter can be disturbing to say the least! Some of the webbing is thick and sticky, and it can be difficult to get those sticky strands off skin and clothing.

Garden spiders, sometimes known as yellow and black argiope, are common in fall. These spiders, with a leg-span of two to three inches, often construct giant webs, each with vertical white lacing in the center. The adult spider usually rests head downward in the center, waiting to snare a meal. Flying insects make up the majority of their diet, but garden spiders can feed on almost any small creatures, including those as large as hummingbirds and lizards. Once killed and partially eaten the prey is wrapped in webbing for a later meal.

Although garden spiders are our most obvious species, especially in fall, a search of any South Texas garden will undoubtedly turn up a wide assortment of spiders. Others that are likely include various crab, lynx, wolf, and jumping spiders. All can be garden friendly as they do a great job of keeping garden pests controlled. Spiders are carnivorous and do not feed on plants.

Crab spiders are somewhat crablike in appearance; they even walk sidewise. They range in size from one-half to almost two inches in diameter, and can vary in color from brown to green or yellow. Instead of building a web to snare prey, they lie in wait on flowers or leaves. Lynx spiders follow the same strategy in capturing prey, but can also jump and chase down prey with great speed. Mostly green with brown streaks, to blend in well with the vegetation, lynx spiders capture an untold number of butterflies.

Jumping spiders are small- to medium-sized spiders that are rather stout with short legs. Most are black with a red or white spot of the abdomen. And since these spiders hunt during the daylight hours, they seem to be fairly common. Wolf spiders are also daytime hunters. Sometimes called ground spiders because of their preferred habitat, they can be as large as three inches, with long legs and a stout body. Their gray to brown coloration blends in very well with their surroundings.

Spiders are truly abundant creatures; as many as 5,000 species occur in the United States. Some biologists suggest that there may be as many as 50,000 per acre of land, and that as many as 2.25 million may occur on an acre of undisturbed grasslands. All spiders possess eight legs, while insects have six. Also unlike insects, spiders have no antennae, wings, or compound eyes. But they all spin silk, and all are carnivorous. Female spiders deposit eggs in masses that can include two to 250 per mass. The eggs usually are covered with a silk covering or egg-sac, and the females often stand guard over their eggs until the young have emerged. This process takes from a few days to several weeks. The spiderlings undergo several molts before becoming adults, a cycle that may take from eight months to four years. Most spiders live for only a year, although tarantulas may live for several years in captivity.

Except for brown recluse and black widow spiders, two species that are most likely to be found in sheds and dark corners instead of gardens, most spiders are not dangerous to humans. Although all spiders do possess enough venom to subdue or kill prey, people are rarely bothered. However, some folks can be allergic to spider bites. But for the most part, those spiders we find in our gardens are rarely dangerous, are fascinating, and extremely beneficial.

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