The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Garden Spiders Are Becoming More Obvious
by Ro Wauer

Have you ever walked into the webbing of a black-and-yellow garden spider? I did just that a couple weeks ago while visiting Armand Bayou Nature Center near NASA. It was an experience that I will not soon forget! It happened along a trail as I was watching along the ground for butterflies instead of paying much attention to where I was going. Although Betty saw the huge web that was stretched across the trail a second before I hit it, and even tried to warn me, but my forward progress didn't allow me to stop in time. I was suddenly covered, at least the entire upper half of my body, in the spider's yellowish, sticky, webbing.

My first concern, of course, was not necessarily the webbing but the spider itself, where it was going to start eating me alive! First I tried to feel it on my neck or down my shirt, but realized almost immediately that somehow the spider had disappeared, probably fallen to the ground and scampered away. Although that part was heart-warming to realize that I has not in jeopardy of loss of life, my next concern was trying to extradite myself from the amazing mass of spider webbing. Taking my cap off was no easy matter, because it was somehow "glued" to my head, the webbing covered my cap and my head. It took ten to fifteen minutes to tear and/or scrape off all the webbing from my cap, head, and torso. Even afterwards I found an occasional bit of yellow webbing on my shirt or ears.

Actually, this same thing has happened a couple of times right in my own yard, but never to the degree I experienced at Armand Bayou. The webbing belongs to the black-and-yellow garden spider, a species (Argiope aurantia) that occurs throughout most of South Texas. It is one of our largest and showiest spiders, about an inch-long with a black abdomen with yellow or orange markings. The front part of its body is generally gray above and yellow below, and its eight legs, that extend out from the body another inch or so, are long and velvety. For a naturalist who appreciates nature, it truly is a beautiful creature!

Garden spiders are most notable because of the huge web that the female spins between all types of structures, from trees and branches to sheds and bar-b-que pits. Webs usually are three to four feet in diameter, but occasionally they can be up to eight feet across, and they can be surprisingly strong, flexible, and sticky. It is said that spider silk is the strongest natural fiber known, that even steel drawn out to the same diameter is not as strong. The silk threads of garden spiders were once used as cross hairs in telescopes and other fine optical instruments. And what is amazing is that when the webbing is destroyed, like when I walked through it at Armand Bayou, the damaged web will usually be reconstructed during the evening hours.

Garden spider webs have a distinct zigzag band of white, sticky silk running vertically through the center. This white band may also help birds see the net so they do not fly into it. The female garden spider, unlike most other spiders, does not have a nest, but remains either in the center, hanging head-down, or hiding nearby, ready to attack any prey that gets stuck in her net. The webbing is strong enough to capture a wide variety of insects and small lizards and even hummingbirds.

Females are considerably larger than the males and generally command the web; males construct smaller, less noticeable webs in less obvious locations. By fall, the females lay eggs in large pear-shaped cocoons with a brown paper-like surface, hung by threads among the adjacent trees and shrubs. The young hatch during the winter months but remain in the cocoon until spring. The adults usually die during the cooler winter months. So goes the life and times of our colorful garden spider.

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