Friday, September 16, 2011

Sue Weaver: Yikes, Spiders! Part 2

In my last post I told how, when I was an 11-year-old picking wild blackberries, I almost blundered into a black-and-yellow garden spider, face first. Last Thursday it happened again—minus the shrieking and blackberries hurtling through the air.

This time, as I grabbed hold of the goat-yard gate and started to haul it open to let my goats out for the day, I heard a whisper of strong spider web tearing. I glanced up quickly and saw a huge garden spider centered in a web between gate and gatepost. I leaped back as the goats roared out and the spider dropped to the ground. She skittered into nearby weeds, but I knew she’d be back, and she was. By midafternoon she’d set up camp in the cattle panel next to the gate. I named her Uttu. We’re getting to know each other quite well.

Uttu on the gate post

Uttu is a golden garden spider (Argiope aurantia), also known as a corn spider, writing spider, or black-and-yellow argiope. She is a member of the orb-weaver family, Araneidae, which includes over 10,000 species and makes up about 25 percent of spider diversity.

Uttu weaves her web

Argiope aurantia is a cosmopolitan spider common to all 48 continental states, Hawaii, southern Canada, Mexico, and Central America. The big, scary-looking black-and-yellow spider in your garden is a female; males are smaller and far less colorful. Spiderlings hatch in early spring and spend the summer months maturing, reaching full size between August and October.

Female garden spiders prefer open, sunny locations somewhat protected from the wind, where they weave impressive, up to 2-foot-diameter circular webs 2 to 8 feet off the ground. Prospective mates build their small, less conspicuous zigzag webs near or actually in a female’s web; then they court her by plucking strands of her web to announce their presence.

A female garden spider sits in the center of her web by day, abdomen upward and head facing down. She places her legs together in pairs, so it looks as though she has four instead of eight. She eats flies, moths, similar bugs, and other spiders, which she captures and wraps in silk.

Uttu's underside

A unique feature of her web is the stabilimentum, a zigzag band of white silk through the center. Science is unsure of its exact function, but it may be a lure for prey, camouflage for the spider as she sits in her web or an easily seen feature to keep birds and other creatures from blundering into the web.

Garden spiders bite if provoked, but (I’m told, though I hope never to verify firsthand) the bite is similar to a wasp’s sting. This spider is not poisonous. It’s also very good about minding its own business; if you leave it alone and keep your hands to yourself, you can approach and examine it quite closely. Do I like having Uttu on my goat-yard gate? Not a bit. But we’ve drawn a truce: she eats flies (of which we have an unwelcome abundance this year) and I’m careful not to bother her web. If, however, she builds an egg case, which she’s likely to do as winter approaches, I’ll carefully move it to another favorable location. One at least miles down the road.

One of Uttu's friends on our neighbor's porch

Sue Weaver sold her first freelance article in 1969. Since then her work has appeared in major horse periodicals, including the Western Horseman, Horse Illustrated, Chronicle of the Horse, Flying Changes, Horseman’s Market, Arabian Horse Times, the Appaloosa News, the Quarter Horse Journal, Horse’N Around, and the Brayer. She has written, among other books, Storey’s Guide to Raising Miniature Livestock, The Donkey Companion, and The Backyard Goat. Sue is based in the southern Ozark Mountains in Arkansas.

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