THE YELLOW GARDEN SPIDER

  • This photo shows the distinctive zig-zag pattern woven into the center of a female garden spider's web. Note the absence of any vegetation in the immediate area of the web. For the Recorder/Bill Danielson

  • Hidden among the thick green leaves of some day lily plants, the same female stands guard over her cocoon full of eggs, which is below and behind her. Also note the outline of her small, furry head. This makes it clear that she is actually eating something in the other photo. For the Recorder/Bill Danielson

  • Bill Danielson Staff illustration/Andy Castillo

Published: 9/3/2019 8:07:08 AM

I recently began the process of dividing and transplanting some daylilies in a garden on the west side of my yard. This is a seasonal chore that I find tremendously satisfying. I had made good progress with the orange varieties before moving on to the yellows. I was just about to plunge the blade of my long-handled shovel into the ground when I stopped short. There in front of me was an absolutely magnificent yellow garden spider (Argiope aurantia).

One of the largest and most beautiful spiders that I have ever seen in my life, I was determined to get photos while I had such a great opportunity. After all, the last time I laid eyes on one of these arachnids was over 30 years ago when there was a dependable garden spider that would spin a web in the front garden of my childhood home.

The yellow garden spider is a member of a family of spiders known as the Araneidae. With over 4,000 species worldwide in over 170 genera, this is a widespread and well known type of spider that weaves distinctive wheel-shaped webs. Commonly known as “orb weavers,” members of this family weave flat (planar) webs with support strands radiating out from the center of the circular web and spirals of sticky web that are used for capturing prey items. The yellow garden spider decorates this circular web with a bold white zig-zag of silk that extends above and below the center of the web.

To be completely accurate, however, I must indicate that this is the web configuration of a female garden spider. Male yellow garden spiders, which are much smaller than the females, will weave odd little disorganized webs at the periphery of a female’s web where he can stay close to her for mating but out of the way for everything else.

Female garden spiders are about an inch long with a gray “furry” head and a large, smooth, swollen abdomen covered with gorgeous yellow-and-black stripes. They tend to remain in the center of their impressive webs with their heads pointing toward the ground. The webs, which are built in areas with little wind whenever possible, are so large that the spiders will often clear vegetation out of the way to accommodate it. This is done by grabbing a plant stem and then pulling it out of the way and “tying” it down with silk.

Garden spiders reach full maturity in the month of August and then the female will produce a cocoon full of eggs somewhere off to the side of her web. She will guard this cocoon because it represents the future of her line. Adult garden spiders die during the late fall and only the eggs inside the cocoons can withstand the deep freeze of winter to continue the species the following summer.

I was very fortunate to find this spider before she laid her eggs. She was sitting in her web in the classic head-down pose and she did not react to me in any way when I leaned in with my camera to take her picture. A couple days later I went back to get some additional photos of her and she was not in her web. I did a quick lookaround and found her deeper in the leaves of the daylilies with an egg cocoon. Everything I read about garden spiders was exactly what I found.

Furthermore, just a couple days after I found my own garden spider I received an email from a reader, Mary G. who had just found a yellow garden spider in her own garden. These are such colorful spiders that I imagine many people in the area might have them in their yards. If you are just such a lucky individual then I hope you’ll send a quick email so we can get an idea of how common this creature is.

In the meantime, be sure to get out an enjoy as many days of September as you can. It won’t be long before the leaves are turning and the first frost of the year arrives, so the clock is ticking for many of the spiders and insects that live in our yards. Try to see as many as you can before you have to wait another whole year.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 22 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service and the Massachusetts State Parks and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.




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