The Spider Outside My Window

by Brian A. Hopkins

This webpage documents my adoption of and fascination with an Argiope aurantia (commonly known by the names Golden Garden Spider, Orb Weaver, Writing Spider, etc).  I've written this in the hopes that you, too, will pay more attention to such lovely creatures sharing your world.  She took up residence outside my library window in the summer of 2001, her web stretching from the eave of my house to an althea bush.  There was a very small male at first, approximately one sixth her size, but he wasn't around for long.  I can only presume she got what she wanted from him and then had him for dinner (funny how much spider females and human females have in common, eh?).  Sorry, I didn't start taking pictures of her until after the male vanished, so I don't have a picture of him.  These photos were taken with my Kodak DC290.  For most of them, I used a black board held approximately four inches behind the spider, which allowed my camera to focus on her better.



A ventral shot, showing the lovely colors on her belly.  Note the zig-zag pattern down the middle of her web.  This is called stabilimenta (just one of many things I learned while watching my Argiope).  Scientists disagree as to the exact purpose of the stabilimenta: some say its for strengthening, some say it attracts prey, some say it warns off birds.  In Charlotte's Web, of course, the stabilimenta contained words that kept Wilbur from getting turned into bacon and ham hocks.  Charlotte wasn't an Argiope, but more on that near the bottom of the page.  Like other orb weavers, my spider had three claws per foot, one more than most spiders.  Orb weavers use this third claw to help spin their webs.  Until researching her species, I didn't know that such spiders actually eat their entire web and rebuild it each night.  My spider's web was considerably large, perhaps two feet in diameter.  She would hang in the center, head down (as pictured), waiting for prey.  Argiopes are carnivorous and are capable of eating prey twice their size.  Mine captured and ate a variety of grasshoppers and other insects dumb enough to fly into her web.  I also fed her insects that I would catch.  After having been stung by a wasp, my son caught and fed her several of the wasps' relatives.




After mating (and dining), my Argiope became swollen with eggs.  You can see her huge abdomen here (both dorsal and ventral views).  She looked like she was going to explode.



When my dad saw the initial photos of my Argiope and heard me describe her as "huge," he made the comment that there was nothing in the pictures to serve as a reference.  "For all we know," said my cynical dad, "she's just an itty bitty spider."  Here, then, is a shot using my wife's hand as a reference.  As you can see, from the tip of her toes to the ... well, tip of her other toes ... she was at least three inches long.



Learning my Argiope's moods and behaviors was fascinating.  If you aggravated her, she'd flex her long, strong legs rhythmically until the entire web was oscillating back and forth.  If you tossed her a treat (grasshopper, Katydid, hornet, etc), she'd immediately pounce upon it, inject her venom, and wrap it up.  She was very fast at this and could obviously detect the slightest tremor in her web.  Argiopes can be found throughout southern Canada and the lower 48 States.  Although many people might be concerned about being bitten by such spiders -- and they may indeed bite of harassed -- Argiopes are not considered dangerous.  Their venom causes only minor irritation to humans.




This is one of two egg sacs which she created up under the eave of my house.    Each sac can contain 300 to 1,400 eggs.  The young hatch in autumn, but remain inside the sac all winter.  Spiderlings emerge from the sac in the spring and build small webs deep in the grass and in other vegetation.  As they mature, their webs become much larger.  When males are mature, they stop building webs altogether and seek out a female's web for some spider-loving.  Few sacs survive the long months of winter.  Birds eat many of them.  Of course, these two will have me to watch over them.  Come spring, I'll add baby pictures to this webpage.  Meanwhile, if you want to see a juvenile Argiope, take a look at this website.  They actually look quite different, and the stabilimenta of their webs often follows a different pattern.


Sadly, after creating her second sac, my spider died.  I was familiar enough with this spider, that I could actually tell that she was ill.  Her color was bad and she was lethargic.  A grasshopper that I tossed into her web went untouched.  My daughter and I watched her grow weaker over the course of a day.  The very next day, when I returned home from work, she wasn't in her web.  When I examined the grass below the web, I found her body.  My daughter and I conducted a brief funeral service for her, complete with the viewing you see above, then buried her in the back yard.  We'll miss her.  (Seriously!)  And, of course, I'm now watching over her two egg sacs.  I'm looking forward to seeing the little ones in the spring.  With any luck, at least one of them will choose to build her web outside my library window, where she can watch me write the way her mother used to.  If you return to this webpage in the spring, you'll probably find baby spider pictures.



Pretty as my Argiope was, you'd think she would have been a prime choice for the starring role in the book Charlotte's Web.  Actually Charlotte was an Araneus Cavaticus (sounds like a Roman gladiator, doesn't it?).   This is a Cavaticus, also found up under the eave of my house (actually just a few feet from where my Argiope was living, which is why I noticed it).  Ugly sumbitch, ain't it?  The Cavaticus is also an orb weaver, but it's nocturnal (Argiopes are diurnal), spinning and sitting in its web each night.  I never saw this Cavaticus' night time web.  She would sleep all day there in the corner under the eave.



This is your common, everyday garden variety Katydid.  Noisiest damn things I've ever encountered. On several occasions, we've had one of these peckerheads sit outside our bedroom window at night, screaming its damn fool head off (or rubbing its legs together or doing whatever the hell it is they do to raise such a ruckus).  They're so damn loud that it's impossible to sleep.  Quite a few of these were fed to my Argiope for just that reason.  She found them to be quite tasty ... and I enjoyed the peace and quiet.



Here's a spider you definitely don't want to mess with, the infamous Black Widow.  Note the carcass of her boyfriend hanging in her web.


Let's grab her and take a closer look...




Note the red hourglass on her belly.  There's no mistaking this beauty.



Another spider that I get a lot of around my house and on my acreage.  I call them Tunnel Spiders, though I'm not at all certain that's their correct name.  They make these amazing tunnel -- or more accurately funnel -- shaped webs, hiding down in the vortex until something happens along, then they spring into action.



Here's a different web (the spider's down in his hole, so you can't see him) spun in amongst a pile of rocks behind my house.  You can see the funnel-like shape.




I don't have the faintest idea what kind of bug this is [Addendum: since 2001, when this page was first posted to the internet, literally HUNDREDS of people have emailed me to identify this as a wheelbug or assassin bug -- please don't email me that information anymore!], but you see that long, black proboscis up under his snout? He stung the living crap out of me with it!  All I wanted to do was examine him.  Not only did he sting me, but he stunk me up pretty good, too.  I decided that he needed to meet ... friend the tunnel spider.  See how much fun bugs can be?


Why don't you get out and examine the insect world around your home!



Copyright 2011 Brian A. Hopkins, 2011-07-31 10:59,