The Itsy Bitsy Spider

grass spider web

Seeing these dew-covered spider webs draped like sheets over boxwood lets us know we are in transition from summer to fall. On wet mornings, dozens of webs can be seen covering a multitude of box, other shrubs, grasses, and groundcovers like pachysandra. The sight could very well freak out arachnophobes.

Sadly, some folks run for a can of  insecticide or a broom or the garden hose to make them just go away. But they should let these spiders be! The webs and spiders aren’t harming a thing and the spider will help out in the garden by eliminating insect pests.

grass spider 2018

We have to look hard to see the webs on a regular day but on a foggy morning or after an overnight dew, the webs stand out hortizontally over plants. It’s not a time to panic. It’s a time to marvel. Just look at the intricate architecture of each web. Amazing! And just wonder how long it took one female spider to spin such a web. I consider it a miracle of nature… really!

Some of the webs are large enough to connect several different plants and a flowerpot.

spiderweb 2018

Others are thin and sparse. Is this spider just beginning her construction or is she finished? Or perhaps she was caught up in the foodchain and no longer exists.

spider web 2018

Some of the spiders find a good location and build webs side by side… neighbors, you might say… with a wall of colorful hydrangea blooms separating them.

spiders 2018

Now we have to wonder who lives in these webs. The funnel on each web is a clue to her identity. Would you like to know who she is?

spiderweb 2018

She’s the shy spider from a group of funnel weavers called grass spiders (Agelenidae). When she feels a vibration, she dashes out of her funnel at lightning speed to capture her prey. Her web is not sticky so she must depend on speed.

funnel spider 2018

Winter is coming and the webs won’t be there forever. She’ll soon deposit her eggs in a sac and die. Her young will hatch in the spring and repeat the cycle, maturing to adulthood over the summer, mate, reproduce and die.

Bowls and Doileys in the Garden

Yesterday I awoke to a cool and foggy morning in Gloucester. Until the sun rose to burn it off, the river was shrouded in a thick cloud of moisture, a haze that left the landscape laden in a covering of morning dew. This heavy dew is a frequent occurrence in the fall in Tidewater and it’s a perfect time to check out the almost invisible world of miniature spiders.

Morning fog

There are hundreds of sheet web spiders (Linyphiidae) but one tiny sheet web spider interests me most. The Bowl and Doily Spider (Frontinella communis), found everywhere in the Eastern US, goes unnoticed on a dry day.  Just take a look at what we can see on a dew laden morning.

Bowl and Doily Spider Webs

These tiny webs are named for the unique shapes that the spider weaves. There are two levels to the web, an non-sticky upper area known as the bowl and a lower area called the doily. The spider that lives in the web is found underneath the bowl upside down. Entomologists believe the doily is to protect the spider from enemies below and the bowl may protect it from above. There are ‘trap lines’ that connect all parts of the web to the plants. Although I’ve never seen an insect trapped in the bowl, it’s been said that the Bowl and Doily Spider will bite an insect through this web, then it wraps the prey (mosquitoes, gnats, small flies, aphids) in silk.

Bowl and Doily Spider Web in Dew

I often lean close trying to spot the spider between the sheets of web. But I think I must disturb a trap line and the spider disappears before I can focus my eyes or a camera. We’re talking about a web of three or four inches and a spider about 4 mm in length.

However, I did get lucky this time and captured a fuzzy photo before the little one scampered away.

Bowl and Doily Spider (click for closer look)

In areas of Maine, the native Bowl and Doily Spider is under threat from an extremely aggressive European spider, the Palearctic spider (L. triangularis) that was accidentally introduced into the US. It is overtaking the webs of several varieties of sheet web spiders. The dominant L. triangularis is leading to a decline in spider biodiversity in areas of Arcadia National Park. No one can predict what will happen, but lets hope those aggressive invaders don’t like the climate in Virginia.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Virginia

Funky Gasteracantha cancriformis…

Flickering glints of light in the ginkgo branches caught my attention early this morning. It was a gorgeous orb web covered in droplets of morning dew that sparkled like miniature crystals in the sunlight. In the center of this large web was a funky little spider known by several names: the crab-like spiny orbweaver, smiley face spider, jewel spider, spiny-bellied orbweaver, skull spider. It is easily identified by the 6 spiny projections that protrude from the shell-like body.

Spiny orb-weaver spider (Gasteracantha cancrif...

Spiny orb-weaver spider (Gasteracantha cancriformis). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The bodies are white and the spines are black on the ones I see around Tidewater Virginia but the color of the body and spines can vary from orange or yellow to red, especially in Florida.  No one has fully determined the purpose of the spines but it is thought to serve as a defense. The Gasteracantha cancriformis is found in southern United States through South America.  Most commonly seen in the fall when reproduction takes place, the female builds a new nest nightly around shrubs and lower branches of trees, often destroyed by humans when it stretches across walkways. She faces downward in the center of the orb while she waits for her prey.

This miniature spider is not dangerous and serves as a beneficial predator in the garden. Her diet consists of mostly flying insects: moths, flies, mosquitoes, white flies, fruit flies and other small insects.  Matter of fact, these unique little spiders are appreciated in the citrus groves of Florida where they help to control the fruit fly population.

The life span of this spider is short. The male dies shortly after mating. After laying her eggs, the female soon dies. Eggs take 11 -13 days to hatch yet young will stay in their egg case for several weeks. If you’d like to see one of these funky little gals, arise early while the dew is still on the grass and the light from the morning sun illuminates the droplets. Look dead center in the web for a tiny button of a spider and marvel at her uniqueness.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Argiope, The Beautiful Garden Spider

Like many youngsters, I had a huge fear of spiders as a child, but through the years I’ve gotten braver and learned to appreciate spiders and the benefits of having them in the garden.  I still scream if I run into a web but the neighbors no longer dash to my aid. They all know I simply had another close encounter with a spider.

September and October are the perfect months to discover more about the intriguing world of spiders and webs in our gardens.  Step outside in the early morning while dew still covers the Argiope waiting for her mealgrass and be introduced to a silken wonderland of glistening webs festooning the grass, bushes, and trees in a variety of designs from tunnels to chaotic masses, to long threads connecting shrubs and trees, and to the ones that amaze me the most–the giant orb webs.

The spider that spins these magnificent orbs, Argiope aurantia, is said to spin the strongest web in the spider world.  The highly visible female is the largest and most colorful spider in our Tidewater gardens. Her web spirals out from the center and can be 2 feet across with a telltale zigzag line in the center called a stabilimenta, the purpose of which is not completely understood.

The large yellow and black Argiope, aka Writing Spider, hangs head down in the center of her web.  Although fierce looking, she is benign.  If disturbed, she will either drop from her web to escape or she may vibrate her nest vigorously to intimidate, but she poses no threat.   A bite is rare, but should it happen, the reaction will be mild. The best thing for us to do is to leave her alone since she is fast approaching the end of her life cycle.

We fed one argiope moths a few summers ago and she was able to produce 3 egg sacs.

Egg Sacs

At this time of year she will  produce her eggs.  Her abdomen will swell before producing usually one, but up to three, egg sacs containing from 300 to over a thousand young in each, and her life  will end with the first frost. Her babies hatch inside the sac, where they also overwinter  before emerging in the spring looking like miniatures of their parents.

I have witnessed the emergence of the miniature spiders in the spring and it is reminiscent of Charlotte’s Web.  Off they scurry in every direction to begin their own summer journey of life.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester