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Eight-Legged Architects

When I saw Christmas decorations on display at Costco in the middle of August, my first thought was, “Um … Hello? What happened to Halloween and Day of the Dead, people? To say nothing of Thanksgiving? Hanukkah? Kwanzaa?” To do my part in turning the rudder of popular culture toward the nearer of the many holidays that come between now and late December, I present to you a select few of our eight-legged sisters and brothers.

I consider myself lucky to not be bothered by spiders, as many are (though hopefully not you, dear reader!). At least in part because I realize they help check the populations of mosquitoes that find my blood so tasty, I am forever in their debt and do my best to treat them with respect. It is therefore with some dismay that in 2022 I’ve found our property’s usual late-summer plethora of arachnids to be severely diminished from previous years. The flood that occurred in May 2021 disrupted plant and animal life throughout our neighborhood, and perhaps the spiders need another year to rebound, or maybe the cause of their decrease is more insidious; only time will tell.

More than 30 species of spiders are found in Louisiana but just four of them account for the majority that are easily visible on our property as summer turns to autumn. None of these are threatening to humans, unless you get right up in their webs (so to speak). From smallest to largest, these are: the Orchard spider (Leucauge venusta), the Wolf spider (Tigrosa sp.), the Golden-silk orbweaver (Trichonephila clavipes), and the Black-and-yellow garden spider (Argiope aurantia).

Of these four, wolf spiders are the least likely to build webs, preferring in general to lie in wait or to chase and grab their prey. During a slightly unnerving interval between our post-flood recovery and getting the house fumigated (carpenter ants, be gone!) I found more than one wolf spider on our floors over a three-week period. Thankful for their lethargic nature, I was easily able to catch them — with overturned plastic tubs, not with my hands! — and glad to send them on their way many feet from our doorstep.

Although it posed no danger, this Wolf spider was extricated from our bathroom with astonishing speed!

Orchard spiders are commonly found in urban settings and tend to build their typically spoke-and-wheel-shaped webs less than six feet off the ground. The web is usually angled horizontally with the spider hanging upside down in the web’s center, which is why I felt lucky to be able to look up at the one pictured here, enabling me to see her lovely, mint-green dorsal surface.

Orchard spider, dorsal view

Golden-silk orbweavers are by far the most plentiful of our late-summer spiders. In August and September of pre-2021-flood years I would wave a stick ahead of me before stepping more than a foot or two past the front door, especially since these hefty ladies prefer to build their magnificent webs between four and 8 feet off the ground — that is, just at/above my eye-level. There were times when I could look up and find several of them hanging, seemingly in mid-air, between the ends of live oak tree branches, often accompanied in their webs by the much smaller males.

One year we had a whole complex of Golden-silk orbweaver townhouses at one side of the house, the guy-wire golden lines of barrier threads interwoven and connecting with various points along our roof line. You can see a short video of their amazing construction here.

I do my best to walk around and/or bend underneath the web lines so as not to disturb them. The primary anchor strands can be nearly the width of a guitar string, and are attached quite securely to the substrate, whether natural or human-made.

In August 2022 two female Golden-silk orbweavers built side-by-side webs at the edge of our pond. Their delicacy and intricate patterns take my breath away.

Last but not least of our arachnid quartet is the Black-and-yellow garden spider, also an orbweaver and the largest of this foursome, a mature female having a body nearly the size of a walnut. This spider’s web is circular and can reach up to two feet in diameter, with additional webbing on the backside to help anchor to its substrate. The female weaves a dense, silken zigzag vertically through the web’s center. Called a stabilimentum and woven only by spiders that are active during the day, the zigzag’s function is uncertain.

Black-and-yellow garden spider (ventral view) with stabilimentum above and web partially visible below

I was especially enamored with a Black-and-yellow garden spider that lived outside of our kitchen window a few years back (see The Gecko in the Bathtub p. 81), but she disappeared not even a week after I first discovered her, and, if she had daughters, none of them stayed to make a home under our back porch roof.

Charlotte, the Black-and-yellow garden spider

We did, however, have a Black-and-yellow garden spider next to our backyard pond in 2020. This prolific female left no fewer than four egg sacs, each of which might have held up to 1,000 eggs. Sadly, none of the egg sacs ever opened and even now – two years after their creation and one year after withstanding the winds of Hurricane Ida — they continue to dangle there, like tiny grey balloons hanging under the corrugated roof over the dock.

In an earlier part of my life I studied for a while at a Native American spiritual center under the tutelage of a Cherokee medicine woman and her Lakota Sioux husband. In their culture, the spider is considered to be a totem of creativity. One of the projects assigned to my women’s study group was to make and bead a pair of leather moccasins. Although I didn’t have the connection with or reverence for spiders then that I do now, I used the spider motif as my design in the interest of generating more creativity in my life.

Homemade moccasins with spider motif

According to Jamie Sams and David Carson, authors of Medicine Cards: The Discovery of Power Through the Ways of Animals, “Spider’s body is made like the number eight, consisting of two lobe-like parts connected at the waist, and eight legs. Spider is the symbol for the infinite possibilities of creation. Her eight legs represent the four winds of change and the four directions on the medicine wheel. . . . The most important message from Spider is that you are an infinite being who will continue to weave the patterns of life and living throughout time.”

A lovely message from these eight-legged wonders.

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  1. Beautifully written, as usual, and the photos of the webs are amazing! I wish I could say I didn’t cringe at some of the pictures of the big spiders! I respect them from a great distance and do not tolerate any spiders in my house – and in the Hill Country in Texas we get tarantulas and scorpions visiting inside from time to time! Yikes-a-hooty! Great work, friend!

    1. Thank you Helen! I can’t say that I’d be nearly as calm and nice about scorpions as I am about spiders… may they stay well outside your four walls!

  2. I just love your stories – your writing style flows with such grace and delightful detail. I look forward to each blog.
    I too love spiders. When I see them in my garden I am always overjoyed. I was blessed with a lovely garden spider in my garden last summer and cherished the 90+ days I had with her. Then one day she disappeared. I have to say I was so sad. I’ve not had one since but I am hopeful another will make her home here at The Quarter Acre Farm.
    Thank you for your storytelling.

    1. I’m glad you’re enjoying the stories, Laurien, and that you got three whole months with your black-and-yellow grandma spider, lucky you! I’ve seen two of them in our yard in the past month (or it might even have been the same spider in two different spots). Each web only lasted a couple of days, I think they were brought down by heavy rains. Sad, indeed!

  3. Stabilimentum. What a great word! Almost like stopngo 🙂 This is a very educational post that illuminates your science mind. I remember when you made those cool moccasins, and now your attraction to spiders makes even more sense. Of course, they are are one of your creativity totems!

    1. It IS a great word, right? And I’m kind of tickled that no one has figured out what it’s for. The Mystery of the Stabilimentum. Those spiders, they know how to keep us guessing! 😉

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