One beautiful afternoon in October, Toby and I were playing Frisbee in the backyard. I was retrieving a Frisbee that Toby refused to get when I came across a fascinating spider. She is a black spider with a shell, shaped like a crab’s shell. Her shell is bright, lemon yellow with black dots across it and six black spines around the edge. Some spiders in her species have a white shell with either black or red spines, but I’m pleased that my spider is yellow.
She’s ferocious looking, but tiny, only 3/8” from spine to spine. Despite her size, she built a huge web, stretching completely across a six-foot-wide path through the garden. Then she positioned herself in the center of the web and waited. I couldn’t resist. I had to get my camera.
Check out her picture. Isn’t she intriguing? I couldn’t get her out of my mind even after I left the garden, so I decided to do some research.
She is a Spiny Orb Weaver, Gasteracantha cancriformis. In the United States, her species is found along the southeast coast and in California. They are also found in other countries but tend to inhabit countries with warmer climates and woodlands or shrubby gardens.
Many people call her a crab spider because of the way she looks, but she is not part of the class of spiders commonly called the crab spider, the Thomisidae family. She is an orb weaver (family Araneidae).
There are several different species of orb weaver spiders. The spider in Charlotte’s web is a barn orb weaver, Araneus cavaticus. My spider is a different species, but one thing she has in common with Charlotte, and other orb weavers, is the type of web she creates. Orb weaver spiders produce the ornate, flat, circular webs we associate with spider webs. They spread them across pathways and between bushes in our gardens.
Orb weavers are harmless, and they are beneficial because they catch mosquitoes, wasps, flies, moths, bees, etc. I appreciate her efforts to reduce the mosquito population, but more than that, I enjoy watching her. She works hard and fast. She slides down that silk like a person on a zip-line.
Are you wondering how I know the spider is female? There are several distinct differences between the males and females of the species. Females are larger and have six spines on their abdomen or shell. The female underside is black with white or yellow dots on it, but the easiest way to tell she is female is because she makes a web.
The males do not create webs; they simply hang on a single strain of silk near a female’s nest. They are much smaller, perhaps 1/8” from spine to spine. They have a gray abdomen underside with white spots, and instead of spines they have four or five stubby projections.
The male and female interactions are formal. When the male is ready to mate, he visits the female’s web. He uses a four-tap, rhythmical pattern, drumming on the silk to get her attention. Once he has her attention, he hesitantly approaches. She is three times larger than he is, that size difference alone would make me cautious.
The male hangs quietly from her web on a single strain of silk while she straps him down with silk. Once they join, they vibrate the web, and mating may continue for thirty-five minutes or more and may be repeated. When the male has depleted his sperm, he gets to stay on the female’s web until he dies six days later.
The female will then produce an egg sac with up to 260 eggs. To protect and feed the babies during their egg and larval stages, she creates an egg case and deposits it on the underside of a leaf for over-wintering. And like Charlotte in Charlotte’s web, my little spider will die after she lays her egg mass and secures the egg case.
I inadvertently stepped through her web yesterday. She worked hard to roll up that silk and save it. I worried that I had caused her irreparable damage, and then this morning when I went to check on her she was working on the undersides of leaves. Because she was on the underside of the leaves, I was afraid she was producing an egg sac and would soon die.
But, fortunately, I was wrong, and our adventure together will last a little longer. She now has a beautiful new web, and she’s sitting in the middle of it like a queen waiting for someone to attend her.
Getting to know more about this interesting little spider has been fun, but I’ve learned something as an aspiring fiction writer. Everyone that reads my stories perceives them differently, and I’m sure this little spider is no different.
Some people will look at her and think she is cute like I do. But others will look at her and she will set their imaginations into overdrive and make their adrenaline flow. I can almost hear their thoughts:
Look at that massive spider. It’s as big as a house. I’ve never seen a spider that large before. Is that blood dripping from its fangs? What do spiders that size eat? Oh God, is it looking at me? I’d better hide. I’ll move slowly—maybe it won’t notice me. No! It’s coming after me. Run! I know I shouldn’t look back, but I can’t help myself. Oh no! Help me ...
I’m certainly glad I don’t have a wild imagination like that, aren’t you? That little spider is so much fun to watch that I’ve grown to consider her a garden friend. What about you? Would you judge the little yellow spider as friend or foe?