One day in early August several years ago, I found myself lamenting over how few praying mantises I had been able to observe that season. Then I noticed a beautiful Black and Yellow Argiope spider (Argiope Aurantia) sitting on her web,attached to a bush at the edge of my garden. I went to tell my kids and when we returned, we found another Argiope on her web nearby. Within the next few days, two more of these large colorful spiders appeared in our yard.
I am always looking for opportunities to study new creatures and these four “ladies” were just what the doctor ordered! In Western North carolina, where I live, the Black and Yellow Argiope is a rather common sight. Since they are often found at the edge of the forest or fields, many people never see them. They are often referred to as “Garden Spiders” or “Writing Spiders”. Some years ago, when I had a larger garden, I often found one or two of these spiders residing near the edge of my garden by late summer. It was then that I started to study them. Once, I saw one that was identical to the Argiope I was familiar with, only it was solid black. I have never seen another one like it.
Many a legend has been formed in thses mountains about these spiders, whose large webs contain a bright white zig-zag “writing” down the middle of the web. This, of course is how they obtained their common name of “writing spider”.
My fathers’ favorite legend about these spiders comes from the days when World War II was looming on the horizon. It was said, that at a local church, members began to speak of a “Writing Spider” who had made a web near the grave yard. Several people swore that the spider had written “WAR” in her web. My father and some of his friends went to see the web, but felt the church members were stretching the truth a bit. Still. it was an interesting story and attracted quite a bit of interest.
Scientists believe that the real reason for the “writing” in the center of the web is to warn off birds so they will not tear up the web as well as to attract insects to the dense white color of the design. The want the web to collect a meal for them before it is destroyed. The bright white zig-zag may also attract prey for the spider.
The adult female Black and White Argiope is around 3/4″ to 1″ in body length with her legs stretching out in an “x” like pattern to make her much larger. The males are seen left often and are much smaller. Their bodies are long and thin while the females are wide and heavy. At the end of summer males build small webs near a female in order to approach her and mate with her. As with all male spiders, they must be careful. Female spiders do not sety out to kill and eat the male, as is often rumored, but if she is hungry and he is careless, he may end up as a meal. I have seen several anxious males with webs near a huge female.
The female Argiope sits in the middle of her web, near her “writing” as she awaits prey, often butterflies and bees. Her abdomen is marked with yellow and white designs on a black background. Her cephalothorax is light gray. The legs are brown near their connections with the cephalothorax and brown and black on the lower legs.
The spiders that I have observed have had a web that averaged 15″ to 18″ in width. They usually attach them to a strong ,tall weed, bush, or corn stalk. When an insect is caught in her web, she may wait until the prey becomes weakened from struggling before she goes in to injecy venom into it and wrap it in her silky web. I have observed the spiders catching, wrapping and “eating” (actually sucking out the juices) from many different insects, among them were bees of all kinds, flies, butterflies and moths and cicadas.
For six weeks that year, my family enjoyed watching these beautiful spiders. Once, early in the season, I had seen another spider sneak up and bite a young argiope. I had heard spiders ate eachother, but this episode was my first experience actually seeing it. It saddened me that I would not get to follow this spider through her life cycle.
We numbered the spiders and made a chart, keeping track of their daily activities. Spider Number 4 had her web among the irises. Spiders Number 2 and 3 were only about three or four feet apart and nearly directly behind eachother. Spider Number 1 was near the mailbox and attached to a wild flower called a knapweed.
In late September, spiders 1, 2 and 3 disappeared. This is the way it goes. One day after mating, they make a large, brown tear drop-shaped egg case, attach it to the weed or bush their web is attached to, and simply wander off to die.
Often,I would noticed that this event of death and renewal had happened during a hard rain. Spider number 4 was in a more protected location and remained there several more weeks. My daughter had an Argiope remain under her houses’ eve until after the first frost one year!
One day, my father and I were walking inthe garden and noticed that number 4 had a large cicada trapped in her web. She had retreated to the leaves of the plant her web was attached to, avoiding the huge insect as it struggled in her silky trap. The next morning, I saw her feeding on it. To hold this giant insect, her web must have been very strong, much like the black widow, known for the strength of her web.
As an amateur photographer,I enjoyed the chance to take many photos of these spiders during the summer and early fall. This was in the days before digital cameras were popular and I took the pictures with a complicated, yet very accurate camera that used film. I was fortunate to see Spider #4 intricately repair her beautiful orb web one sunny day. How such a “simple” creature could construct such a work of art will always amaze me.
Although I did not get to see the spiders make their egg sacks, I did find and collect two of them. I sewed them up in a safe place in a low bush, hoping to see the young spiders the next spring. Though I was not fortunate enough to see them hatch, I did observe a few Argoope spiders around the yard the next year. I have learned to look for different kinds of insects, such as preying mantises, spiders and butterflies to observe during their short lives. Each experience has taught me lessons about nature that I simply could not find in a book!