Punkin, my Halloween spider

Today’s guest blogger is Cletus Lee. Mr. Lee is a native of Virginia and received a BS in Geology from Virginia Tech.  He tells us that, after an interesting career in the Oil & Gas industry, followed by another in information sciences, he retired in 2008 and is pursuing nature photography, cycling and other long time hobbies.  He is an amateur arachnologist and resides in Bellaire, TX, just a few blocks from the Nature Discovery Center – his photos of spiders are fascinating and we thought we’d share them – along with Lee’s thoughts on the subjects of his photos – with you.

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Click to view large: Spinybacked Orbweaer
Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: Cletus Lee

It was Punkin’s “grandmother” that started my current interest in spiders.  One morning in May 2007, while opening the blinds in our den, I noticed a spider building a web just outside our den window in a corner between the den and the dining room.  From that point on, each day, I would eagerly open the blinds to greet the sun and my new little friend.

Spinybacked Orbweavers (Gasteracantha cancriformis) have long been one of my favorite spiders because they are colorful and decorate a neat orb web. Smaller than a dime, they can be found in the Houston area in shades of white, yellow and orange.   Their most prominent feature is the abdomen, which sports spike-like spines around its edge and a series of spots that create a smiley face pattern across the back.

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Click to view large: Yellow Orbweaver
Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: Cletus Lee

I continued watching the spider outside my window through the rest of May and into June.  One morning in late June, I was saddened to find the web and spider gone. I was disappointed to have my daily spider-watch ritual come to an end, but I was not disappointed for long.  A few days later, I was working outside near the old web’s location and saw two very small orb webs nearby.  A closer inspection revealed two tiny Spinybacked Orbweavers. As they grew, they molted and built larger webs. One spiderling disappeared and the other gradually moved over to the same corner of the house formerly occupied by her parent. I watched this spider, probably the daughter of the first, for about two months.  Near the end of August, she also disappeared during the night.

Once I knew the routine, I began searching the nearby bushes looking for the next generation.  Early in September, I found another Spinybacked Orbweaver. Unlike her mother and grandmother, she was orange and had a perfect jack-o-lantern face. With Halloween approaching, I decided to name my new spider Punkin.

"Punkin"
Click to view large: Punkin
Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: Cletus Lee

Late in September 2007, Punkin set up housekeeping in the same spot previously occupied by her mother and grandmother.  I was not certain how long spiders lived, but those earlier spiders seemed to last about two months as adults.  October came and went.  So did November and December.  To encourage Punkin to stay, I caught live bugs and tossed them onto the web.  She was one well-fed spider.  During the winter, Punkin received a lot of care and attention and stayed around my den window until late February 2008.

Observing three generations of spiders during the summer and fall of 2007 was an education.  Being able to see nature up close, right outside my window, was a treasured experience which has broadened my horizons and fostered a new respect for spiders.  With a flashlight, I now explore my backyard and the grounds of the neighborhood Nature Center nightly to check on my little friends and make some new ones.

“Websites” to check out this fall

Spinybacked Orbweaver with Moustache
Creative Commons License photo credit: mrspiderjoe

Every year about this time, we get lots of calls from people asking about the large, showy spiderwebs they see in their yards and gardens.  Almost always, the web-builder in question is the spinybacked orbweaving spider, Gasteracantha cancriformis

Here’s where that Greek and Latin roots class comes in handy:  the genus name means “stomach spine,” the species name means “crab-shaped.”  At about ½” across when fully grown, it’s a rather small orbweaver, especially compared to the size of its web, which can be well over three feet across.  The “signature” feature of a Gasteracantha web are the white tufts of silk – that from a distance look like white dashes – mostly placed along the outer support (foundation) lines of the web.   These tufts don’t function in prey capture, but may give passing birds or other animals a head’s up that the web is there.  The entire web is a beautiful work of art, especially when it reflects the oblique rays of the early morning or evening sun.

The spider too is quite pretty when you look close.  The flattened abdomen’s upper surface appears coated with shiny enamel paint, and may be red, yellow, white, or black.  Black or sometimes red spines radiate from the abdomen’s edge.  Here’s a picture submitted by Troy of a beautiful red specimen (notice the tufts of silk).

Some people call them “crab spiders,” but true crab spiders do not build webs – they lie in wait for their prey in the center of flowers and are often pastel-colored.  Coolest of all – some can change color over time to match their background, e.g., if they move to a different flower.

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Banana Spider
Creative Commons License photo credit: Lyndi&Jason

Other orbweavers you may notice at this time of year are the garden spider, Argiope aurantia, and the banana spider or golden orbweaver, Nephila clavipesArgiope webs are large and symmetrical, but instead of silk tufts, these spiders weave a thickened cross or zigzag (called a stabilimentum) across the center of the web.  I am sure that Wilbur the Pig’s friend Charlotte was an Argiope – no doubt E.B. White got the idea of writing words in the web from seeing the stabilimentum. 

In contrast, banana spiders build large, messy webs of extremely strong, golden silk.  Often there are several individuals of different sizes in the golden orb webs.  Banana spiders are very common in wooded areas south and west of Houston (e.g., Armand Bayou and Barker Cypress), and we usually have one or more on display in the Insect Wing.

Why do we see orbweaving spiders mostly in the fall?  I suspect that they are around all summer, but both they and their webs are much smaller earlier in the season.  By the way, most web-building spiders you notice are females; male orbweavers are much smaller.  All three species mentioned above overwinter in the egg stage – the adults die at the end of the fall season, leaving only an egg sac behind.

Orbweaving spiders are completely harmless to humans and will not bite.  Indeed, they are highly beneficial because they catch a variety of insects in their large webs.  You can think of them as “green” and silent bug-zappers! 

So – next time you see a big spider web, take a moment to look for the hardworking and talented spider that built it, and tell it (her) “hello, and thanks!”