“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!”

Audubon Insectarium

Two weekends ago I went on my annual weird family adventure.  We decided to go to New Orleans this year for an Audubon filled weekend.  There were three adults, five teenagers and a five year old.  Seven of us drove the six hour drive, and I must say, it was very interesting.  I think we stopped 8 times for various things.  Our plan was to go to all the animal places there; the Audubon Insectarium, the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, and the Audubon Zoo.  One of the main reasons I was so excited to go was the brand new Insectarium.  My friend, Jayme, is the manager and he said he would show us around.  If you are a fan of the show Dirty Jobs you may have seen Jayme on the bug breeder episode.  The show was great and very informative, but Erin and I are still a little jealous and wish we had thought of the idea first.  The Insectarium just recently opened in June and Jayme was ready to show it off.  I felt the same way when our own Entomology Hall opened, so I totally understood his excitment.  My 15 year old niece wasn’t too keen on the idea of a huge hall full of bugs, but everyone else was at least a bit intrigued.

The Insectarium was beautiful, creepy, and entertaining all wrapped up in one big box.  If anyone is making a trip to New Orleans, this is a definite MUST SEE venue.  It is located in the French Quarter across from the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas.  I think the coolest thing about the insectarium was that the huge main hall way was covered with painted bugs and enormous models of various arthropods.  

They have a room that shrinks you down to the size of a small soil dwelling insect.  When you enter the room, a giant centipede greets you.  As you walk through the room, an earthworm (not an arthropod, but an annelid) is waiting for you to hop on it’s back and smile for a picture.  In this room you can also see ants foraging in their tunnels and taking care of their babies (larvae).  At the end, a gigantic trap door spider pops out and can give you fright if it catches you off guard.  This room is one of many that have different themes. 

They also have a section dedicated to termites.  You can pick up a phone and listen to the termites munching on an old house and you can actually see live termites in the wall.  The Louisiana swamp section began with an old bait shop.  An employee dressed up as a fisherman showed us various critters that can be found in the dirt, a great hands on activity for all ages.  My sister’s favorite thing about this part was a wonderful display of fly fishing lures made from actual insect parts.  After the bait shop you step right into a swamp.  The huge tree in the middle of the room is surrounded by different aquatic insects and fish.  You can even pop your head up inside the middle of one of the tanks to immerse yourself into the world of diving beetles. 

A very interesting room that I’m sure most people steer away from was the bug cooking cafe.  When I was there they were making cricket pancakes and tempura grasshoppers.  My five year old niece was all smiles when she got to eat one; at least one of them takes after me a bit!  Another awesome room was the 4-D movie we got to watch.  It was an awards show hosted by a beetle.  One of the awards he presented was to a honey bee for all the work she does to help produce fruits and vegetables. We could actually feel her flying around us. 

I’m sure all of you are familiar with the love bugs we get here in Texas in the spring and fall.  Well, they get them there too.  They even have an informative movie about the love bugs playing inside of an actual Volkswagon Beetle.  

I found a Giant Moth!

I could go on forever about all the stuff they have there, but I will just let you take a trip to New Orelans to see if for yourself.  I spent about 2 hours there, but I spoke with a lady the other day that spent 5 hours there.  I probably could have spent more time had I not been with a large group of people that were hungry and ready to move on to the aquarium.  If you enjoy our Entomology Hall here, you should definitely check out the insect zoos and butterfly houses in other cities.  There are insect zoos and butterfly houses all over the U.S.  I was fortunate enough to visit the St. Louis Zoo’s Insectarium a few years ago and it was amazing.  Some of the cool things they have there are bullet ants and burying beetles.  They even have a program that is researching the endangered American Burying Beetle

In college, before I had this job, I went to Cincinnati, OH for the Entomological Society of America Conference.  I couldn’t pass up on the opportunity to check out the Cincinnati Zoo, which I knew had an insect zoo.  This was the first insect zoo I had ever seen, so I was pumped.  That was the moment when I decided that it would be so cool to work in a place like that.  I got to see beautiful purple beetles, honey pot ants, and giant walking sticks and I just fell in love with the whole scene.

Before you go on vacation, check out this website:  http://butterflywebsite.com/gardens/index.cfm to see if there is a butterfly house or insect zoo in the town you are visiting.  All the insect zoos around the country are different in many ways.  Some are enormous and some are very small, but we all have the same goal in mind.  We want people to love bugs as much as we do and understand how cool and important they are. 

PHOTO From You: Insect Identification

Hello again insect enthusiasts! Well, we’ve already received another photo from one of our wonderful readers! This week’s photo comes to us from Ben Bailey in College Station. This photo was taken at the Texas A&M horticultural gardens, my alma mater, and a great place observe the variety of bug life Texas has to offer!

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Venusta Orchard Spider (Leucauge venusta)
Photo provided by: Ben Bailey 

Spiders certainly are not insects, but they are arthropods, which share several characteristics with insects such as: segmented bodies, jointed appendages, and a hard exoskeleton. Spiders belong to the class Arachnida, along with scorpions, ticks, mites, and some other weird looking things! Arachnids all have 8 legs, 2 main body segments, and a pair of jaw-like, fang-bearing appendages. All arachnids are predators which feed on a wide variety of small prey including insects and most are harmless to humans. This means that they can actually be helpful in your home or garden!

This striking photograph is of one of my favorite spiders, the Venusta Orchard Spider (Leucauge venusta). In Latin, venusta means beautiful, and as you can see, this is a gorgeous spider. The Venusta Orchard Spider is a small orb weaver that likes to hang out in light, open areas near shrubs and trees. They construct a horizontal web about 1 foot wide. They cling below the web, or a nearby twig and wait for an unsuspecting insect to become entangled. These spiders, like most, are very shy and harmless to humans! Consider it a beautiful, natural little ornament for your garden.

Thank you so much Ben, for sending in the great picture, and reading our blog! Keep ‘em coming folks!