Monday, September 29, 2008

Along came two spiders - and not the itsy-bitsy variety

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel September 29, 2008)

The eight-legged crowd apparently considers the area directly outside my office window to be prime real estate.

During the past two weeks, two spiders -- a black-and-yellow argiope and a golden silk spider -- have staked their claim on this shaded bit of airspace. Both constructed intricate webs that link the underside of the soffit to the picture window, as well as to various garden plants. A cherry tomato's spindly vine acts as an important anchor for each web.

I'm accustomed to looking out of my office window and seeing butterflies, birds and bees. I'm used to following the antics of gray squirrels and catching the occasional glimpse of brown and green anoles as they leap from leaf to leaf.

Every now and then, I watch rabbits nibble succulent blades and field mice bravely dart across a stretch of mulched ground. But in all the time I've lived here, I've never had the opportunity to observe outdoor spiders in their natural habitat on a day-by-day basis.

That is, until now.

The first observation I've made since the spiders set up house is that both are huge. There's nothing itsy-bitsy about them. Imagine a toddler's hand with splayed fingers. That's about the size of the golden silk spider, also known as a banana spider or golden orb weaver.

Actually, two golden silk spiders have taken up residence outside my window -- the gigantic female and her diminutive opposite-sex counterpart. The female spider is six times larger than the puny male. He's so small and nondistinct that I didn't realize he was living in one remote section of the female's web until several days had gone by.

The web, woven by the female, is an asymmetrical orb that spans a 6-foot wide stretch. When struck by the sun, it shimmers with a rich yellow sheen like spun gold. It is from the web's glittery appearance that Nephila clavipes gets its common name, golden silk spider.

I've watched as strong winds have whipped through the golden silk spider's web and as the irrigation sprinkler has sprayed across it, but neither damaged the web. That's probably because the silk produced by these giant spiders is stronger than Kevlar, the fiber used in bulletproof vests.

While the golden silk spider and its web are certainly marvelous in a look-but-don't-touch sort of way, the black-and-yellow argiope and its web are similarly stunning. There's a tiny male argiope living on the outskirts of the female's circular web. Like the golden silk male, he's also a scrawny critter.

The black-and-yellow argiope, Argiope aurantia, is also known as a "writing" spider because it weaves a bold series of connecting white "Xs," called a stabilamenta, in the middle of its web. The female arachnid places herself near the top of the stabilamenta, where she patiently waits for prey to fly into the sticky substance.

While the noticeable crisscrossing pattern acts as a warning to birds that might destroy the web by flying into it, the pattern doesn't seem to prevent mosquitoes, beetles, moths, grasshoppers, flies or bees from becoming ensnared. Recently, I watched as the spider caught, wrapped and consumed a black beetle and medium-size fly. The entire catch-and-devour process was completed in minutes.

Watching these two amazing critters from the comfort of my indoor viewing station has been entertaining and edifying. Some people like to go to movies, sporting events, shows or parties for enjoyment; I sit back in my swivel chair and watch spiders and other wild critters go about their daily lives.

I don't know why these two huge but harmless spiders chose the 8-foot span in front of my office window to set up house, but I'm glad they did. Our country might be in the midst of a major housing downturn, but in my neck of the woods we're caught in a web of explosive growth. The residents may have eight legs, but they keep the mosquito population at bay. That's a sticky situation I wouldn't want to do without.

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