My garden has a golden orb-weaver. Her work is more amazing than anything I’ve ever woven. She makes all her own tread; I have to buy mine. She is very quiet and unobtrusive despite her large size and her vibrant yellow color. She is a fantastic weaver. Her radial web is eight inches in diameter and contains a stunning zipper of multiple treads down the middle. She weaves to survive, while I just weave for fun. She actually eats and rebuilds her web every night. I wouldn’t dream of such a thing.
This amazing weaver chose to spin her web in a corner where a compost bin butts up against the fence. There are a lot of grasshoppers in this side of the garden. She must have known this. The other day I witnessed a marvel of spider silk and spider skill, a feat I could never hope to copy with my knitting or weaving. It happened in less than a minute, a minute that would have passed by unknown to my conscience if I had not turned around.
I was feeding a grasshopper to the chickens. The chickens were out of their coop and congregating under a large asparagus plant. They do not seem comfortable out of the coop yet and do not yet wander happily, snatching up bugs for me. Either that or they’ve got me trained because I am still bringing them grasshoppers. When I can catch one that is. I opened my hand and the closest chicken grabbed for the grasshopper, but it jumped before she could get it. This irked me – some days my reflexes are not that fast and I don’t appreciate waste. So I turned to see where it jumped so that I could grab it again.
Argiope aurantia! No, I’m not swearing. This is the scientific name for the golden orb-weaver; also known as the golden garden spider, yellow garden orb-weaver, and writing spider. As soon as that grasshopper hit the web, she put out a vertical zip line and descended from her perch at the top of her web. With dizzying speed she proceeded to wrap over and over this meal that was struggling with all the hope left in its short life. Argiope was done before the grasshopper’s hope ran out, and despite being bound tighter than a mummy and receiving a bite to the head, the grasshopper continued to struggle. After maybe 20 seconds, he stopped and his abdomen throbbed back and forth. I thought this was strange, not understanding it until he burst into action again, struggling in vain inside the spider’s handiwork. I likened it to being wrapped tightly in saran wrap because I could see at least 6 threads coming from her abdomen at once. Each strand was separate, but so close together as to look like a narrow strip of tape. The grasshopper struggled against this extraordinary substance for about 20 seconds. Then he stopped. Again, his abdomen throbbed. Now I understood. He was breathing hard!
I found another argiope with a small, inconspicuous web in my tomato patch. I am assuming it was a male because of his smaller size and the web’s much simpler construction. Would he be her mate? His web was almost 12 feet away from her web, and I’m not sure if that is too great a distance to attract a mate in the spider world. A male will construct a small web next to the female before mating. While many male spiders die after mating because they are eaten by the female, the male argiope dies during mating – a strategy thought to prevent other males from also mating with the same female. The male has two sperm containing organs called pedipalps. When the second pedipalp is inserted into the female, it swells, and cannot be removed. This also causes the male to die during the mating act. After mating the female will remove the male, wrap him in silk, and save him for a snack. How romantic.
Since I have not seen an egg sac yet, and the male has been MIA for two weeks, I guess he was not her mate. I am waiting to see an egg sac. The female will die with the first frost. The spiderlings hatch in late fall and will overwinter in the egg sac. They survive the tough conditions of winter by pausing their growth and development. This is called diapause.
Something strange happened from watching this spider daily for weeks. I can’t say it is a connection so much as a respect for her place in the world and even a bit of compassion. Why I say this is because the last time I walked by her I had the crazy notion that I could catch a grasshopper for her. This was not because she couldn’t, but just because I felt like doing something nice. It’s a spider. I know it is strange. Even stranger though was when I couldn’t find one, and I walked past the spider to leave, saying, “Sorry sweetie, I didn’t find any.” It came out naturally and I didn’t realize I’d even said it until I was out the gate. I definitely surprised myself. I just called her sweetie.