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by Stan Tekiela
November 6, 2017
During the lazy days of summer, nothing in nature seems to be moving or doing much of anything. However, autumn feels like everything in nature is on the move or rushing to preparing for winter. Many of our regular backyard birds have already migrated. Hummingbirds are well on their way to the topics. Thousands of hawks have moved out of the northwoods and are migrating south to escape the coming winter. Meanwhile, deer, elk and moose are ready to do battle in this year’s mating season (rut).
One sure sign of the end of summer is the fields and prairies seem to be filled with a ferocious predator. A predator that is so efficient, it takes both small and large prey. Some prey is tiny by comparison to the predator while other prey is more than twice its own size. What kind of killer could this be? It’s the Argiope spider, often called the Yellow Garden Argiope.
There are several species of the Argiope spider in the northland. They all look and act similar so I will talk about them all in general. These spiders belong to a large group called the Orb Weavers. They are best known for their orb shaped webs they spin. Some of these webs are very large, measuring upwards of 3 feet in diameter. These webs are usually constructed late in the day in order to be ready for night time hunting.
The webs are almost always vertical and stretch between tall stalks of dried grass stems. Often the top of the grass stem is bent over forming an arching top to anchor the web. The spokes of the web, called the radii, radiate out from the center to the outer edge. These threads are not sticky and allow the spider to move around the web without being caught themselves.
The circular threads are sticky and ensnare any hapless insects. In the center of the web is a very unusual, tight zigzag structure, made of special webs. This is called a stabilimentum and reflects UV light and is thought to entice flying insects to check it out and thus get caught in the web. When we see this we only see a white zigzag patter of threads but to the insect is shines like a bright beacon.
The Argiope spider sits in the middle of their web, inverted, facing down. They place their extremely long legs on the radii threads to “feel” for any vibrations coming from their web. Even though they have 8 eyes their vision is not the greatest. The females are much larger than the males. A good sized female can reach 2.5 inches including their legs. The body is about 1 inch. The male is almost half the size.
Their abdomen (the biggest part of the spider) is bright yellow with black and yellow stripes and spots. Their front legs tend to be all black while the other legs are combination of black and yellow. I think they are a very attractive looking spiders. They tend to live in small colonies so once you find one web with a large spider handing in it, just turn and look around, you will see more.
These spiders don’t attack people and really don’t want anything to do with people. They spend many hours constructing their webs and even more hours waiting for something to become ensnared. Once a fly or mosquito becomes trapped in the web the spider quickly runs over to it. It will approach cautiously at first feeling with its front legs. The spider will bite the prey to inject a venom that will subdue the prey and start to liquefy the insides. If it’s hungry, it will eat right away. If not they will start to spin the prey around and around while encasing it in a thick spider silk so it can consume later.
Recently I was out filming these super cool spiders in a native prairie. I was walking down a trail and heard the wings of a dragonfly struggling. To my left I could see a large web with a dragonfly caught in the corner of the web. Before I could set up my camera the spider had already advanced and had given the dragonfly a venomous bite before retreating a short distance away.
When I got my camera set up I was able to capture the spider moving back in to start feeding. As I filmed this life and death struggle, it occurred to me that this was a predator eating a predator. Dragonflies are predators of the sky and the spider is the predator of the prairie. Life is never easy for animals in the wild. Until next time…
Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the U.S. to study and photograph wildlife. He can be followed on www.facebook.com and twitter.com. He can be contacted via his web page at www.naturesmart.com.
The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.
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