Look for fall spiders locally

Published 7:00 am Wednesday, October 18, 2017

By Dr. Eddie Smith

Two species of spiders that are commonly seen this time of year and often generate questions from clientele are the black and yellow garden spider and the golden silk spider. Both are impressively large spiders that build large conspicuous webs in landscape and woodland settings. These spiders are somewhat similar in appearance and are often confused with one another.

If you are out working in the yard or in the woods this time of the year, you have probably seen the Golden Silk Spider, Nephila clavipes.  They are large orb weavers and are often called ‘banana spiders’.  Most people in south Mississippi know them by this name. Mature females range from 1 to 1 ½ inches long and have a leg span of 3 to 4 inches. The abdomen is orange or yellow with white markings and is elongate and tube-shaped; the front part of their body is silver. The legs are yellow, banded with black, and have distinctive tufts of black hairs concentrated at the joints.

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The spider will bite only if held or pinched, and the bite itself will produce only localized pain with a slight redness, which quickly goes away. On the whole, the bite is much less severe than a bee string.  The spider’s prey consists of a wide variety of small to medium-sized flying insects, including flies, bees, wasps, and small moths and butterflies. They have been also seen feeding on small beetles and dragonflies.

Golden silk spiders suspend their webs between trees and shrubs in open woods and wooded landscapes. They can be quite numerous in the southern part of the state, and it is not uncommon to see several spiders nesting near one another, presumably sisters that developed from the same egg mass. Like garden spiders, these creatures can inflict a painful bite if mishandled, but they are not aggressive and the bite is usually not serious. Because they can be so numerous, these spiders can be a bit of a nuisance to hikers, bikers and others who work or play outside. It’s always somewhat of a shock to feel one of these large spiders crawling up the back of your neck after you have unknowingly blundered through its web.

This spider produces one of the strongest silks and one of the strongest fibers known to man. It gets its name from the golden color that the silk has in certain lighting. Golden silk spiders occur throughout the Southeast and in Central and South America. They are quite common in the southern third of the state, but it is unusual to encounter them much north of I-20.

The Black and Yellow Garden Spider, Argiope aurantia, occur throughout the country, including all parts of Mississippi. These spiders build large wagon wheel-like webs with a distinct ‘zipper’, or stablimentum, in the center. They are sometimes called ‘zipper spiders’ because of this distinctive web. Mature females have a large, oval, yellow and black abdomen, and the front section of the body, known as the cephalothorax, is silver. The bodies of mature females are about an inch long and their legs span about 2 ½ inches, while males are much smaller. There are several other related species, but this is our most common.

People tend to notice these spiders in late summer and fall, after the females are fully grown, because the webs are usually built two to eight feet above the ground, or about eye level. Eggs are deposited in a round tan egg sac that is suspended from the web.

Young spiderlings hatch in the fall, but spend the winter inside the egg sac.

When sufficiently disturbed, these spiders will rock rapidly back and forth on their web in a rather intimidating manner that some folks wrongly interpret as preparation for a jumping attack. Despite this behavior and their large size, these spiders are harmless. They can bite if mishandled, but they won’t go out of their way to bite, and their bite is not especially venomous. Many gardeners consider it an omen of good luck to have one of these in their landscape and others just enjoy watching them.