A fully grown garden spider can be an intimidating sight. Often spotted in the landscape when they reach maturity in late summer, these big, black and yellow spiders and their large, circular webs are hard to miss. They almost seem to appear overnight. But, despite their intimidating appearance, garden spiders are good guys who deserve a home in your garden.
What does a garden spider look like?
Also called the yellow garden spider (Argiope aurantia), this species is actually quite beautiful, if you care to look close enough. The large females have a distinctive black and yellow abdomen, and 8 black legs that are graced with red or yellow markings. The leg span of fully grown females can be up to three inches long from front to back. The male garden spider isn’t quite as fancy or as large. He’s brown and drab and only about quarter of the size of the female.
A female garden spider spins a unique web, too. Her large, distinctive web is built in mid summer, when she’s hoping to secure a mate and trap enough food to support her egg-laying efforts. Each female garden spider builds a two- to three-foot-wide, circular web centered with a prominent zig-zag line of silk called a stabilimentum. I often find the females’ webs stretched between the tomato stakes in my vegetable garden. The female spider is almost always waiting for prey at the center of the web, near the stabilimentum.
Males build webs, too, though theirs are far smaller. Often located near, or even within, the female’s web, the male’s web is denser and not nearly as “fancy.” Many times there are several male webs found near each female web, which can lead to some interesting mating behavior (more on that later!).
Is the garden spider native to North America?
Garden spiders are indeed native to North America. They’re found in each of the 48 contiguous states and even in Hawaii. Their range also extends southward into Central America and northward into the southern regions of Canada.
Gardens are great homes for the garden spider. Females prefer to position their web in a protected site that is sheltered from heavy winds. Each night, the female garden spider eats the central strands of her web and rebuilds it with fresh strands of silk just before dawn.
Garden spider “love”
Male garden spiders visit females to breed in mid to late summer. In an interesting courtship ritual, the male garden spider plucks the strings of the female’s web gently and in a very specific way, to make her aware of his presence. Then he slowly approaches and hopes he doesn’t get attacked in the process. It’s been noted that males will sometimes attempt to breed with female garden spiders while they’re in their final molt because during molts, the females are immobile and there’s no risk of attack (smart guys!).
During mating, the male garden spider leaves his palps (the place where he stores his sperm) behind as “plugs” to prevent other males from mating with the same female garden spider. Then, as soon as mating ends, the male spontaneously dies, often while he’s still attached to the female. Occasionally the female spider will consume the male’s body after mating.
Soon after mating, the female spider creates one to five papery, brown egg cases, each filled with a thousand or more eggs. The egg cases are positioned on the web, typically near the center. The female garden spider protects her egg cases until her death, around the time of the first frost.
Come spring, the eggs hatch and dust-like spiderlings emerge to find a new home in the garden. They’re often carried around the landscape on the wind.
Do garden spiders bite?
Both male and female garden spiders are docile and nonaggressive. However, they can bite if threatened, trapped, or stepped on. Their bite is said to feel much like a bee sting and causes redness and swelling at the bite site. Like all spiders, yellow garden spiders are not “out to get you,” nor will they purposefully attack or harm humans. Let them do their work in the garden and try your best not to disturb them.
Of the 3000 or so species of spiders found in North America, only four are considered harmful to humans. They are: the black widow, the brown recluse, the hobo spider (found in the arid climate of western states), and the yellow sac, which is thought to be the most common source of nuisance bites across the continent.
Is a garden spider a good bug or a bad one?
Like thousands of other spider species found in our yards and gardens, the garden spider is considered to be very beneficial. It consumes lots of common landscape pests, as well as bees, moths, beetles, wasps, and just about any other flying insect that gets trapped in its web.
Other types of garden spiders
There are, of course, many other species of spiders worth appreciating in your garden. They’re extremely valuable predators who help manage pests in some surprising ways. While the yellow garden spider and other orb weavers trap their prey in webs, many species of spiders don’t spin webs at all. Instead, they crawl around and hunt for their prey. These spiders are known as cursorial, or hunting, spiders.
Cursorial spiders, such as jumping spiders, wolf spiders, and crab spiders, are especially important to gardeners because they move around the garden to find their prey. Numerous studies have shown that spiders consume a massive amount of garden pests, including aphids, mites, asparagus beetles, squash bugs, budworms, caterpillars, and many more. Much of this predation takes place at night, when the watchful eye of the gardener is sound asleep.
If you want to learn more about the importance of spiders and other beneficial insects, I recommend the following books: Insects and Gardens, Bringing Nature Home, Good Bug Bad Bug, and Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden: A Natural Approach to Pest Control.
No matter which types of spiders live in your garden, give them some love. They play a major role in keeping the ecosystem of the garden healthy and balanced. Let them do their work as you go about yours and you’ll both reap the benefits.
To learn more about both the good and bad critters that live in your garden, check out the following posts:
Have you ever had a garden spider make a home in your landscape? What did you think when you discovered it? Share your stories with us in the comment section below.