In this blog post I shall be focusing solely on the beautiful and fascinating Garden Spider (Araneus diadematus). This species is a member of the typical orb-weaving spiders (family Araneidae), and is one of the the most noticeable arachnid species encountered from July through to November, occurring across the UK in gardens, hedges, parks and scrub.
Anyone rising early in the last few weeks on a calm, crisp autumnal morning may have been treated to the stunning display of orb-webs that cling delicately to areas of scrub, hedgerows and other favourable hunting grounds. If you are really lucky, then a heavy dew may have descended overnight and vividly highlighted the individual strands of the webs with small water droplets, turning the webs into a beautiful piece of art. This has certainly been a common, and very welcome, sight for me in the last few weeks, and has lead me to try writing a short piece about these superb creatures…
So, who do we have to thank for adding these ethereal scenes to our early mornings? The culprit is the humble Garden Spider, Araneus diadematus. This species, like many others in the Araneidae family, spin large orb webs to snare unwary prey. Typically about 13mm in length in females, and up to 8mm for males, they can grow to a chunky size- the former in particular can spin sizeable webs capable of catching a diverse range of prey items, from butterflies and grasshoppers through to midges, shieldbugs and species of bees and flies.
The pregnant females are particularly bulging in appearance, due in no small part to the swelling of eggs. These will be packaged into a silk egg sac, which is laid onto branches, in sheds, or in other such sturdy places. The small eggs will hatch out in the spring, into a burst of tens of small yellow Spiderlings. These will then disperse, grow, and eventually set about building their own delicate masterpieces- with no tuition or input from the now-deceased mum.
So how do they actually construct these architectural masterpieces? It is amazing to think that these spiders are able to spin webs across gaps which they can’t actually physically cross, and which can be over 50 times the length of the spider! As a side note before I attempt to summarise the process, it really is worth watching this super cool time-lapse of a Garden Spider creating its web.
To begin the process (which the Orb-weavers typically carry out at night, before the main ‘hunting’ period during daylight hours), the spider spins a very fine thread of silk, which it allows to drift from one side of a gap to the other. Once this thread has made contact with the far side, it adheres and allows the the spider to pull it tight and strengthen it numerous times with additional threads. Once the main thread is strong enough to support the rest of the web, two additional threads will gradually be added to form a Y-shaped ‘web’. This Y will be the primary foundation for the rest of the web…at this point the spider will now go about adding a number of radials to the web, which sets the base ready for the sticky circular threads. An amazing feature of this stage is that the spider will construct a non-sticky spiral of thread from the centre to the periphery, which allows it to move around during construction without getting stuck!
After strengthening the central ‘perch’ with about five circular strands, the spider now makes the fundamental circles of sticky threads that perform the crucial role of ensnaring victims. The spider will start from the outside moving to the centre, and will use the non-sticky spiral to move between the layers; as it makes these closely-spaced circular threads, it will remove the non-sticky spiral. The reason that the circular sections of the web are so exact in distance between each other is simply because of the way they are made: the spider picks the thread from its spinner with its hind leg, and fastens it onto one of the radials- it then repeats this as it continues round, securing the circular strands to a radial line each time one is encountered. Eventually, the web is finished, and the creator can now sit happily in the centre, and await its prey.