Black-and-Yellow Garden Spider

The black and yellow garden spider (Argiope aurantia) goes by many names including writing spider, zipper spider, black and yellow Argiope, golden orb-weaver, and corn spider. The names describe the appearance of the mature female, the web design or where the spider is commonly found. This is one of the larger orb-weaving spiders whose females can measure over 7.5cm (3″) at maturity, (including legs). The mature female’s webs are also large and can span up to 60cm (2′) in diameter. The males of the species are significantly smaller and a more inconspicuous brownish colour while the females at maturity are quite striking with boldly coloured yellow markings against their black bodies. Black and yellow garden spiders deliver a venomous bite too the prey caught in their web after securing the insect to their web with silken thread. The venom paralyzes the insect and contains digestive enzymes that begin digesting the insect’s organs. Although black and yellow garden spiders can inflict a painful bite to humans, that is similar to a bee sting, the venom is not considered dangerous, unless you have an allergy to biting and stinging insects.

Description

Females

Mature black and yellow garden spider females are quite visible due to the striking yellow and black zigzag pattern on top of their abdomens and their large size. Mature females have elongated oval bodies that measure about 2.5cm (1″) in length, but with their legs they can measure about 7.5 cm (3″). Their cephalothorax, (which is the fused head and thorax of spiders), is whitish and covered in short silverish hairs. Their legs are yellowish to orangey brown near their bodies and black towards the tips and may have yellowish to orangey brown bands. At the end of each leg is 3 claws used assist the spider in spinning her large circular web. The younger females are smaller, with narrower bodies and less pronounced markings and orangish and black banded legs. The females can usually be found in the center of their webs with their heads facing down, unless she is exhausted or feels threatened in which case she drops to the ground and hides in vegetation.

A mature female black and yellow garden spider (Argiope aurantia).

Males

Mature males have a less striking appearance and are much less visible. They are about 1/3 the size of females with narrower abdomens and a more muted brownish colouring with fewer yellowish markings. Their legs are brownish and may have muted yellowish bands.

Eggs and egg cases

The eggs are laid at night, often on the female’s web so she can protect them, but they are sometimes laid on vegetation or building structures. The eggs (as many as a 1,000 or more), are enclosed in a protective brown silk, tear drop shaped bag that can measure up to 25mm (1″) in diameter. These sacks are quite visible, especially during the winter months, and as a result they are often eaten by birds or parasitized by wasps and flies.

Web

The black and yellow garden spiders web is highly distinguishable. A mature females web can be up to 60 cm (2′) in diameter, is circular with zigzag pattern that runs up the center of the web called a stabilimentum. The younger spider webs are smaller and often additionally have a circular area of stabilimentum in the centre of the web, which helps to camouflage them. The males may build a much smaller web near a female’s web or directly on her web. The webs are kept clean and in a good state of repair, usually being eaten nightly and reconstructed. The younger spiders prefer to build their webs lower down on plant material but as the spider matures, they prefer to construct their webs a little higher up, about 60-90cm (2-3′) from the ground in fields, and forests, sunny areas of the garden, lawns, between trees, on doorframes and windowsills, and other areas within range of artificial night lights.

Life Cycle

In temperate climates, black and yellow garden spiders overwinter as tiny spiderlings inside the egg sac from which they hatched the previous fall. In spring, if they have survived the winter and predation, the spiderlings will balloon out of the egg sac by sending out a silk thread on the wind to catch a ride to another local. Some will remain close by while others will be carried further away. The mother does not survive the winter, she usually dies around first frost. In warmer climates she can live for a few years. The spiderlings continue to grow all season, spinning their webs and consuming the insects they catch on their webs. Once they reach sexual maturity the males go in search of females, building a small web near hers or directly on her web. He plucks the silk threads of her web to see if she is receptive to him. If she is, they mate and the male dies shortly after or if she is not receptive, she may try to attack him, in which case he usually has a safety line ready to escape. The eggs are laid in masses and gathered up into a large sac, composed of brown silk threads and measuring about 25mm (1″) in diameter. She will produce up to 4 of these sacs in her lifetime. The spiderlings hatch in fall but remain in the sac until spring. Some sources report two generations per year.

Diet

Black and yellow garden spiders eat a variety of mainly flying insects such as mosquitoes, flies, aphids, moths, butterflies, grasshoppers, dragonflies, damselflies, bees, wasps, and even occasionally larger prey such as hummingbirds or frogs. The adults have been shown to prefer a diet of dragonflies, damselflies, wasps and bees (Howell and Ellender 1984).

Distribution and Habitat

Black and yellow garden spiders are common to southeastern Canada, the United States (especially the eastern states), Mexico, and Central America. They inhabit a wide range of habitats such as fields, crop areas, forests, home gardens, and building structures. Researchers have found that the younger spiders are more attracted to areas of dense vegetation, which is sheltered from the wind, while the older spiders are more attracted to sunny areas, like at the edge of a forest, (Enders, F. (1973)).

Photo credits: all photos by the author.

References

Bachmann A., (Updated Dec. 18, 2018). Black and Yellow Garden Spiders. South Dakota State University Extension. https://extension.sdstate.edu/black-and-yellow-garden-spiders

Enders, F. (1973). Selection of Habitat by the Spider Argiope aurantia Lucas (Araneidae). American Midland Naturalist, 90, 47.

Griffith T.B. and Gillett-Kaufman J.L., (2019). common name: yellow garden spider, writing spider. Featured Creatures, University of Florida. Publication Number: EENY-743https://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/MISC/SPIDERS/yellow-garden-spider.html

Hammond, G. 2002. “Argiope aurantia” (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed December 29, 2022, at https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Argiope_aurantia/

Howell F. and Ellender R.D. (1984). Observations on growth and diet of Argiope aurantia Lucas (Araneidae) in a successional habitat. The Journal of Arachnology volume 12, issue 1, pages 29-36. online at http://biostor.org/reference/208885

Lockley, & Young, Orrey. (1993). Survivability of overwintering Argiope aurantia (Araneidae) egg cases, with an annotated list of their associated arthropods. Journal of Arachnology. 21: 50-54. online at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/256091025

Missouri Department of Conservation, (n.d.). BLACK-AND-YELLOW GARDEN SPIDER Argiope aurantia. https://education.mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/black-and-yellow-garden-spider

Mullen G.R. in Medical and Veterinary Entomology, (2002). Argiope aurantia. (on-line), Science Direct. at https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/agricultural-and-biological-sciences/argiope-aurantia

The National Wildlife Federation (n.d.). Yellow Garden Spider. https://www.nwf.org/Educational-Resources/Wildlife-Guide/Invertebrates/Yellow-Garden-Spider

USA Spiders, (n.d). Argiope Aurantia – Black and Yellow Garden Spider. https://usaspiders.com/argiope-aurantia-yellow-garden-spider/

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