King Solomon tells us in the book of Ecclesiastes that “to everything there is a season.” Nature has always been a prime example of this fact; almost everything that occurs in the natural world around us happens based on a season.
The months of August and September in Virginia are known to be the primary season for a particularly fascinating creature, the orb weaver.
If you are not familiar with the term, an orb weaver is a particular type of spider that has a number of varied species within its family. It gets its name from the fact that it spins a circular web or the “orb.” But this isn’t just any web. The orb weaver is an architectural wizard that spins a web of extraordinary complexity and design — a true work of art.
If you are an avid hiker, particularly if you hike during the months of August and September, you have probably met an orb weaver up close and personal. It’s an early morning hike that you are on so that you can beat the midday heat. You are briskly traversing the trail in the cool quiet hours of the morning and suddenly, without warning, your face is covered in the sticky silk hairs of a spider’s web that completely wraps around your face.
Your immediate reaction is fear and concern — where is the spider? Is it in my hair? Down my shirt? Does it bite?
Been there? Well, that my friend, is an orb weaver.
I have what you would call a love/hate relationship with this creature. I absolutely love sitting on my porch in the early evening hours watching a Hentz orb weaver spinning his work of art for the overnight hunt of garden insects. But I, like most hikers, absolutely despise the sudden shock of having a web wrapped around my face.
For the morning hiker, I can give you a couple tips from my personal experience on how to avoid this frightening occurrence. First, it’s OK to be an early morning hiker — just don’t be the very first one on the trail. Remember, the early bird gets the web.
Secondly, I have found it wise to carry a long wooden hiking stick or a trekking pole if I am going on a morning hike. I’ll simply hold it out in front of me on an upwards diagonal to catch any webs before they find my face.
The question I hear most often, especially from hikers, is whether or not the orb weaver is dangerous. The simple answer is no. All of the different species of orb weavers in Virginia tend to be non-aggressive. Do they bite? Well, I imagine just about every creature in the natural world will bite if you give it enough reason to, but the bite of an orb weaver is not threatening to your health.
As someone who has hiked hundreds of miles over the years and has had hundreds of orb weaver webs wrapped around his face, I have never experienced a bite from this spider.
Another question often raised is, how can I tell if it is an orb weaver spider? That is more difficult to answer due to the number and variety of orb weaver species in our area. There are, however, a couple of common traits that all orb weavers possess. The most obvious is they will all build elaborate circular webs.
Orb weavers are also known for their bulbous abdomen and long legs. The only species, which is an exception to having a rounded, bulbous abdomen, would be the spined micrathena orb weaver. This interesting creature has 10 sharp pointed ridges on its abdomen that are used to ward off its enemies. This guy also happens to be one of the orb weavers you are most likely to “run into” on the hiking trail.
The size of orb weavers will vary between species from a tiny 6 mm up to a rather stout 20 mm. Of the larger varieties you will find some of the more recognizable species of this spider. That stunning yellow and black garden spider you often see stretched between plants in your garden is an orb weaver.
If you have a covered porch with an adjoining garden area, there is a good possibility that you will be harboring a Hentz orb weaver. This nocturnal spider will build its web just as the sun sets each night, then take it down each morning just before the sun rises. It actually consumes its entire web, which is quite fascinating to watch.
This particular species is also one of the most ominous looking spiders you will ever come across. Plainly speaking, it is hideously ugly. But do not let its looks alarm you into wanting to remove or even kill it. Orb weavers are easily one of the most beneficial garden residents you can have. The amount of harmful garden insects it can consume in one night is quite astounding, and its favorite meal happens to be mosquitoes.
Whether or not you are a fan of spiders, watching the orb weaver spin his majestic web is something everyone should experience at least once. It is that amazing. If you are lucky enough to have one of these fellows in your garden, I recommend taking a chair and a flashlight just after sunset and enjoy one of nature’s truly spectacular feats.
If you don’t have that opportunity, get on your computer and search, “how an orb weaver spins its web.” There you will find several mind-blowing videos that you will have to watch several times to believe what you will see.
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