Q: I have this huge orange spider in my garden by my garage! It makes a really large, intricate web. Is this a “good guy” or should I try to get rid of it?
A: This is the perfect time of year to see some of our most impressive garden spiders. In fact, while sitting on my deck a few weeks ago, I noticed a nicely crafted large spider’s web catching the light in my bed of Rudbeckia hirta and Tithonia rotundifolia (Mexican sunflowers). Then I noticed that a small leaf had gotten caught in it. I decided to help out with maintenance by removing the leaf. When I got close to the web, I realized “That’s not a leaf! That’s the spider!” This spider was much bigger than the ones I notice running around the house, about the size of a quarter overall. And it was orange and chunky, which sounds like the spider you are describing. After a little research, I figured out we had a cat-face spider living in our garden.
Cat-face spiders (Araneus gemmoides) belong to a group of spiders known as the “orb weavers.” They only live one season and die once temperatures start dropping below freezing, leaving behind an egg sac for hatching next spring (www.spiderzrule.com). Colorado State University entomologist Whitney Cranshaw says this spider “tends to make its webs near lights and in corners along the outsides of buildings.” The females are large with projections and markings that make their bodies look like the ears and face of a cat. They are harmless to people, but insects in the late summer garden had better watch their step. Yes, they are “good guys” and will help greatly with keeping your garden insect-free, but they also make meals of some other “good guys” as well.
My husband was immediately dazzled by this spider and took pictures of everything she did. He was the one to first notice that she was catching one of my favorite garden helpers, honeybees. He called me over, and sure enough, a honeybee was wrapped up like a little mummy in the web (yet another photo opportunity for him). Later that day, I noticed the mummy and the spider were gone. When I peered behind the downspout, there she was, feasting on the poor bee. Many other bees met the same fate over the next several days.
One afternoon, I noticed she was in the same place on the web that she was the day before. “Is she dead?” I thought. I went for a closer look, and a moment after I arrived, a moth bumped her web. I had no idea she could move that fast! It nearly took my breath away. The moth escaped, but now I knew what kind of hunter she really was.
In the middle of October, temperatures will start getting cold at night, and her hunting days will end. She will probably lay an egg sac so we might have another spider to watch next year. However, I do hope it will develop more of a taste for earwigs rather than for bees.
“Spiders in the Home” http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/insect/05512.html
Contributed by Carey Harrington, Certified Colorado Gardener. Photos by Tom Harrington.