’Tis late summer, now, in most parts of North America, anyway, and orb weaver spiders are becoming more conspicuous as they mature into large adult specimens and spin bigger webs (soon to be revealed by falling autumn foliage). Among the most abundant of these spinners is the “Cross Spider,” Araneus diadematus.
The Cross Spider is a European immigrant, just like most of us human residents of the U.S. and Canada, so the species feels most at home in northern climes. It is recorded from Newfoundland and Nova Scotia to British Columbia and south to northern California, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and Rhode Island. It is plenty accustomed to people, too, so it is a regular occupant of gardens and yards in urban areas.
Araneus diadematus gets its popular English name not from an angry disposition, but because it usually sports silvery-white dots that form the pattern of a traditional Christian cross on its abdomen. This is a relatively consistent marking, but as with most orb weavers, there can be exceptions. The spiders usually hang head-down in the very center (hub) of their webs, but sometimes an individual spider may be more reclusive, and connect herself to the web via a bundle of “signal threads” that run from the hub to her hiding place in a rolled-up leaf or other nearby retreat.
The reaction of homeowners to the presence of this and other species of orb weavers runs the gamut from curiosity to consternation. No species of orb weaver is known to be dangerously venomous to people or pets, so there is no reason to fear them. The spiders themselves will literally shake at the close approach of a person or other large animal, vibrating their web and no doubt startling the inquisitive visitor. Should that tactic fail, most orb weavers drop abruptly from their web, anchoring a dragline to the hub so they can climb back up once danger passes.
This species happens to include some real celebrities. No, seriously. “Anita” and “Arabella” were two female Cross Spiders sent into space on Skylab 3 in 1973 to study the effects of zero gravity on web construction. Prior to that, several specimens were used as guinea pigs in the study of how psychoactive drugs affect spiders’ ability to spin webs. Those experiments were first conducted by a German scientist beginning in 1948, then repeated by NASA scientists in 1984. For an absolutely hilarious send-up of that research, you must see ”The Wood Spider” video on YouTube. I take no responsibility for laughter-induced fatalities.
An adult female Cross Spider has an average body length of about 13 millimeters, though gravid females certainly appear larger. Like the story of Charlotte’s Web, each spider’s life from egg to adult spans only a year. Enjoy their handiwork and pest-controlling services while you can.