So it’s the middle of summer, and that means spiders are afoot. Just ask any hiker. There you are, walking down a peaceful forest trail, when ZAP! You feel that unmistakable sensation which lets you know you’ve just wrecked some poor spider’s hard-won home.
For some, running into a web is all it takes to launch frantic gyrations and wild and frenzied dancing, all in an effort to get free of the web. It is possible that I speak from experience. Yes, even a Great and Legendary Outdoorsman Like Me is not immune to brief fits of web-induced terror.
For any spider close enough to see all this unfold, it must surely be an entertaining spectacle.
And yet aside from their annoying tendency to building webs across trails, spiders are kind of neat. They really are fun to observe.
One day last week I was out on the back deck getting ready to cook some bratwurst on the grill. I do love grilled bratwurst. But as I got ready to get things going, what should I see at the corner of a house but an unusually complex spider web.
Right in the middle of it sat a spider.
Let me tell you about this spider. It was close to three inches across, from front legs to back legs, and (I’ve got to admit) it was easy on the eyes. It was remarkably colorful, with streaks of yellow and orange seeming to glow across its belly and blueish-green stripes on its back. On its underside, some of the streaks formed a distinctive open rectangle, and its legs were adorned with bands of yellow-gold. It was neat.
But it was also totally unfamiliar. In fact, it did not appear to be a spider like any I’d ever seen before. What kind of critter could it be?
A few minutes on a web of another kind gave me the answer. It was a joro spider, an invader from Asia that is now, in all probability, a permanent part of the northeastern Georgia landscape.
To learn more about joro spiders, I spoke with Richard Hoebeke, curator and collection manager for arthropods at the Georgia Museum of Natural History at the University of Georgia in Athens. Richard, who has been fascinated by spiders since he was six years old, told me that joro spiders are common in eastern Asia. But they were not on the radar here in Georgia until 2014 when the first one was reported in Madison County, northeast of Athens.
How did joro spiders come to be in the southeast? Richard and his colleagues set out to answer that question, gathering sighting reports from citizen scientists (that’s people like you and me) and studying what they found. It seemed that there was a concentration in the Braselton and Hoschton area near the I-85 corridor. That’s home to many large distribution warehouses, he says, adding that the best guess is that these spiders or their eggs hitched a ride to one of those facilities on a crate, in some packing material, or maybe even on a plant.
Currently, Richard adds, the spiders have spread through northeastern Georgia and even into South Carolina. They may be elsewhere too.
Are they dangerous to people?
“I don’t think they’re particularly dangerous,” he says. “They would just as soon retreat.”
But any spider can bite if threatened, and the bite of this one has been likened to a bee sting.
“I would not recommend picking them up,” Richard adds.
The other question, of course, is how these invaders might impact native species. At this time, he notes, there is no direct evidence that the joro spiders are displacing natives. But observation and research is ongoing.
Aside from those things, joro spiders are intriguing. Like other orb-building spiders, they create a highly structured central web.
“But they also construct unorganized webs on either side of the central web,” Richard says, adding that the result is what appears to be a complex web system. The larger females sit in the middle of the main web, while the smaller (and less colorful) males hang out on the periphery.
“They are extremely adept at web building,” Richard says.
Interestingly enough, the joro spider’s silk is noticeably stronger than silk from many other spiders.
“It has a very high tensile strength,” he says, “and it is extremely durable and tough.” As it turns out, I had noticed that strength the week before as I cleared a few joro web strands that were anchored to the lid to the grill. I apologize, spider friends, but the bratwurst was waiting.
Besides its strength, joro spider silk has another neat characteristic. In the fall, as the year’s crop of joro spiders matures, their silk takes on a golden yellow color.
Picture that: a tantalizingly and vividly colored spider sitting in a web of spun gold. It’s no wonder that they acquired the name “joro,” for in Japanese mythology a jorogumo is a shape-shifting spider than can take on the form of a beautiful woman who tempts men into her grasp and then binds them with (presumably golden and high-tensile-strength) silk before having them for dinner. Literally.
Well then. I’ll just give that web a little more room and move the grill over a few feet, thank you very much.
What if you see a joro spider? Is there anything you should do?
“Don’t freak out,” advises Richard, adding that even if you try to kill them, they’re going to come back.
“Joro spiders,” he says, “are here to stay.”