Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Close view of a female Argiope aurantia garden spider

with 66 comments

Argiope aurantia Orbweaver Spider 1894

The date was July 20th, the place a tributary of Bull Creek in northwest Austin: within sight of the red dragonfly in yesterday’s post I found a black and yellow garden spider, Argiope aurantia. The female, shown here, is large, conspicuous, and therefore easy to identify.

If you’re looking for a good word to drop into a conversation at the next party you go to, try stabilimentum, which is the name given to the vertical white zigzag so noticeable in this spider’s web. Scientists have speculated about the purpose of the stabilimentum, but the weaver’s not telling. She’s also not saying why she usually hangs head-down.

© 2013 Steven Schwartzman


Written by Steve Schwartzman

August 9, 2013 at 6:21 AM

66 Responses

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  1. I like these spiders, and they have the most impressive webs.


    August 9, 2013 at 6:26 AM



    August 9, 2013 at 6:33 AM

  3. I’m not even going to ask how you know it’s a female.


    August 9, 2013 at 6:34 AM

  4. I love “Aurantia”. It sounds like a classic Southern female name from, say, 1850. Aunt Aurantia. She’s certainly beautiful – and I love the zig-zag portion of the web. I read that these spiders are among the species that have a third claw, to help with web-building. She’s got that “third hand” I often wish for.


    August 9, 2013 at 6:48 AM

    • Now that you say it, I can imagine an Aunt Aurantia sitting out there on the porch with Scarlett O’Hara. The main element in the name is Latin aurum, or gold, which is a reference to the spider’s prominent yellow markings.

      I don’t have a third claw, but I sometimes think of my camera’s strap, which I put around my neck, as a third arm on those occasions when I need to let go of the camera and use both hands for something else.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 9, 2013 at 8:24 AM

  5. I successfully averted my vision as it opened. My adrenaline level has gone down. I won’t be zooming in to look that creature over in detail. I trust you understand. I will give you a Like for your efforts.

    Jim in IA

    August 9, 2013 at 7:47 AM

  6. Fantastic! I think this is my favorite shot ever of this spider, and I’ve seen a billion. It looks like a grunge painting. (That’s a compliment!) I’ve always assumed that the spider hangs upside down because she’s also hanging from a thread. There is one thing that we definitively know about the stabilimentum: it has nothing to do with stabilizing the web.

    • Thanks for the compliment from such an arachnophile, Joe. Your comment about the stabilimentum reminds me of a sarcastic statement I used to make to algebra students about the letter m in the equation y = mx + b, which represents a line; I would tell them that the letter that was chosen to represent the slope of the line in that equation was m because the word slope doesn’t have an m in it.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 9, 2013 at 9:09 AM

  7. I find these spiders fascinating – even though as a child we used to literally run into their webs in the fields of WI – nightmares. But I am over that and had one of these in my garden in Maine which I fondly named Frankenstein (because of the “stabilimentum” – thanks for introducing me to this term!).

    Kathy Sturr

    August 9, 2013 at 8:56 AM

    • Stabilimentum, meet Kathy. Kathy, meet Stabilimentum. That name definitely has less scary associations than Frankenstein. (By the way, the original phrase was Frankenstein’s monster or the Frankenstein monster. In the novel, Frankenstein was the name of the doctor, but in popular culture his name got transferred to the monster he created.)

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 9, 2013 at 9:17 AM

  8. Incredible photo! When I was younger I was afraid of pictures of spiders. Now I can finally enjoy them (the pictures, not so much the actual spiders).

    nliakosina Liakos

    August 9, 2013 at 9:35 AM

    • Thanks, Nina. There’s something to be said at times for the second-hand experience that a photograph provides

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 9, 2013 at 10:18 AM

  9. Everytime I post one of these on FB I get a lot of “Eeeeewww”s. Why can’t we all just get along. 🙂 Nice shot, Steve.

    Steve Gingold

    August 9, 2013 at 2:11 PM

    • Your “Eeeeewww”s are one reason I don’t post more than an occasional picture of this sort. Flowers are more likely to bring ““Aaaahhhhhhh”s, but there’s a balance to be had. In any case, I’m glad you appreciate Mrs. Aurantia.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 9, 2013 at 3:00 PM

  10. She’s fantastic!!! Steve, you were right when you said I would enjoy this! Great shot!

    Cathy G

    August 9, 2013 at 4:25 PM

  11. She’s a beauty all right! For those who would cry “Eeeeewww” as you and Steve G. discussed above, well, they need to understand that without Ms. Hairy Knees there would be all sorts of nefarious insects devouring their beloved gardens.


    August 9, 2013 at 8:22 PM

    • Good for you, Lynda, for taking up the cause of Ms. Hairy Knees as a keeper-in-check of nefarious garden-wrecking insects. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as I think someone once said.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 9, 2013 at 9:21 PM

      • “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”
        Someone did say that, but who was it? 😉


        August 10, 2013 at 12:13 AM

        • In that exact wording it seems to go no farther back than the 1878 novel Molly Bawn, by Mrs. Margaret Hungerford, although the sentiment is older. For example, in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost we find “Beauty is bought by judgement of the eye….”

          Steve Schwartzman

          August 10, 2013 at 6:18 AM

          • Thank you for this, Steve. Your knowledge runs deep. 😀


            August 10, 2013 at 10:09 AM

            • In this case it’s not so much knowledge as a collection of quotation books I inherited from my father. A printed book can have mistakes, of course, but it’s more likely to be correct than much of what’s on the Internet, especially quotations. This particular one about beauty being in the eye of the beholder came up somewhere else in the past year or so, because I recognized the name of the novel, but I can’t remember where the question arose.

              Steve Schwartzman

              August 10, 2013 at 12:48 PM

  12. Wonderful photo! You show so much detail that one can make out the major ampullate silk of the frame lines, the flagelliform silk of the capture spiral, the attachment disks where they cross, and the aciniform silk of the decoration (or stabilimentum)–it’s rare to see all this so clearly with the spider still in focus. One hypothesis for the function of these silk decorations that may interest you especially is that they reflect UV light in a similar way to UV-reflecting “landing strips” on flowers, and so they attract pollinators. We go into this and other hypotheses in Chapter 10 of our book, “Spider Silk: Evolution and 400 Million Years of Spinning, Waiting, Snagging, and Mating.”

    Leslie Brunetta

    August 10, 2013 at 7:29 AM

    • I feel fortunate that someone as knowledgeable as you has been caught up in the threads of this post. I also feel fortunate to learn from your comment that even if my only goal was to keep as much of the spider in focus as possible, the photograph also managed to capture so many kinds of silk. I hadn’t heard of them, though I recognized the Latin roots in all but one of the names, aciniform; I now know that acinus meant ‘a small fruit, especially a grape,’ and I see that biologists use acinus for ‘a saclike component of a compound gland.’ Thanks, too, for mentioning that UV hypothesis about the decoration (stabilimentum). Live and learn.

      And speaking of which, readers can learn more about Leslie Brunetta and the book she co-wrote with Catherine L. Craig, Spider Silk:


      Steve Schwartzman

      August 10, 2013 at 8:15 AM

      • Fortune comes to those who publish fantastic photographs! You’re right about “acinus”–and those glands appear to be the glands that evolved earliest in spiders’ long, long history. They use that silk for very basic functions, including egg wrapping and constructing sperm webs, and it’s also the silk later-evolved spiders, like your Argiope here, use to wrap their prey. It’s thanks to Joe Lapp, alias Spider Joe, that I came to your photo; anyone on Twitter interested in spiders should follow him. And thanks for pointing out our book–I will (im)modestly say that there’s loads in it for anyone interested in spiders and nature in general.

        Leslie Brunetta

        August 10, 2013 at 10:51 AM

        • I hope your first sentence means that fortune is headed my way. Thanks for letting me know it was Spider Joe who led you here; he’s identified various spiders for me since I’ve had this blog.

          From my layman’s perspective, I tend to think about all of a spider’s features existing at one time, namely now. From your point of view as a specialist, it’s natural to think historically and to trace the order in which those features evolved. Sounds like you’re having fun.

          Steve Schwartzman

          August 10, 2013 at 11:30 AM

  13. i LOVE these beauties! we have terminex come to treat the exterior of the house for scorpions and ants, and i always tell them to leave the argiopes alone. most technicians say they encourage all of their customers to do the same thing. 🙂


    August 10, 2013 at 1:37 PM

    • Another arachnophile—or at least Argiopephile—makes herself known. I wouldn’t have guessed that most of the technicians share your attitude, but as I said above: Live and learn.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 10, 2013 at 3:39 PM

  14. Very impressive. Reminds me of some of the graffiti I’ve seen on city walls.


    August 10, 2013 at 1:39 PM

    • Now that’s another unexpected comment, because I’d never have thought of a resemblance to graffiti. Chalk this up (perhaps literally) as another case of art imitating life.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 10, 2013 at 3:43 PM

      • I wouldn’t have either, but in some places Argiope spiders are known as writing spiders. In fact, in some places they’re known as McKinley spiders because when McKinley was running for president, someone reported a web that supposedly predicted his victory–which kind of makes Nate Silver seem boring.

        Leslie Brunetta

        August 10, 2013 at 4:07 PM

  15. Fantastic shot, Steve. Quite a scary looking spider though!

    Mufidah Kassalias

    August 10, 2013 at 3:30 PM

    • This spider is relatively large and may look scary, but I just checked the Wikipedia article about the genus Argiope and found this: “Like almost all other spiders, Argiope are harmless to humans…They might bite if grabbed, but other than for defense they do not attack large animals. Their venom is not regarded as a serious medical problem for humans….” Now you can breathe a sigh of relief, Mufidah.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 10, 2013 at 3:51 PM

  16. Oh my, what a spectacular image.


    August 10, 2013 at 7:07 PM

    • Thanks, Sybil. There have been more favorable reactions than I thought there would be, given people’s general aversion to spiders.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 10, 2013 at 8:02 PM

  17. I like spiderman movies but that’s as close as I get. She looks nasty.

    Brian Comeau

    August 10, 2013 at 9:02 PM

  18. Replying to your comment and reference to the Rotarian article above, Steve: What a lovely essay! I didn’t know anything about Walker, but when I looked him up, he was a very prolific nature writer. Thanks for pointing me to that.

    Leslie Brunetta

    August 11, 2013 at 7:16 AM

  19. That stablimentum looks exactly like primitive weaving.

    George Rogers

    August 11, 2013 at 6:36 PM

    • The English word spider means ‘spinner,’ and perhaps early human spinners and weavers were inspired by the webs they saw.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 11, 2013 at 10:41 PM

  20. Terrific shot!


    August 11, 2013 at 9:33 PM

  21. Isn’t she lovely! I’ve always thought hanging upside-down would give her the advantage of speed.


    August 12, 2013 at 12:34 PM

  22. Oh wow amazing detailing. That zigzagging is fascinating, I will be dropping stablementum into as many conversations as I can lol. Fan snippets of info. x

    Natural Ramblings

    August 14, 2013 at 6:31 AM

    • Happy stabilimentum-dropping to you in your conversational ramblings. Let us know what reactions you get to that snippet of information.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 14, 2013 at 6:42 AM

  23. I love being able to see nature up close and personal! The markings on the back are remarkable!

    Michael Glover

    August 15, 2013 at 11:16 PM

    • Yes, let’s hear it for nearness: we become aware of so much in nature when we take a close look.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 15, 2013 at 11:32 PM

  24. My goodness. Just this morning I found one of my favorite Kansas photographers featuring a lovely portrait of this “writing spider”. I’d never heard the name, but I see from all the entries above it’s commonly known – at least in some circles!

    Given that so many of us do writing on the web, maybe we should adopt this one as our totem!


    August 21, 2013 at 7:51 AM

    • I don’t remember if I’d heard the term “writing spider,” but I’ve been seeing the spider itself for decades. If only so many people weren’t arachnophobic, your suggestion of having this critter serve as a totem for writers would probably be adopted. On the other hand, in spite of arachnophobia, this post drew more comments than almost any other I’ve ever had.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 21, 2013 at 8:09 AM

  25. […] That’s tyemnaya osa, Russian for ‘dark wasp.’ The day this search term turned up, no one was led to a post about a wasp. The viewed post closest to that was about an Argiope spider. […]

  26. The fact that you’ve been seeing this spider for decades is one more bit of proof that, if you want to see [fill in the blank], it’s important to go where [they] live. I finally found two spiders along the banks of the Brazos in East Columbia that, despite slight color differences, seem to be Argiope aurantia. I think this one has the silk-wrapped prey that Leslie Brunetta mentioned. The larger spider was in a bit of an inconvenient place to photograph, but I was pleased to find another, with an especially appealing web.

    I suspect I’ll not be able to resist a post about the Writers’ Totem, now.


    May 25, 2016 at 6:28 AM

    • Your second photograph shows the best and most extensive zig-zags I’ve ever seen in a web of one of these spiders. I’m looking forward to finding out how you spin your encounter into a post on the Web.

      Off on a tangent: this morning in a book about the Lewis and Clark expedition I came across a mention of the Columbia River, and now your East Columbia reminds me of where I went to college. I don’t recall seeing any Argiope aurantia spiders in the East when I was growing up.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 25, 2016 at 8:34 AM

  27. Hi Steve, Hoping to do a post on the topic “Woven” soon. May I include this photo with credit + link back?


    July 26, 2018 at 1:42 PM

  28. […] From:  Close view of a female Argiope aurantia garden spider […]

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