Campus creepy-crawlies


When students returned to campus this semester, they found that they were not alone. Instead, they were sharing the campus with some unusual classmates: spiders.

And not cute, friendly-looking, “itsy-bitsy”-type spiders.

Spindly-legged, menacing, furry spiders. Spiders nearly the size of your face.

They’re seen on the sides of the Breezeway and hanging from the trees.

Where did they come from? What are they doing here? Do they come in peace?

They’re called golden silk orb-weavers, and to find out whether they have hostile intentions, the UP contacted spider expert G.B. Edwards, who’s been studying these creepy-crawlies for more than thirty years. Dr. Edwards got his Ph.D in entomology at UF and now works for the Florida Department of Agriculture.

The news he told the UP is mostly good. These spiders aren’t dangerous, and you’ll probably never wake up to find one on your pillow. And if you really don’t like them, don’t worry — they’ll be gone come winter.

So, what are they?

They’re officially called golden silk orb-weavers, although you might also hear them called golden silk spiders or golden orb weavers because of their webs. Seen in direct sunlight, their silk is a pale gold color.

They’re also sometimes called banana spiders, but people use that name to refer to a wide variety of spiders that end up in Florida by hitching a ride in cargo ships hidden in bunches of bananas.

Where do they live? Am I going to find this thing in my dorm room someday?

These spiders like hot and humid places. This specific species lives all around the Gulf of Mexico, down in Central and South America and around the Caribbean.

As to whether you’re likely to share a room with one any time soon, Edwards said, “No, you’ll never find one inside — probably.” They build webs that can be nearly four feet across, so they prefer open spaces, like trails or on the edge of the woods.

How big do they get? How long do they live?

The females can have a leg span of more than four inches, while the more petite males are typically only about one inch long.

The spiders’ life cycle lasts less than a year. Their eggs hatch at the end of winter, and they reach adulthood sometime in late summer or early fall (which is why nobody saw them until recently). Once winter brings colder temperatures, the adult spiders die.

What do they eat (not freshmen, I hope)?

They mostly eat very small insects, like gnats and flies, although they have been known to catch lizards occasionally.

Do they bite?

A safe rule to live by is that if it has a mouth, it bites. But these spiders won’t exactly ninja-leap off their webs to attack you. Pretty much the only way to get them to bite you is to grab or squeeze them, or otherwise make them fear for their little lives. So, if you do get bitten, you basically deserved it.

Are they venomous?

They are technically venomous, but since their venom is specialized for killing their prey — other invertebrates — it’s not particularly dangerous to humans. So, a bite from one of these spiders isn’t going to land you in the hospital. People who’ve been bitten say it hurts about as bad as a bee sting (although a few have reported that the area turns numb), and the bite goes away in a day or two.

What’s with those crazy markings?

Those bright yellow stripes and spots might look pretty intimidating, but actually, they’re the spider’s camouflage. In a heavily wooded area, sunlight only comes through the leaves in little splotches. So, in the wild, these spiders’ markings help them blend in with their surroundings.

Why, oh why, are they furry?

It’s actually not entirely clear why these spiders have furry bits — but they do, on three out of four pairs of legs. Many spiders have hairs that serve a sensory purpose — sensing vibrations, like a cat’s whiskers. Or, weirder still, some spiders have hairs on their feet that they use to smell and taste.

In some spider species the male gets eaten after sex, right? So, how about these guys — are they lucky, or not so lucky?

This is actually a bit of an urban legend. Some spiders do get an unhappy ending after their happy ending, but this is the exception rather than the rule. Still, orb-weaver courtship is a complicated and delicate process. If a male is interested in a female, he carefully climbs onto her web and plucks the strands in a just-so sort of way. Then, as Edwards put it, “if she doesn’t respond aggressively,” their spidery dance continues. But if she doesn’t seem interested, the male books — after all, she doesn’t have to have sex with him to eat him.