Capturing Spiders: Golden Orb Weavers in Gainesville, Florida

My hand allows the photographer to focus on a Female Golden Orb Weaver, Trichonephila clavipes, in her web. Photo by C Ray Borck.

By Lisa Jean Moore, SUNY Purchase §

Spiders construct webs from the manipulation of spider silk proteins. Golden Orb Weaver Spiders (Kuntner et al. 2017), Trichonephila clavipes, are sometimes referred to as banana spiders and are the oldest surviving genus in the Araneidae (Orb Weaver) family—165 million years old. The taxon was first described by Linnaeus (1767) and originally called Nephila clavipes, derived from ancient Greek and meaning fond of spinning. The Araneidae family makes up a quarter of all spider species (Randolph 2014).

Holding onto a Golden Orb Weaver via her web. Gainesville, Florida, October 2019. Photo by C Ray Borck.

The mechanical properties of Golden Orb Weaver spider silk are essential for the life of the spider. Silk is chains of connected liquid proteins spun into solid strands by pulling through their spinnerets[1] with their legs. Each silk has different strengths and elasticities and scientists have identified each spinneret used in producing these distinct silks, assessed the functions and determined the amino acid composition of each (Saravanan 2006). For the spiders, the silk is used to serve a different purpose: it is a home; a means of catching prey and collecting water; a site for mating; it’s a protection for egg sacs for young; it’s a safe retreat from the weather, it’s used for ballooning (floating to new locations). As a unique fiber that is both strong and flexible, for many decades the fields of defense and biomedicine have invested in its production for innovation of bulletproof vests, parachute cords, tire linings, and high-performance sportswear, as well as medical applications such as replacement ligaments, tissue scaffolds, drug storage matrices, and drug delivery systems.

Although spider silk holds great promise, natural spider silk is very difficult and impractical to harvest because spiders are territorial and cannibalistic. So, dairy goats have become a system for extraction, a surrogate multispecies extraction.

Two genetically modified spider goats being milked on the stands at South Farm, Utah State University. July, 2019. Photo by author.

For the past three years, I have been studying a herd of goats in Utah as part of a larger project on this extraction process (forthcoming in the book SilkMilk from University of Washington Press).

The predecessors of the herd had been transgenically modified to lactate a spider silk protein in their milk. This spider goat milk is then filtered through an intricate contraption to extract the spider silk protein. The contraption separates the milk from the silk protein, which is reduced into powder form that is then reconstituted for biological engineers to design products.

The purification machine designed and built by Randy Lewis, Justin Jones, and many others. The job of this machine is to filtrate the milk thousands of times over 20 hours. Photo by author.

Here is a video of de-fatted goat’s milk being run through the purification machine in the laboratory. The machine rattles rhythmically and is loud, almost resembling a locomotive as it suctions milk through increasingly smaller tubes to filter out the protein. Video by author.

 

Who Cares about Spiders?

Over the years as I have shared my project, my friends, family and colleagues almost always express outrage on behalf of the goats. Many people express a deep affinity for them, often thinking their connection is somehow exclusive. They blurt out with indignation, “How could they do that to the goats?” When probed, people share their fears that in real time goats are being physically tortured on a veterinary bench injected with DNA from spiders; some imagined goats as visibly deformed through this process and suffering with sores, tics and trauma (clearly minimizing the ordinary exploitation of domesticated farm animals).

What fascinates me is that no one ever asks about the wellbeing or mortality of spiders. Honestly and somewhat ruefully, I myself didn’t think much about them at first. For me, I didn’t begin my current project with any conscious care for the spider or the consequences of harvesting their silk. This selective speciesism enables me and other humans to act differently toward different animals (Moore and Wilkie 2019). Even more striking to me is that prior to starting this research project, I wrote an entire book about horseshoe crabs conducting over three years of fieldwork on the animals (Moore 2017). Horseshoe crabs and spiders[2] are closely related and yet, even with my knowledge and respect for invertebrates, especially arthropods, I privileged the goat and her fantastic capacities for many months during my early inquiries into this project.[3] The spider was not visible to me as an object of inquiry, or an actor. Yet, I have written about institutional vertebratism (Wilkie et al. 2019), whereby invertebrates are the silent majority in less frequently studied in a survey of more-than-human publications (Moore and Wilkie 2019).

Tagging a horseshoe crab during fieldwork in Florida April 2016.

But my own coming to awareness about my neglect of spiders seems to reveal a consideration for multispecies ethnography. That is, what species are rendered invisible in the foregrounding of multispecies life? What conditions make multispecies invisibility possible? Perhaps bringing non-human figures into view does not mean that all species are seen and our problems of inclusivity are solved. Every act of rendering visible is always an act of rendering other things invisible (Casper and Moore 2009).

In my case inquiring into one species (goats) can and often should mean inquiring into others. This is true in an “ecological” sense but also in an affective sense: that behind every “human relationship with a species” there are other species whose presence is being ignored or obscured.

My hand allows the photographer to focus on a Female Golden Orb Weaver, Trichonephila clavipes, in her web. Photo by C Ray Borck.

After a year into researching the goats, it dawned on me that I should attend to the spiders. Through repeatedly emailing spider experts identified by a Google search, I contacted Lawrence “Lary” Reeves, an entomologist at the Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory[4] in Vero Beach Florida, in mid-October 2019. Although Lary has expertise in mosquitos and vector diseases, he also collects insects for scientists and museums. Coincidentally, he was about to head to Gainesville to collect 75 golden orb weaver spiders for an exhibition at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum. For the month of October, the Museum transforms their butterfly tent into a Halloween experience for visitors, especially children; spiders and their webs are the main stars. Lary generously allowed me to accompany him on his collection field trip.

In what follows, I describe through text and video my experiences of this field visit.

 

Touching

I’m surprised by the lusciousness of vegetation in west Gainesville. Lary is familiar with the area having spent “many hours as a child riding my bike around here with my butterfly net” and he knew of several locations where Trichonephila proliferate. As we drive around single-laned county roads, we stop at seemingly unremarkable locations in a wooded area and walk along the brush line.

Pulling the rental up the embankment at the side of the road, I hop out of the car. We stand and stare straight ahead into the woods. I see nothing but tangled branches and layers of green leaves. I’m ready to pack it in and try the next spot but Lary directs me to look straight at eye level and adjust my focus to places between the vegetation to where sunlight pours through. The spiders set their webs up to capture as much insect traffic as possible in the clear spaces through the trees. “You can see the color, a little golden in the light of a web. And you will see a female in the middle of the web; they are getting bigger this time of year, getting older. They’ve finished molting and getting ready to spend a lot of energy laying eggs.” I strain my eyes and become frustrated still seeing nothing. “The egg sacs will overwinter in the fall and the babies will get ready to hatch in the spring,” he continues. “They are sputtering out now, getting ready to make their egg sac, then they will die when it gets colder.” I flinch at this term sputtering out in an (over)identification with all female animals. I want to ask Lary, “So, am I sputtering out here in menopause?” But I remain silent, realizing this could be read as hostility, or worse, menopausal insanity. I work to contain my impatience and worry this entire trip was a preposterous idea, thinking I could fly down to Florida for 24 hours and actually find the spiders.

“Here’s one,” Lary points. At the ready in the middle of the web, the Golden Orb Weaver spiders resemble a floating orchid with slender striped legs symmetrically positioned. On top, their bodies are brownish, yellowish, or olive and underneath more burgundy to pink. When I first saw these spiders, I instantly thought of flowers where the petals are so delicate and vibrantly colored. Female Trichonephila have orange, yellow or brown legs with a silvery carapace, and are also notable because they have tufts of black hair on their 1st, 2nd and 4th pair of jointed legs. Males are darker brown and not as flamboyant and easy to miss as they lurk on the edges of the web.

I gasp and my eyes surprisingly tear up, “She is beautiful.” The morning light is highlighting her from behind and she looks like a jewel with a holy glow. I am transfixed. Lary beams at me, pleased that I am so delighted. “It’s so great to find someone who likes them as much as I do!” he gushes. I realize I am holding my breath, not from fear, but from wonder and delight. Lary takes her down and puts her on my hand.

Golden Orb Weaver approaching my wrist. Gainesville, Florida, October, 2019. Photo by C Ray Borck.

The spider crawls along my finger several times and around my hand and arm. It tickles my skin and I roll my wrists around as she goes from front to back and over my fingertips. It feels like she has sticky single toes on the ends of her legs. Grabbing onto some nearly invisible silk attached to her body, I lift my hand up and watch as she dangles at the end of the line. I’m amazed as she climbs back up to my hand using leg over leg to reach the top.

Golden Orb Weaver exploring my hand in Gainesville, Florida. October, 2019.

The silk of this species is a noticeable golden-yellow color especially when it shimmers in the sunlight, and the web color is where the common name comes from. Orb weavers are so called because of the circular wheel-type webs that they create, similar to a spooky Halloween drawing. To apprehend her web is to take in the skillful construction of the spider and as the anthropologist Tim Ingold (2008) suggests, see spiders as non-human agents.[5] These webs are made of different types of spider silk and take the spider about 30 minutes to an hour to construct (Weber 2018). The spiders typically position themselves in the center of the sticky web and wait to feel thread vibrations of prey or mates (potentially becoming prey) along the surface of the webs. Their movements up and down the web are graceful, seemingly effortless, and fast. One scientist in Utah recalled a brief interaction with these spiders claiming they were “absolutely gentle giants who didn’t bite unless extremely agitated.”[6]

Lary Capturing Golden Orb Weaver in Gainesville, Florida. October, 2019.

I watch as Lary then plucks spiders off webs, placing them in tupperware containers with small bits of paper towel at the bottom. They are placed in plastic containers with holes poked through and shipped in a large box for a next-day delivery. As we cover the area, he describes other times he has gathered spiders for the museum exhibition. “I don’t feel bad because these spiders have laid their eggs and are at the end of their life cycle. The first substantial cold weather is going to knock them out anyway. And I am all for venues where people see animals, people need to learn to care about these things.” Their life cycle is their reproductive cycle.

The passenger-side floor of Lary’s car full of Golden Orb Weavers for transport to Los Angeles. Photo by author.

We travel from one side of the road to another, moving from spot to spot to collect spiders along about 200 meters of roadway. I repeatedly watch Lary cup spiders in his hands and drop them into plastic containers, stacking them on the ground and transferring them to his car. I call him over when I see a particularly large female—or perhaps it is eating something, I cannot tell and want Lary’s clarification. My clothes are sticky with burrs, my arms marked with bramble scratches getting sweatier as the morning sun heats up the asphalt. We chat about the different angles of webs and possible hunting strategies, and admire the webs out of our reach high in the tree line. At the end of the three hours my cheeks ache from smiling so much.

Golden Orb Weaver gently moving through my fingers. Photo by author.

Throughout our day, Lary points out the metallic red and green dung beetles entangled in the webs, and the kleptoparasitic spiders that hang out on Trichonephila’s web waiting to steal their subdued wrapped prey. He also teaches me how to identify when a web is empty by judging the level of debris hanging in the dwindling mesh. I feel more confident as the day progresses and start to spot webs that dramatically decorate the in-between spaces of forest. Even though males are harder to see, after Lary points them out, I am able to identify them at the edges of the web. I continue to romp around in the bushes and I am activated by the tactile nature of the work. I even tingle at the memory. Through touching the spiders, I learn about their size spanning my entire palm, and their gentleness as they walk all over me with the most delicate steps, and their quickness as they are always in motion once off the web, never stopping to rest in my hand.

Even though I could never hold a goat in my hand, they had nonetheless taken up residence in my imagination, practically pushing out consideration of other species in my analysis of spider silk protein production. As social mammals, goats were and are hypervisible to me (and others) in the innovation of spider silk extraction. Selective speciesism stratifies our ability to see and consider animals, potentially to the detriment of our epistemological claims about more-than-human worlds. Seeing spiders in the wild has transformed me. For example, I now look at the side of the road differently imagining the ecologies that flourish or wither there. But how can other humans get a sense of the spiders and raise their awareness about invertebrates? Ironically perhaps it is through the spiders’ capture and forced migration to museum exhibitions.


Notes

[1] The spinneret is an organ typically on a spider’s abdomen that winds fibroin protein molecule threads into a solid, but sticky and gossamer fiber.

[2] Horseshoe crabs and spiders are both of the phylum Arthropoda. Being arthropods, the two types of invertebrates evolved from marine segmented worms and they both have exoskeletons, segmented bodies and jointed appendages. Even more specifically horseshoe crabs are more related to spiders than other crabs because they are of the same subphylum Chelicerata meaning they have chelicerae, or jaw-like pinchers, in front of their mouth parts. Horseshoe crabs and spiders also molt to grow. The two animals’ anatomies are similar. They have book gills (in the case of crabs) or book lungs (in the case of spiders). Male spiders have a pair of appendages called pedipalps nicknamed boxing gloves useful in reproduction, and male horseshoe crabs’ first set of legs are also called boxing gloves and used to attach to the female at reproduction.

[3] I’ve also written about other invertebrate species, honey bees, and their role in extraction economies. Beyond taking their honey for ourselves, honey bees are also forced to pollinate monocrops as part of industrial agriculture much like horseshoe crabs who are bled for their amoebocytes for use in pharmaceutical applications, often at grave consequence to the animals (Horseshoe crab blood is used to create a lysate for testing of endotoxins on biomedical devices inserted or injected into humans and veterinary animals).

[4] The laboratory which is part of the University of Florida is set up to study biting insects and vector-borne diseases and pathogens in Florida, with applications for global public health.

[5] Ingold’s essay challenges Actor Network Theory through a story of an ant and a spider in a discussion about networks and agency. Ingold’s SPIDER argues that agency is not equally distributed between all organisms and their meshes (the material conditions in which they live), and as well agency comes from growing and developing a skill.

[6] In the spider goat lab at Utah State University, there are no live spiders on site since the genetic modification occurred decades ago. Only two of the 15 scientists I interviewed had actually seen a live golden orb weaver spider.


Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Colin Hoag, Lary Reeves, Monica Casper, Jason Pine, Megan Davidson and C Ray Borck for wonderful comments on this piece. And thanks to Grace Moore for help with the images.


Works Cited

Casper, Monica J., and Lisa Jean Moore. 2009. Missing Bodies: The Politics of Visibility. New York, NY: NYU Press.

Ingold, Tim. 2008. “When ANT Meets SPIDER: Social Theory for Arthropods.” In Material Agency: Towards a Non-Anthropocentric Approach. Carl Knappett and Lambros Malafouris, ed. Pp. 209–215. New York, NY: Springer.

Kuntner, Matjaz, Elena Rudolf, and Pedro Cardoso. 2017. “Nephila Clavipes.” The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2017: e–T89292313A89292873.

Linnaeus, Carl. 1767. “Araneae.” In Systema Naturae. Pp. 1030–37. Holmiae: Salvius.

Moore, Lisa Jean. 2017. Catch and Release: The Enduring yet Vulnerable Horseshoe Crab. New York, NY: NYU Press.

Moore, Lisa Jean, and Rhoda M. Wilkie. 2019. “Introduction to The Silent Majority: Invertebrates in Human-Animal Studies.” Society & Animals 27(7): 653–655.

Randolph, Joanne. 2014. Orb-Weaver Spiders. New York, NY: Powerkids Press.

Saravanan, D. 2006. “Spider Silk-Structure, Properties and Spinning.” Journal of Textile and Apparel, Technology and Management 5(1): 1–20.

Weber, Larry. 2018. Web Watching: A Guide to Webs & the Spiders That Make Them. Willington, CT: Stone Ridge Press.

Wilkie, Rhoda M., Lisa Jean Moore, and Claire Molloy. 2019. “How Prevalent Are Invertebrates in Human-Animal Scholarship? Scoping Study of Anthrozoös and Society & Animals.” Society & Animals 27(7): 656–677.


Lisa Jean Moore is a medical sociologist and SUNY Distinguished Professor at Purchase College. She has written books about human sperm, honey bees and beekeepers, and horseshoe crabs and scientists.


This post is part of our thematic series: Multispecies Anthropology: Becoming Human With Others.