I love the biodiversity of my bush garden. When I get the chance, I take a wander with my macro lens and discover the strangest looking creatures. If not for my interest in photography, I might never have discovered them. This then leads visit or have a chat with my friend Helen who is an environmental educator. She will often illuminate me with some really random facts that leads me to research a little more.
This summer, I was privileged to observe the life cycle of two St Andrew’s Cross Spiders that wove their silky zig-zag webs along my boundary fence. I watched them build their first webs, then learnt that the colourful spiders with the silver, yellow, red and black banded upper abdomen with two longitudinal yellow stripes were the females and the males were the less attractive cream coloured smaller guys.
I was excited when I saw a male spin a web nearby. As a photographer I hoped I might catch some action but I didn’t get that lucky. Then as suddenly as the male appeared he disappeared and a quick chat with Helen revealed that mating was a dangerous gamble for the males because they are often consumed after they have fulfilled their role in life! But then I saw the little egg sac woven into some of the greenery nearby and knew that the circle of life would continue. I watched hundreds of the little spiders hatch, then a few days later (and before I had the chance to get organised with proper lens and tripod) they were blown away in the wind to new locations. Only a few of them would survive of course but that’s part of their evolutionary journey.
It was quite exciting to watch the sorts of bugs, moths and flies that were caught in the webs. On the very hot days, both spiders caught some really large prey. I wondered if there was a correlation between the hot weather and the proliferation of insects on those days, that guaranteed a good feed. I watched how long they took to devour their prey, some of which seemed even larger than they were.
I loved it when I woke up on fog covered days and caught the dew drops on the ribbons of silk as the sun rose. On one such day, the golden light came in just at the right angle for me to capture a gold award wining shot, right here in my back garden. The most distinguishing feature of these webs is the cross-like web decoration, called the stabilimentum. I’ve read there is no consensus on the reasons for this which vary from stabilising the web, to luring and capturing oblivious prey to intimidating predators. The silky ribbon also reflects ultra violet light which is attractive to insects as they navigate for food. Birds also learn to avoid these webs with the crosses, from previous encounters with the sticky stuff they struggle to get off their bodies. I hadn’t realised that these spiders were named after Andrew the Apostle who is thought to have been crucified on a diagonal cross!
I got into the habit of checking on my St Andrew’s Cross spiders every morning before we headed for our morning swim or a walk. I was dismayed to find the web totally destroyed after one of the bigger storms we had recently. But these spiders are resilient and she appeared again and started re-building. I learnt she has the ability to build her web three times between feeds but I could tell, from the rather sad attempts at rebuilding that the end was near.
One day I found her limp and listless and strangely felt a strong sense of loss. Her life had ended as had the little rituals of my connection to her. But what a life she’d led. She had certainly left a mark behind not just on the spiders and bugs she came into contact with and the little ones who floated away on their own strands of silk but with me. A random stranger.