The Pumpkin Spider: the Marbled Orb Weaver

These harmless but festive-looking arachnids are most often spotted around North Carolina in the weeks leading up to Halloween.
Words and photographs by Mike Dunn

It seems our desire for holiday decorations now begins well before the actual events. So it should have come as no surprise when I saw the first spooky Halloween yard ornaments while August still showed on my calendar. 

Scattered among the skeletons, werewolves, ghosts and witches, you can always find a large assortment of exaggerated caricatures of one of my favorite groups of local wildlife: spiders. In my many years of teacher workshops across our state, I have encountered quite a few people that rank spiders high on their list of fears, along with snakes and bats — is it a coincidence that they’re also popular as spooky decor? 

But as with many things in our lives, the more you know about something, the more likely you are to appreciate it. One memory of changing opinions on spiders really stands out.

It was my first year of doing an intensive program that involved multiple visits per year to schools across the state, taking the teachers outdoors to see how they could utilize nature on their school grounds in their lessons. At our last session at one K-12 school on the coast, we were going around the room sharing what we had learned during the course of the program.

The physical education teacher had attended all the sessions, sitting quietly, almost sullenly through most (legs crossed, arms crossed — you know the pose). It was tough for me to tell what he might have gotten out of any of it. 

When it came to his turn, he stood up. “Before this program, any time I saw a bug or a spider in my gym, I would squish it,” he said, loudly stomping his foot on the floor. “Now, after learning about them, I get a cup, catch them and release them outside.” Then he sat down. I guess that was a win for both the museum and the spiders. 

While many people seem to fear spiders, few species cause us any harm, many are exquisitely beautiful and all play an important role in our ecosystem. They’re beneficial predators that help keep populations of many insect pests in check, and they are also an important food source for many birds and small animals.

About this time every year, I run into (sometimes literally) one of my favorite spiders, the striking Marbled Orb Weaver, Araneus marmoreus. This widespread beauty is usually seen in late summer and fall throughout the United States and in much of Europe. Females are two to three times larger than males and they are the ones we usually encounter.

The “back” of the Marbled Orb Weaver is spectacular: a bright yellow background with a ghoulish dark pattern that resembles marbling, hence the common name. They can vary in color but I have read that they tend to turn darker with age and often appear more orange than yellow just in time for our pumpkin-spiced holiday. Prior to laying eggs (usually in late October), females have a large globular abdomen  that gives rise to another name you may see: Pumpkin Spider.

Underneath, they are less striking, but colorful nonetheless. You can also appreciate the black bands on the legs a bit better when not distracted by the bright colors of their top side.

This species generally has a hiding place just off to the side of her web, usually in a curled leaf. She keeps up with the goings-on in her web by means of a connecting strand of silk that acts as a vibrating alarm when something hits her woven trap.

When an insect is caught, she will run out and engage it, wrapping it in silk and injecting venom, which will subdue the prey and set the stage for her dining pleasure. Don’t worry — they are not considered dangerous to us. But it does make me wonder if flies come in pumpkin spice flavor.

In spite of their association with spooky themes like this special holiday, I find these spiders aren’t scary at all — they’re a particularly beautiful and welcome addition to our woods.  

This article originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of WALTER magazine.