There is every indication that the garden spiders, hanging head down and motionless in the centre of their orb-webs, have had a good summer. I am not alone in noting just how many there seem to be around this autumn, the topic forming on the lips of many a conversation over recent weeks. From the patio I can count a dozen or more webs, each with the corpulent form of a female garden spider, Araneus diadematus, at its centre. Each of these females has reached maturity and will have gone through eight moults, shedding the patterned exoskeleton to grow in size. The smaller males, which sit separately within their own triangular webs, undergo fewer moults.
The garden spider is a common and widespread species, found across Britain and within a range of habitats beyond the gardens with which it is most often associated. A closer examination reveals bold patterning and a white cross, carried on her back. The presence of the cross made this spider an object of veneration during the Middle Ages and may be one reason why this is the spider that features most often in book illustrations.
As with many other spiders courtship is a rather dangerous affair for the males, each of which has to convince the female whose web he has entered that he is a suitor and not a meal. The male approaches the female with great caution, playing the threads of her web to signal his approach. More often than not the female will lurch towards the male, prompting him to let go of her web and drop away, his fall broken by the safety line that he will have anchored to the edge of her web. After several attempts the male will either have successfully tamed and mated with the female or been taken as prey. The female will remain in the web over the coming days, receiving more suitors, before leaving in October to lay her eggs nearby. These are protected with a dense covering of silk, slightly yellow in tone and with the appearance of cotton wool. Her work done, the female will remain beside the eggs. No longer feeding, her life ebbs slowly away and the cycle begins over again.