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Story last updated at 10:05 a.m. Monday, July 5, 2004

Caught in the web

Spider-watcher intrigued by graceful creatures

Of The Post and Courier Staff

As Frank Starmer walked along his driveway toward his office at the Medical University, something caught his eye.

It was Sept. 4, 2002, the first day Starmer saw her, the female who would capture his attention and become an obsession.

She was Natasha, Nephila clavipes.

Most of us would refer to her as a golden silk or banana spider. Or a name that can't be printed here.

But to Starmer, she was Natasha, because her graceful moves reminded him of a Russian ballerina.

"Watching them weave their web is like watching ballet," he says.

Starmer was intrigued as he watched her daily, spinning her huge web between two bushes in front of the main house that sits in front of Starmer's kitchen house on Ashley Avenue.

"In coastal North Carolina, where I grew up, they just got in the way," he says. "I never thought of them as objects of intelligent behavior."

Every day and every night, he watched. He took photos and videos. He researched Nephila clavipes. He created a Web page to chronicle her activity (

For two months, his world revolved around Natasha and her home, a web that spanned several feet.

"It was sort of a childish curiosity," says Starmer, associate provost for information technology at the Medical University of South Carolina who also has a keen interest in the ways people learn. "I want people to know that it's OK to be curious."

He watched and learned about Natasha's behavior. Every day, she destroyed and reconstructed about half her web. Starmer theorized that older webs become dirty and visible to the prey that banana spiders hunt. He fed her roaches and watched her wrap them up and store them for later use. He became familiar with her daily routine.

Then one day, Natasha was gone. The weather was wet and windy, and Starmer had been out of town for a day when he returned to find her gone.

In the Nov. 7, 2002, entry of his online journal of her life, Starmer writes: "It's interesting how one can develop an attachment for something like a spider, but she was a part of our daily life -- for me and for the neighbors. We all were fascinated by her presence -- and there is a hole in our life just now -- sigh.

"Each morning when I walk by the bush that anchored Natasha's web I look to the right, and there is a big empty space. Before Natasha, the space was equally big, but there was no sense of emptiness -- now it's simply empty. Interesting attachment I've grown for this lady, her space and her influence on our friends."

He hoped that she'd reappear or come back the following spring. Then he learned that the life cycle was spring through fall. He collected from her web some of the silk -- the strongest silk known to man -- and saved it as a reminder of his Russian ballerina.

Natasha's memory lives on in the photos and videos on his Web page and in a scrapbook that sits on the coffee table in Starmer's living room. Starmer and his wife also created a book about her life for their grandchildren.

But the experience left Starmer wanting to know more. He wanted to know about the courtship between female banana spiders and their much smaller male counterparts. He wanted to know more about their habits.

On his Web site, Starmer posted what he knew and asked questions about what he didn't know. Around the globe, other spider experts and hobbyists answered his questions and posed their own.

Representatives from the Discovery Channel found Starmer's Web site and used some of the footage of Natasha on a May 2003 show geared toward children and titled "Kapow! Superhero Science."

"Through the Internet, I was able to share her with the world," Starmer says.

Over the next several months, he continued to learn. Others locally contacted him about their spiders. Natasha left behind a next generation. By the following spring, Starmer was following the lives of several other banana spiders he named Irina, Slava, Vadim and Natalia. He watched encounters between males and females and learned about their offspring.

"I am a man of modest intelligence but great curiosity," Starmer says. "This is a hobby that offers the chance to have a dialogue with the world. Everything on the site is stuff I've learned from people who have contacted me after visiting the Web site."

For instance, a man in Louisiana sent him his story chronicling the hatching of about 200 babies from an egg sac in March 2003.

"It's amazing to me that I spent 32 years at Duke and participated in world-class research, but the thing that attracts the most attention at my Web site are the things I do for play," Starmer says.

In addition to spider information, Starmer's site chronicles the construction progress on the new Cooper River bridge. He is also an avid runner and a video and photography hobbyist.

This year, Starmer began watching Laura, a baby spider in the garden near his home, and has discovered some interesting facts about juvenile banana spiders as he's watched her grow. For instance, if her web is disturbed, she vibrates at a high rate of speed, a behavior Starmer thinks is intended to hide her from predators.

Mike Wagley, pest control supervisor at Terminix, agrees that banana spiders seem to have become more common in this area during the past couple of years. However, not all of his customers share Starmer's fascination.

"There are customers who would have a fit if you were to disturb (the spiders), and there are others who are deathly afraid of them," Wagley says. "The sheer size of them is intimidating, but they are a pretty beneficial spider, overall. I guess most people understand that spiders are beneficial in a lot of respects, as far as eating other pesky insects."

Many homeowners like to watch them, as long as they don't invade a human's space.

"Kids in general like to see them around a structure," he says, but sometimes, banana spiders pick the wrong place to build their webs. He says he has had "frantic phone calls" from homeowners "trapped" by webs covering their front door.

"All you have to do is knock the web down and it will go somewhere else," he says. "Like most spiders, they are harmless unless disturbed. They prefer to be left alone to sit and wait for a free lunch."


SPECIES: Nephila clavipes

HOW WE KNOW HER: Banana spider or golden silk spider

WHERE SHE'S FOUND: North Carolina to Florida, Gulf states, South America, Argentina.

A BIG OL' SPIDER: She can grow to 20 to 40 mm, with a leg-span of 5 inches. Males are just 5-8 mm.

WHAT SHE LOOKS LIKE: She has dark hairs on the first, second and fourth legs, and her abdomen is olive green to orange with yellow spots. Males are dark brown and live on the female's web.

FEAR FACTOR: She's not considered venomous. She'll bite only if provoked. Her bite might cause a red welt but is otherwise harmless unless the person has an allergic reaction.

PALATIAL PALACES: She can build a web that spans 12 feet overnight.

RELOCATE, RELOCATE, RELOCATE: If you want to discourage her from living in an area, just pull down her web and she will usually go away.

A STEADY DIET: She eats flies, bees, wasps, small butterflies and moths, grasshoppers and dragonflies.

Source: Laurie S. Reid, former entomologist/environmental educator at Cypress Gardens, Moncks Corner, and Starmer's Web site,

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