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132 A Season Spun in Gold At times in late September, it seems that the prairie is mostly made of spiderwebs. A sunrise drenched with dew illuminates jeweled strands, each strung with liquid silver pearls, stretching from grass stalk to grass stalk. The largest webs are the handiwork of the big garden spiders , the black and yellow and banded Argiope spiders big as a sparrow ’s egg, each richly patterned with handsome silver, black, and yellow bands and lines. These large spiders spin a round web that’s some two feet in diameter . The male, much smaller than the female and more interested in mating than anything else, builds a less elaborate web nearby that’s minuscule in comparison to the female’s grand achievement. Every night, the matriarch Argiope consumes her web and rebuilds the circular interior with fresh silk. Generally, the frame and anchor lines are left in place, while the rest goes back into the builder for recycling. September’s dewy sunrise glow also reveals the functional artwork of grass spiders. These smaller arachnids build dense sheet webs that glisten near the ground, webs that look like a patch of loosely woven cloth when saturated with dew. Grass spider webs aren’t as neat and orderly as Argiope webs, but still a prey insect that miscalculates and flies headlong into a sheet web better have some trustworthy escape 133 A Season Spun in Gold moves. Grass spiders are the Olympic sprinters of spiderwebdom, and it’s rare that prey can become disentangled before the spider arrives to administer a paralyzing bite. Late September, during those days around the autumn equinox, is prime spider renewal time on the tallgrass prairie. Spiders, along with a variety of other insect species, are busily preparing for the final generation of the season. The grasslands are literally abuzz with insects driven either to lay a last round of eggs and then die or to overwinter as adults, reemerge in the spring, and launch a new generation. Whatever the procreative sequence, September arrives on the wings of insect multitudes, many of which reach the end of their days encased in spider silk,wrapped as neatly as a pork chop from a grocery counter. Around the third week of September, the days are once again nearly equal, daylight and dark. The lessening amount of sunlight is a signal to a number of species, spelling out the need to complete any business at hand before frost arrives.In the southern tallgrass country, the average first freeze comes in late October, leaving a lot of bugs with only a few short weeks to finish up their annual business of providing for an upcoming generation. Fortunately, the season of the autumn equinox can at times seem springlike, providing excellent weather for passing genes along to the next generation. Some spring flowers are blooming again, birds and animals are on the move, nights are comfortable, and weather fronts oftentimes bring blessed rainfall. The most noticeable difference between May and late September is the color. The autumn equinox is a season of smoky gold, of copper and bronze pressed against crisp blue skies. The bright greens predominating early in the growing season have shifted to earth tones, presenting a homespun canvas enlivened by yellow, turquoise, and purple flowers, including asters, salvias, late-flowering members of the sunflower tribe, and of course goldenrod. Goldenrod may be the most striking of September’s yellow varieties. Few flowers are more aptly named or more adapted to native grasslands than this autumn insect favorite. Goldenrod, laden with pollen , nourishes monarch butterflies on their long migratory flight to Mexico. Late in September, pastures overgrown with goldenrod once erupted with monarchs lifting skyward like a burst of orange flame, fortified and ready to flutter south to the Texas Gulf Coast and then continue a long flight across the gulf to Mexico. 134 A Season Spun in Gold Upon close inspection, you’ll find that many flowering goldenrod plants are crawling with soldier beetles. These insects, slim and about an inch long, blend in well due to their butterscotch brown and black wing covers.Adult soldier beetles are fond of dining on aphids,the tiny sap-feeding insects found on the leaves of native prairie plants. But soldier beetles also favor pollen and nectar, so hanging out on goldenrod satisfies several appetites. Here they’ll have a chance to devour aphids, then follow up with goldenrod pollen for dessert. Also, the goldenrod season is prime for...


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MARC Record
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