The family Araneidae (orbweavers) includes more than 3000 described species (Platnick 2013); nearly 7% of all known spider species are araneids (Bradley 2013). In North America north of Mexico, there are around 161 known araneid species placed in 31 genera. Of the seven families of spiders that spin flat orb webs, the Araneidae has the most species. Many araneids are fairly large and colorful and the family includes a number of familiar spiders. Most araneids have roundish bodies and fairly short, relatively thick legs. In some species, there is strong sexual size dimorphism, with males much smaller than females.
Many araneid species have distinctive dark patches and light spots on the underside of the abdomen. These are especially conspicuous when viewed with a flashlight or headlamp at night. For example, the larger Araneus species and all Neoscona have a large rectangular black area with white or yellowish spots or comma-shaped marks at each corner. Argiope have a black patch with many small pale spots. Other genera, such as Aculepeira and Metepeira, have a black patch with white lines. These markings are often helpful in recognizing genera, but are rarely sufficient to identify particular species.
Orbweavers have relatively poor vision and sense their prey by their vibrations. When a potential food item hits a web, the spider rushes over and quickly wraps it in a cocoon of silk, biting and paralyzing it once it is sufficiently immobilized. The wrapped prey may be cut out of the web and brought back to the web hub or to a retreat, where the spider begins feeding. Unlike many spiders, araneids chew their food (Levi 2005). Sometimes a wrapped prey item is kept for some time before being consumed. Although most araneids build vertical orb webs, Mecynogea build a fine-meshed horizontal web and a few species spin reduced webs or capture prey in other ways (e.g., Mastophora bolas spiders, which attract male moths with scent and catch them by swinging a thread with an attached sticky ball at them as they approach). Nocturnal orbweavers may take down their webs in the morning and eat them, then re-build them in the evening; diurnal orbweavers rebuild their webs in the morning.
Most larger araneids in North America mature in summer and fall, but others mature in spring. Typical life span is one to two years. Dew-covered webs are easily located by walking toward the sun in the morning. Araneids are collected by beating branches or sweeping vegetation with a net. The American araneid fauna has been revised and illustrated by H.W. Levi and his students (1968 to present) and Dondale et al. (2003) have illustrated additional species.
The araneid Araneus cavaticus is perhaps the most famous spider in literature (at least in the English language), since this species was the model for Charlotte in Charlotte's Web by the 20th century American author E.B. White.
(Levi 2005; Bradley 2013)