Priscilla Smith peers into a group of holly bushes on the University of Georgia's South Campus. Nestled between the leaves, she spies a young Joro spider clinging to its web. With her hand, she gently guides the spider into a plastic container—web and all.
Smith, a rising fourth-year student in UGA’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, is working this summer alongside researchers in the Forest Entomology Laboratory at the UGA Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. She’s helping search for answers to a big question: How will the presence of Joro spiders affect overall forest health?
The lab is part of a cross-campus collaboration of researchers looking at ways the Joro spiders may affect the larger environment. The Forest Entomology Lab tackles insect-related issues that affect trees, and as the yellow and black spiders take up residence in them—and bushes, and front porches—across the Southeast, they become an issue for landowners.
The study consists of three components:
- A gut analysis to understand what the spiders are eating and how that might compete with native spiders
- A citizen science project to help area residents better identify and understand Joros
- An "exclusion" study, which will take place over several years to measure how many Joros return to a specific place
Smith will be involved with all aspects of the lab's latest research. She said she is particularly excited about the citizen science portion and is organizing an event that will teach Athens’ residents about the Joro. "We want to get people to pay attention to what's happening in their yards since (Joro spiders) are everywhere,” she said.
Smith is also planning and conducting field work as part of the gut analysis. She selected a variety of sites in developed and forested areas, where she is collecting spiders for sampling. “We went to 20 sites the past couple of days to get spiders from all different habitats,” said Smith. “Then we're going to send all the samples down to a UGA lab in Tifton where they will get dissected to see what they are eating.”
Prior research has established that the Joro is invasive, but little is known about the spider's eating habits and other aspects of its natural history.
"We don't really know anything about them here in North America," said Brittany Barnes, a research professional in the Forest Entomology Lab. "We've been reading a lot of things about how they may help with mosquito or stink bug control—those are the positives that have been written, but we don't know this for sure, and we don't know what they are actually eating."
The third and final component of the Joro research is the exclusion study, which is specific to forested areas. Once a week, researchers will count all the spiders within a forested plot, including native species. All Joros will be identified and killed on site.
“We’re going to keep coming back to these sites because we want to see how many native spiders start coming back,” said Barnes. “This will be part of a multiyear study.”
The research is just in the beginning stages, but both Smith and Barnes say they are hopeful that it will shed light on an invasive spider that we know very little about.
“We’ve really moved into an interesting place of looking at things that no one has really looked at when it comes to the health of our forests,” said Barnes.