Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation





First Advisor

Dr. James D. Harwood


Natural enemies are members of complex ecological communities, and their ability to contribute to the biological control of pest organisms is strongly influenced by a convoluted network of ecological interactions with many other organisms within these communities. Researchers must develop an understanding of the mechanisms that shape trophic webs to predict and promote top-down effects of predators. The behavior of predators can have a strong influence on their potential as biological control agents.

Web-building spiders are a useful example organism for the study of natural enemy behavior because of the experimentally tractable nature of their foraging behavior. Specifically, patterns in microhabitat utilization and web construction by spiders provide insights into foraging behavior and pest-suppression potential.

In field collections, spiders were found to utilize microhabitats in a species-specific manner. Molecular gut-content analysis and a mathematical model showed that two spiders belonging to different web-building guilds differed in their dependence on microhabitat-specific prey activity-densities. In particular, the sheet-weaving guild constructed webs in microhabitats with the highest densities of springtails (Collembola). High dependence on this non-pest prey also correlated with evidence of increased intraspecific competition, and implies a potential negative effect of springtails on the consumption of pest insects, such as aphids.

In laboratory two-choice assays, sheet-weaving spiders selected microhabitats and constructed webs in a flexible, stepwise manner, which allowed spiders to regulate their investment of silk resources to match the profitability of the microhabitat. Spiders also exhibited prey-specific shifts in foraging behavior, constructing webs in the presence of mobile, non-pest springtails, but utilizing active foraging tactics in the presence of sedentary, pest aphids. However, in factorial no-choice assays, pest-consumption rates were not significantly affected by the presence of non-pest springtails, indicating that prey-specific foraging-mode shifts are compatible with biological control.

From these results, it is clear that the flexible foraging behavior of web-building spiders has a strong influence on their roles in ecological communities and their position within food webs. This dissertation highlights the importance of understanding the nuances of natural-enemy behavior for properly assessing and promoting biological control services.