The summer that I turned ten there was a huge spider in our garden. She would spin a new web almost every day. Many days, I would take her off her web and set her on a length of sewing thread about a yard long. She would crawl up the thread until she reached the top, at which point I would spin my arms so she was at the bottom again, and up she would crawl. When we had both had enough, I would restore her to her web and give her a cricket from my ‘cricket farm.’ which was just some crickets in my garden who also served as playmates for an only child in a rural place. She and I played this game until the end of summer when I had to go back to school. I don’t know if the free meal was sufficient compensation for my daily molestation, but she tolerated me and I adored her. I guess it must not have been too awful for her because she stayed there all summer instead of moving her digs somewhere else. It wasn’t until adulthood that I finally identified her as an Argiope aurantia. She was large with yellow and black markings that were reminiscent of a tiger swallowtail butterfly, and her large orb web had a giant zig zag down the center. (Spoiler alert: I love animals, especially insects.)
Spiders, known as arachnids, seem to be right up there with snakes for triggering fear and disgust. The image of the black widow has been woven into our culture as a representation of evil. I would like to convince you otherwise.
My Argiope, common name Yellow Garden Spider, is a fascinating creature. Arachnids are easily identified by their eight legs and – if you get close enough to see – four eyes. As with most spiders, the female is considerably larger than the male. The males wander until they locate a female and then make a web nearby, eventually mating. After mating, the female will make several egg sacs and hang them in her web. The eggs will hatch in autumn, perhaps even after she has died from the cold, but the baby spiders will remain dormant inside the egg sac until spring. Each egg sac contains anywhere from 300 to 1400 eggs. As with other spiders, once a female finds a suitable location for her web, she will remain there all season unless she is disturbed. I suppose my Argiope friend thought the free crickets were worth the trouble.
These beautiful orb webs trap all kinds of goodies including everything from aphids to wasps to caterpillars to grasshoppers, but there are other types of webs that are equally effective, including funnel webs, sheet webs, mesh webs and the good old fashioned tangle webs also known as cobwebs. These webs can be useful in identifying the spiders who made them. I found a black widow in my garden last summer who had wrapped up a bumble bee and a wasp in her tangle web. Spider silk is one of the strongest natural materials, and is being studied by scientists and mechanical engineers for its potential uses.
Spiders are carnivores and are excellent pest control, and even help prevent the spread of disease by eating the insects that can spread it, such as fleas, cockroaches, flies and mosquitoes. Norman Platnick of New York’s American Museum of Natural History says, “Spiders are primary controllers of insects…without spiders, all of our crops would be consumed by those pests.” He postulates that “if spiders disappeared, we would face famine.” Less dramatically, spiders in your house make excellent pest control, and if you can overcome your fear, they can keep your home virtually pest free without chemicals! If the thought of sharing your home with spiders is too much for you, try to capture them and toss them out the door instead of squishing them. They are wonderful partners in your garden for managing all the hungry pests who want to eat your plants.
Although a spider bite is deadly for its prey, most spider bites are little more than bothersome to humans. Furthermore, spiders will not bite unless provoked by intense harassment or accidental contact such as being sat on or otherwise trapped. It’s wise to keep your garden shoes and boots inside, since a dark damp place is a favorite for black widows and ground dwelling spiders. If you stick a toe into a shoe and corner a spider, she will potentially bite in self-defense. Although some are more aggressive than others, as with almost every wild animal spiders would prefer to run away rather than to bite you. The native black widow is Montana’s only venomous spider of concern and if you think you have been bitten by one of these spiders, seek medical treatment. Be aware that as the days shorten in late summer, spiders may seek the protection of your home. (Unless they are black widows that can be a good thing.) Happily, according to Laurie Kerzicnik at Schutter Diagnostic Lab, scientists have determined that hobo spiders are not harmful to humans. She also reminds us that venomous spider bites are extremely rare in Montana and she points out that if the spider’s fangs even manage to pierce the skin, the infection following the bite can often be more dangerous than the venom itself. The non-native brown recluse cannot survive our cold temperatures, but could potentially hitchhike in on luggage. The bite from this spider can be dangerous, because it can become necrotic and seriously infected. Always seek the opinion of a doctor if you have any insect bite that causes concern, but remember that, statistically, more people in the U.S. are killed per year by dog bites (28) and cows (20) than black widows (7).
The next time you see a spider and panic, think of Charlotte, the benevolent spider. Spiders are beautiful, complex animals who are peaceful and relatively harmless to humans, and perform a vital role in the web of life.
Respectfully Submitted by Ann McKean