Kristi Cook has been a voracious student of nature’s methods for growing healthy, organic food for nearly 20 years. When she’s not digging in the dirt, you’ll find her sharing her discoveries with anyone within hearing distance. You may contact her at kcookgardening@gmail.com.
 

 
 

In Defense of Spiders
by Kristi Cook - posted 05/09/17

This wolf spider is hiding among the grass hunting for prey and will consume hundreds of insects during its lifetime.


Spiders are perhaps some of the most feared and misunderstood inhabitants of any garden. Quickly squashed into “bug juice” without a moment’s hesitation, these beneficials rarely find safe refuge in their garden homes. Yet, despite their fearsome reputations, wise gardeners learn to appreciate these hungry monsters as they go about their daily business patrolling for pests such as mosquitos, flies, aphids, and leafhoppers. Knowing how to live side by side in harmony is a simple matter of understanding what makes them tick – or twitch.

The black and yellow argiope spider weaves the prettiest of webs, with its zigzagged pattern and lace-like webbing.

Spiders catch their prey in roughly three different ways, depending on the species. The most noticeable are the opportunistic web weavers that spin delicate curtains throughout the garden and then literally hang out until a meal arrives. Other web builders prefer unruly looking cobwebs placed in dark corners to catch their prey, while some ground dwellers create funnel-shaped webs in nooks and crannies along the ground to catch insects and small animals that have the misfortune of falling into the web’s hole.

Some species, however, forego the requisite webs, choosing instead to ambush unsuspecting prey. For instance, crab spiders like to play hide and seek by camouflaging themselves inside or even atop flowers. As soon as a fly, bee, or other insect stops for a sip of nectar, the spider attacks, instantly devouring its catch.

Others are not quite so patient. Wolf spiders and jumping spiders are two species that prefer to take a more active approach to dinner by literally hunting down prey, much like a wolf or fox. Hidden among the bushes or leaves, these spiders stalk their prey, waiting for the perfect moment to pounce. Should you happen to have a water source in your garden, you may even find fishing spiders, or what some of us call water spiders. These spiders are so eager to capture breakfast that they’ll dive down into the water to fetch it.

Regardless of how it obtains its prey, each species plays an integral role in keeping the garden’s ecosystem in balance, with aphids, mealy worms, mites, and beetles being just a few of their favorite dishes. To encourage these pest-fighting creatures to call your garden home, utilize a few basic gardening practices such as avoiding pesticides and providing safe havens. For instance, just as mulch keeps your plants cool and moist throughout the summer, it keeps the ground dwellers cool and hydrated as well. Plantings of tall flowers, shrubs, and vegetables offer the perfect place for web weavers to spin their webs. And mass plantings of colorful flowers provide the perfect hiding places for crab spiders, too.
 

Left: A mother wolf spider attaches her egg sac to her spinnerets and carries it with her until the spiderlings hatch. Upon hatching, she continues to carry her babies on her back until they are mature enough to fend for themselves. Right: This brown sac contains hundreds of spiderlings waiting to be released. Many spiderlings produce balloon-like webbing to help them float to new homes.

 

Don’t Be Scared!

Despite the commonality of arachnophobia, of the nearly 4,000 species in the U.S., only four – recluses, black widows, hobos, and yellow sac spiders – are generally considered venomous, or potentially harmful, to humans. Fortunately, these particular spiders have one more thing in common – reclusiveness. None are considered aggressive, preferring instead to escape by burrowing into their hidey-holes or scampering away, rather than wasting venom on something too large to eat. As a result, the likelihood of being bitten is quite small with the side effects of a rare bite being easily treated with little to no long-term effects.

Perhaps just as important, these arachnids are like any other beneficial during the cold winter months and need protection from the elements. Old cornstalks, plant debris, and covered ground offer some of the best places to pass the cold days of winter. It’s also a good idea to include a few piles of rocks or wood throughout your garden for those that prefer more solid surroundings during hibernation. Should you accidentally uncover a spider when it’s cold out, don’t assume it’s dead. Just carefully recover and leave that space alone until warmer weather returns.

Inviting spiders into your garden guarantees the occasional surprise encounter. To avoid accidental bites, wear gloves when reaching under rocks or crevices, inside plants, or when removing debris. It’s also a good idea to look first and reach in second. By using this approach, I’ve never had a poisonous spider stick around and try to battle it out. Usually, all I see is its tail end as it runs for cover. If, however, you think a venomous spider has bitten you, seek medical care as soon as possible to reduce the likelihood of complications.


This crab spider hid among the blackberries, waiting to ambush the next creature that landed within striking distance. The spider didn’t hesitate to consume its prey.

 

Of all the creepy crawlers lurking about my garden, my favorites are undoubtedly the spiders with their dangling legs and ferocious-looking fangs. All too often I find myself mesmerized as I put my picking basket down in favor of studying the intricacies of a glistening spider’s web or kneeling in the grass to watch a momma wolf spider carry her precious cargo around, all the while keeping each and every one of her many eyes fastened on my movements. Learning to appreciate these hungry arachnids is all about understanding their habits and taking a few minor precautions such as donning gloves and practicing awareness.

 

A version of this article appeared in an October 2016 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Kristi Cook.

 

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