In Defense of Spiders

Learning to love the worldwide webs.
As a pest deterrent in the garden, spiders are arachno-fabulous.

As a pest deterrent in the garden, spiders are arachno-fabulous.

As a pest deterrent in the garden, spiders are arachno-fabulous.

Arachnophobia (fear of spiders) is among the most common phobias. There are nearly 40,000 species of spiders in the world and spiders are found in large numbers on every continent (except Antarctica). Over 3,000 species can be found in the United States alone and in such great numbers that, at any given time, you are statistically likely to be within ten feet of one. Not too comforting for one with a spider phobia.

The good news is phobias are an irrational fear, and that mostly holds true in the case of our eight-legged friends. Of those 3,000 species in the U.S., only a handful (figuratively speaking, we hope) are poisonous to humans. Brown recluse, black widow, hobo and yellow sac spiders are all biting spiders and can may cause serious damage, including swelling, itching, anaphylaxis, headaches and chills. Untreated, more serious problems may develop. Once you’ve learned to identify these troublemakers, it becomes easier to appreciate spiders for their more welcome qualities.

Indiscriminate predators of insects, spiders' voracious appetites keep insect populations in check. Although some stalk their prey, most use intricate webs to capture their prey. These carnivores then inject a digestive enzyme into captured insects and consume the liquified results. Although their method of snagging their prey is passive, the efficacy is stunning, surpassing birds in insect consumption.

Spiders will eat whatever pests are unfortunate enough to find their way into the sticky web, including flies, June bugs, leafhoppers, aphids, wasps and mosquitoes. For gardeners or folks who spend a lot of time in the yard, a healthy spider presence is an excellent way to keep these pests at bay without the need for traps or pesticides, although their passive method of capturing prey may have limited impact on unusually large infestations in the short-term.

Spiders in the garden are beneficial for controlling plant-damaging or simply pesky insects, but also impact other beneficial bugs that have taken up residence. The web of a spider is as indiscriminate as the spider itself and welcome insects like ladybugs, bees or butterflies are not immune to this sticky trap. Overall, it is still to the gardener’s advantage to have spiders on hand to keep the general insect population down. Call it collateral damage.

If you can get past the "creep" factor, attracting spiders to your garden is an easy, natural way to bring balance to the yard and can cut down on the need for pesticides and insect repellent this year. To make your plot "spider friendly," adding mulch, hay bales or other spider-appropriate housing is a good place to start. Once the growing season ends, consider leaving portions of the garden untilled to allow spiders coverage in which they can overwinter.