Think Before You Kill A Spider

Spiders can trigger primal fears for humans, and some spiders can bite, and some spiders are venomous. All of that is true, but Ruby had an experience the other day that made her consider the crucial role that spiders play in the ecosystem. We invite you to consider NOT killing all the spiders that you see, even the scary-looking ones. Here’s why.

Most folks look at a spider like this (about 2 inches across from leg to leg), and FREAK OUT.

Usually we decide it’s a Black Widow, and maybe we spray it or maybe we stomp it, or maybe we run away screaming. But most of us don’t take a minute to consider the value spiders bring, or even try to figure out what kind of spider we are seeing!

I was *just* trying to take a cool picture of our pickles. I had staged the jars in the garden with the plants that produced the goodies. Perfect “farm to table” snapshot, right?

Well, I was laying on the ground to get a good angle.

I heard LOUD buzzing, and about a foot away from my face was a large black shiny carpenter bee stuck in a cobweb!

All that flapping was just getting the bee more caught up.

Then I saw the spider running towards the bee.

They embraced and fought fiercely, the bee trying to sting and the spider wrapping their legs around the bee, trying to bite. I lay frozen in shock at what I was seeing (and the fact that it was all happening so close to my face). It was like watching Alien vs. Predator in miniature.

I shook myself out of the freeze state. I could not watch the bee go down like this.

This is a Carpenter Bee!

I grabbed a nearby rake and used the handle to gently separate the battling insects. The spider retreated up the web and the bee fruitlessly buzzed and contorted, trying to free itself.

I initially thought the bee had lost a wing, but it was just tightly bound up in the webbing. I gently removed the webs from the bee’s body, wings, and legs. After a few minutes, the bee was able to fly (they live in our fence so they were not far from home, I really hope they are ok!).

So I turned my attention back to the spider, who had retreated to this pipe – maybe 2 feet from my garden bed. At that moment, I did the “OMG IT’S A BIG SPIDER” freakout thing. I’m not going to lie and say I didn’t.

Keeping my eyes trained on the spider, I frantically searched my memory for any type of bug killing stuff we might have in the house or garage. The thing is, I don’t kill bugs unless it’s absolutely necessary (and even when I have to do it, I use specifically targeted methods for individual pests like squishing), so we don’t have anything like Raid or whatever people spray to kill bugs. Squishing was certainly out of the question, and as the panic somewhat subsided, and I observed the spider causing me no harm, I began to question whether it even made any sense to kill it.

You know on the game shows where you don’t know the answer, so you phone a friend?

Well, I did that from the garden.

Spiders are terrific!

I called my friend Kristina Lefever, who is the President of Pollinator Project Rogue Valley (I serve as Secretary on the Board of Directors). She knows a lot about insects, so thank goodness she picked up the phone.

She calmed me down and reminded me of the role spiders play in the ecosystem, eating other harmful insects that cause problems for my plants. She also reminded me that the spider had likely been there all along.

All of the times I’ve worked in the garden, the spider was probably there with me. The spider has never caused a problem, and wasn’t aggressive towards me at all. There was nothing but peaceful coexistence, despite me behaving aggressively toward the spider: staring at close range for at least an hour, poking my camera/phone in their face post-incident, plus I stole their dinner and probably scared them.

Everybody lived through this (though the spider is probably hungry; I am sorry about that).

Over the past few days, I consulted several friends who study spiders or who simply love them and know a lot about them. I totally gained a Spider Squad, and I learned a LOT of interesting things. I’m so glad that I didn’t kill this spider!

The Spider Squad was 99% sure this is a False Black Widow (Steatoda grossa). There are lots of varieties, and they are typically shy and do not pose a danger.

Real Black Widow, note red hourglass

Real Black Widow spiders (usually but not always) have very distinctive red hourglass markings on their undersides.

The spider I saw had no markings at all. I read that older female false widows in particular are usually devoid of markings on the top or bottom.

False widow spiders can bite, but it takes a LOT to provoke them to bite, and the false widows do not have the same venom as the true Black Widow spiders. Their bite is not deadly. So we really don’t need to be afraid of them.

False Black Widow

False widows – and real widows – are not snuggly and it’s not a good idea to touch them or to get too close to them, but their mere presence in a space is not dangerous.

I REPEAT: DO NOT TRY TO APPROACH THESE ANIMALS. Just because they are probably not going to hurt you is no reason to get too close!

I joined an active global entomology (scientific study of insects) group, and they are 99% convinced it is a real Black Widow.

Here’s why:

  1. Typically false widows of this size and dark/shiny coloration are not found in Southern Oregon
  2. Real Black Widows don’t always have the distinctive red marking (I didn’t know that!)
  3. The size, shape, location, behavior, and morphology of this spider suggests a real widow – not a false one.
Black Widow in Southern Oregon

Here’s a picture of a real Black Widow that one of the entomology group members (@mustlovespiders on Instagram!) photographed in Southern Oregon. You can see there is no red spot on the underside, but this is definitely a confirmed Black Widow spider.

It looks EXACTLY like the one I saw in the garden. Over the past few days, I’ve looked at a LOT of spider pics. This is the closest looking one by a long shot, and the only one that made me exclaim, “AHA! That’s it!!”

Without better pictures, or a second sighting to get more information, I probably won’t ever be 100% sure about identifying this spider, but I believe this is a true Black Widow.

I’M STILL SO GLAD I DIDN’T KILL IT, AND I’M NOT AFRAID FOR MY SAFETY.

The spider made absolutely no aggressive moves toward me, and paid me almost no mind. As I stared at this incredible being, my fear melted into awe and gratitude. Spiders are incredibly beneficial, performing important jobs in the ecosystem – and scientists have made incredible discoveries using their venom too!

This was one of the most powerful comments shared in the entomology group; it was so incredibly valuable that I requested permission to post the whole comment here. I endorse this wholeheartedly!

Here are some benefits that spiders offer:

  1. They eat mosquitoes!
  2. They eat other garden pests like earwigs, aphids, and flies
  3. Inside the house, they eat pests like flies, roaches, mosquitoes and more
  4. Because they eat disease-carrying insects like mosquitoes and flies, they help control the spread of diseases that cause problems for humans
  5. Their venom is used in medicines
  6. Their silk was used as a model for creation of synthetic silks

This year, I’ve seen numerous insect pests in the garden, but none of them have reached high enough populations to cause problematic damage. I haven’t implemented any of my usual integrated pest management strategies, except removing eggs and squishing the few squash bugs and aphids I’ve found. Nothing has caused enough of a problem to require intervention.

I believe it’s due to the increased presence of spiders in the garden. I learned through my research that having large populations of spiders is a sign of a healthy and diverse landscape!

Tiny spider friend

In addition to the big shiny spider, there are new populations of smaller spiders that I’ve noticed this year, and – knowing their value – I left them alone.

There are spiders making webs on my nasturtiums, and I can see the bodies of mummified aphids that will chomp my garden no more, thanks to my spider friends!

There are also TINY little spiders who are super shy and run from me! They live in the straw that I put down as mulch in the pollinator garden, and there are literally hundreds of them. They scatter immediately when I approach. I tried for weeks unsuccessfully to snap a picture of them.

Tiny scaredy spider friend

So I snuck up on them, camera at the ready… and I FINALLY GOT A PIC OF MY NEW FRIENDS. Well, at least one friend.

We farm in harmony with the natural world, so we rely on ecological solutions before trying to manipulate the environment. We prefer when natural predators keep pests in check, rather than intervening ourselves to control pests

If spiders are outside, please let them live in peace.

If spiders inside your home make you uncomfortable, or you have kids or pets for whom they may pose a threat, here’s how to safely relocate spiders outdoors, so they (and you and your family) can live in peace.

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