Ozark Outdoors

By any name, arachnids are our friend in the garden

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There is a balance in nature that is not always well understood. It can be completely forgotten if, for example, you accidentally walk into a fresh spider web during your morning stroll in the garden; or climbing in some dark corner of the attic when some ancient web laden with dust seems to engulfs your very soul.

By weaving sheet webs that have a funnel shelter on one edge, grass spiders make a mad dash for their prey. Their bite causes rapid paralysis in insect prey, though their venom is not medically significant to humans.. They may be recognized by the arrangement of their eight eyes into three rows. The top row has two eyes, the middle row has four eyes, and the bottom row has two eyes (spaced wider than the ones on the top row). They also have two prominent hind spinnerets, and somewhat indistinct bands on their legs. They also have two dark bands running down either side of the cephalothorax. Agelenopsis aperta, the American funnel-web spider, produces agatoxins.

By weaving nearly invisible sheet webs, grass spiders (Agelenopsis) create a dense but unsticky blanket. When dinner arrives, they make a mad dash to bite their prey, causing rapid paralysis. While their venom is deadly to many insects, it is not medically significant to humans. Grass spiders may be recognized by the arrangement of their eight eyes into three rows. The top row has two eyes, the middle row has four eyes, and the bottom row has two eyes (spaced wider than the ones on the top row). They also have two prominent hind spinnerets, and black bands on their hairy legs.

But the truth is that spiders (arachnids to be scientific), are one of the most beneficial critters in your garden. If you’re counting, arachnids have eight legs and insects only six, which may be equip them to more easily ascend Miss Muffet’s tuffet.

Just how effective spiders are in controlling insects that might invade your garden is well-documented? Time and again, studies have shown they are the most beneficial insect of all, more so even than birds and bats, which seem to get all the credit.

Unfairly thought of as dangerous at worst, and a nuisance at best, especially when discovered inside your home, spiders are actually an effective predator in the garden and, despite our traditional fears, usually aren’t dangerous (with some exceptions). Even the huge Ozarks tarantula spider is relatively harmless. Certainly no one doubts Spiderman’s “tingling” sense that something diabolical is afoot. Just as the two-legged web-spinner is here to protect, the spider is on duty in the garden.
 Most of us develop our spider prejudices early. Reading Little Miss Muffet has helped conditioned us to stomp on anything with eight legs. Horror movies featuring giant arachnids are meant to scare the bajeebers out of young movie-goers. Arachnophobia is the mother of irrational fears.

(Editor’s note: The staff arachnophile of Ozarks Living Onlin was once an arachnophobe after being chomped on the cheek by a brown recluse spider, which caused some uncomfortable rotting around the bite. Left untreated, ulcers infection and in the old days, gangrene, could result. These days, antibiotics will usually treat the infection, even if the fear remains unremitting. It’s a fine line.)

Herbalist and organic grower Tammi Hartung’s “Attracting Pollinators and Beneficial Predators,” reminds us that spiders often get a bad rap.

“Spiders are amazing hunters,” she writes. “They will patrol your garden, catching and eating all manner of insect pests.”

Wise but crafty hunters
There are commonly two kinds of spiders, web spinners or weavers, and hunters. Web spinners are the more visible. The hunters are harder to spot, and therefore do the most good in the garden.

Aphids, army worms, leafhoppers, flea-hoppers, leaf miners and even spider mites – those tiny little unseen arthropods that can cause heavy damage to hundreds of plant varietals – are welcome finger food to larger species.

Spiders also attack the spruce budworm, pine sawfly, sorghum midge and tobacco budworm. They especially like caterpillars, thrips, plant bugs, cucumber beetles, grasshoppers, scarabs and flies.
It’s not unusual to see a bee trapped in a weaving spider’s web, but such is nature’s way.

Weaving spiders like tall plants, sunflowers, cornstalks, on which to attache their harmless webs.

Predatory spiders prefer mulch and ground cover. Pull back the mulch, and you may spot one at work. In fact, you’re likely to discover a whole new world of insects, most of them doing no harm, and likely doing good work.

So if you do see a web, don’t destroy it. If you see a spider racing across your garden soil to help themselves to the insects that might do your garden harm, be thankful for the beautifully intricate web.

Better yet, venture out early in the morning this time of year and observe the intricacies of spiders, marvel at how the spin in seemingly open space.

Dotted with diamonds of morning dew at first light, you may discover, as As Fern Arable did in Charlotte’s Web, an irresistibly friendly subject than has captured photographers in a mist of morning sunshine.

– Compiled by George Freeman

George Freeman is a veteran journalist and photographer. An award-winning writer, editor and columnist in Springfield, Mo., with more than 50 years experience. His preference is for positive and uplifting stories about people, places, traditions and trends that make the Ozarks one of the most livable regions anywhere. A member of the Garden Writers Association of America, he is a past-president of the Society of Professional Journalists of Southwest Missouri, the Kansas and Ohio AP societies; a board member of Friends of the Garden and a member of the Rotary Club of Springfield. In 1976, he traveled to India as a member of a Rotary Foundation Group Study Exchange Team.

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