Tiny wonders

I’ve never seen an adult yellow garden spider (Argiope aurantia) in my garden. Not that I don’t keep my eyes out for them. They’re huge and intimidating (though harmless to humans and other non-insects) and I want to know their whereabouts if we’re going to be sharing a workspace. I’ve spotted them in other gardens — usually when my face was suddenly within 5-inches of a zig-zagged web, herself smack in the center like a benevolent boss. But I’ve never seen one here. Pretty sure. My memory is terrible but I think I’d remember that. Today though, during a routine inspection of a milkweed I wanted to evict (I was checking of course for monarch butterfly eggs first), I spotted two teeny weeny yellow and black spiders on the underside of a leaf. Could such a giant ever be so tiny? Shouldn’t they be bigger by July anyway? Whoever they are, the errant milkweed will stay, in the wrong place, as most of my plants are, and my fingers are crossed the spiders continue to grow to scary size adulthood.

She’s in the crook of the leaf… and the other is out of focus near the top.

Now that I write this, I can’t help wondering (half remembering, second guessing) if I’ve written it before. Which means maybe I’ve encountered yellow garden spiders in my garden all along. And maybe this wondering (half remembering, second guessing) is why I stopped writing.

Down to earth — arachnophobia to philia

Originally published in EastBayRI newspapers October 12, 2016.

I just spent an hour scrolling through dozens of images of spiders — some of them much too close-up for comfort — to answer a question that must be at the front of your mind if it’s plaguing mine. Why are there so many spiders around in the fall? I hope you’ll spare yourself a nightmare-inducing internet search because I found the answer: there aren’t so many. Just the usual amount. Granted, some have matured to their full glory, more visible than invisible the bigger they get. spiderwebAnd dewy mornings are turning our gardens into galleries of exquisite web art.

I used to be terrified of spiders. As a child my arachnophobia was nurtured by a family member who pretended to catch daddy-longlegs between thumb and forefinger and chase me around the house. Hilarious and character-building? Maybe. One time, as an adult, I levitated across an impossible span of chairs to avoid touching the same floor traversed by a spider my peripheral vision insisted was the size of a puppy. (It wasn’t quite that big.) That night I became my own hero by relocating said spider, without assistance and while adrenaline gave me the shakes, and started down a cobwebby path to desensitization and appreciation.

We all know it’s bad luck to kill a spider. Contrary to popular nightmares, even the venomous ones mean us no harm. Spiders are voracious and indiscriminating insectivores and will only bite humans in near-death defense, not for supper. But anything that gets caught in their webs without breaking right through is fair game. Aphids, yellow jackets, mosquitoes, flies, you name it. The more bothersome the insect, the more gratifying it is to see it wrapped like a burrito. It’s much less enjoyable to witness the entanglement of honeybees, bumbles, and butterflies — some occasion rescue efforts — but that’s nature and nature is cruel. I mean cool. Nature is cool.

cross orbweaver and her prey

Of course, not all spiders spin webs. Some, like the bold jumper (that’s really its name) that lives in my mailbox, stalk their prey. I have also encountered what is either a broad-faced sac spider or woodlouse spider when I’ve been planting or weeding the garden. The former spends its days resting in leaf litter and hunts at night; both are a startling shade of red.

The seeming proliferation of spiders has prevented me from completing some of my garden chores. I’ve been meaning to bring container plants inside but I hate to disturb the webs. Most are classics spun by very fat and happy cross orbweavers. A few grass spiders have taken up residence within the vortices of funnel webs. Fascinating creatures. I’d rather they stay outside. They would too. — Most of us assume spiders will try to come inside right about now looking for warmth. That’s a myth; they’re “cold-blooded”, not heat seekers.

That said, there are spider species — all benign in this neck of the woods — that have adapted to indoor living and are unlikely to survive long outside particularly if relocated now. Frost is the end of the line for some garden spiders too but they will have been busy ensuring the next generation’s eggs are tucked up in a sac somewhere safe for the winter.

As careful as I try to be, my houseplants do sometimes arrive inside with hitchhikers. Last year a grass spider spent the winter under her sheet web in an aloe, a plant I rarely water. Poor thing was probably thirsty but managed to survive for a while on what must have been a limited diet of house spiders and the odd aphid or fungus gnat. You already know I have a lax attitude about housekeeping and am grateful to anyone who helps tidy up.

That’s a long way to come from the utter terror I used to feel. My first close-encounter with an enormous black and yellow garden spider nearly gave me a heart attack. Now I get a little adrenalized thrill when I spot her telltale zipper (a bird alert) in a web. I do prefer to appreciate spiders from a certain distance but the more I see in my garden the luckier I feel.

Truth be told it has been many years since I’ve seen a black and yellow garden spider in my garden or anyones else’s. Seen any in yours? — Do you have love or fear or both? 

Down to earth — all creatures

(Originally published July 22, 2015 in East Bay / South Coast Life newspapers.)

In the last couple of weeks a friend and then a neighbor (also a friend) mentioned seeing a snake in their garden as if that was an unusual and freaky occurrence. I have another friend, a professional gardener who refuses to work near rock walls or any other place where a snake or two might hide. I’m not so squeamish—spiders are the nightmare that makes the adrenaline kick me in the sternum and contract my facial muscles in a yeek!—and I’ve known since day one that whole families of garter snakes live in the garden-topped rock wall by the driveway. I’m thrilled to bits that they’re in there.

A common garter snake made an appearance on top of my driveway wall this week as if on cue.
A common garter snake made an appearance on top of my driveway wall this week as if on cue.

We humans (as well as many other critters) are hardwired to be terrified of snakes. One theory I read about recently suggests that we owe our keen eyesight, our depth perception and ability to see so many colors, to snakes. Evidently the survival of our species has depended, at least in part, upon being able to spot a venomous snake and run like hell before it strikes. So I can’t fault and would never mock my phobic friends’ reaction to seeing snakes in their gardens. But despite appearances, none of our local snakes are death-dealing*. Not to us. They do, however, eat other creepy crawlies we might not be thrilled to share our gardens with. Such as voles, slugs, snails, beetles, grubs, and probably spiders too.

Not that spiders are bad to have in the garden by any means. They’re at least as good as snakes at controlling pest populations and ever since learning that, I have adhered to the superstition against killing them and have been a lot less afraid of them too. I no longer levitate backwards from the twitchy jumping spiders that live in my mailbox. I’d rather not put my face into spiders’ webs but do so on a daily basis spring through November without hyperventilating, and can work relatively comfortably within five feet of the giant yellow and black orb weavers that like to position their webs mid-border. I even tolerate daddy-longlegs and whatever other cobweb spiders call my house home and am grateful for the work they do at least until I start feeling like a lousy housekeeper.

It’s easy to appreciate the creatures that have an obvious helper roll in our gardens or a link in our favorite wildlife’s food chain. If not for the caterpillars that feast on our oak trees, bronze fennel, and milkweed we wouldn’t have the songbirds that feed them by the thousands to their young, or butterflies in our gardens. Snails might leave trails on the patio or eat holes in the hosta but their shells provide birds with the calcium they need to make eggshells. The more we learn about how important the bees, native and otherwise, are for pollinating the flowers that become our food, the less we mind having to put shoes on before walking through the clover.

But there are some whose existence begs the question, “Why on Earth?” No doubt I’d want to take up hunting if deer grazed my garden. Every summer I send my chef to the farmers market after the woodchuck eats all my vegetable starts to nubs. Like most gardeners I hope to avoid tick-born diseases, mosquito bites, and wasp stings. Although our ecosystem is undoubtedly out of whack—broken in the case of deer overpopulation (we have ourselves and generations of ancestors to blame), even these guys have a place in the order of it.

Mosquitos and ticks are a link in the food chain and the bacteria they unwittingly harbor are designed to keep certain populations under control. Wasps too are generally predatory and help with the balance of things, and join our beloved bees in pollination duties. What we humans suffer from these so-called pests is collateral damage. We don’t have to like it. But the more we learn about Mother Nature’s children hard at work in our gardens and beyond, the more fascinated and less fearful and territorial we’re bound to be.

*A copperhead made the local news two days after this essay was published. 

Do you willingly/happily share your garden with all creatures great and small? Anything give you the heebies?