(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on March 15, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
I ran out to the dining room and found Derek shakily pointing to the middle of the table. An equally stunned and slightly dusty four-inch black tarantula stared back at us.
Mr. Tarantula had apparently dropped out through a very small gap in the ceiling fan fixture above the table. Who knows how long he had been living in the crawlspace above our apartments.
We - humans and spider -- stood there looking at each other for awhile, not sure how to proceed. In the end, the real struggle was convincing Derek not to smash Mr. T to bits and flush the poor thing down the toilet. Eventually I knocked the tarantula gently into a shoebox, clapped the lid on, took him outside and released him into the woods behind our apartment complex.
Why do spiders inspire such fear and loathing? Even my organic pesticide guy hates them. "They have fangs and eight legs," he'll always say with a shudder. "They are creatures of the devil."
In actuality, very few spiders are harmful to humans. In fact, their existence is incredibly important: the total weight of insects eaten by spiders each year is more than the total weight of the entire human population. Where would we be without them?
Spiders have been residents of the earth for 400 million years and have apparently changed very little over time, which is a testament to their physiological design. Pound for pound, their web fiber is stronger than any other organic material on the planet.
We might as well make friends with them, for no matter where you are in the garden, chances are a spider isn't very far away. Here are some of the more common and less harmful types to look for:
Jumping Spiders (pictured above)
There are over 5,000 species of jumping spiders alone. These are the small, active little guys you often see staring back at you from various perches. They are more curious and have better vision than many other spiders; I often see them sitting atop my patio chairs, checking out the surroundings. Some jumping spiders can leap a distance of 40 times their own size. Very cute, friendly, fascinating and pretty much harmless.
Funnel web grass spiders are unfortunately often mistaken for the dreaded brown recluse. Grass spiders do have dark brown markings on their back, but not the inverted violin shape sported by the recluse. Also, you're much more likely to see grass spiders outside in the light of day rather than in a damp, dark attic. Please do not smash these guys - they are eating the fleas and mosquitoes and other nasty insects we try so hard to get rid of. Their bite is of very low toxicity and they are not aggressive.
Wolf spiders are voracious hunters, and probably inspire dread in all smaller, night-dwelling creatures. If you spot one of these beauties in your yard during the day, the size of them can give you a start - some get 5-6" long. Like grass spiders, they typically dwell and hunt on the ground. To see them at night, go out in your yard with a flashlight - their eyes will reflect in the darkness. Mother wolf spiders will carry young on her back/abdomen - an awesome sight if you're lucky enough to encounter it. Again, this is a very beneficial spider in ridding the garden of pests.
The favorite spider of the gardener is probably the orb weaver or argiope. These are the large, beautifully-marked arachnids that will set up elaborate webs all around your landscape, (especially when pesticides are not present). They will take care of any winged pests you have, such as houseflies or beetles, and a few unfortunate flying beneficial insects, like honeybees. Melody Rose recently wrote a delightful Dave's Garden article about Argiopes.
Of course, there are many, many more species of spiders you can spot in your garden over time. On behalf of these beautiful, fascinating creatures, I ask that you please give them their due respect. Observe them, marvel in their existence, and appreciate what they do for your garden and for the world.
All of the lovely spider photos shown here were taken from the Dave's Garden Bug Files