Little Miss Muffet had it all wrong. There was no need for the famous nursery-rhyme character to be frightened by her eight-legged lunch companion. In fact, these beneficial critters are great friends to gardeners.
Spiders are arachnids, not insects. They have two body segments instead of three, eight legs instead of six, and no antennae or wings. Unlike insects, spiders possess special body parts, called spinnerets, that allow them to spin webs.
All spiders are predators. They immobilize their prey with venom injected through specially designed fangs. The vast majority of the roughly 3,000 species that inhabit North America, however, are completely harmless to people. In fact, most species lack mouthparts that can penetrate human skin. Of those that can, there are only three that pose any threat to people: the black widow, the brown recluse, and the hobo.
The stereotypical spider spins a web in the vegetation and waits patiently for an insect to stumble or fly into the sticky threads and become trapped. Many of the most commonly seen spiders use this method. Other species don’t use webs at all to capture their prey. Wolf spiders, for example, stalk and actively hunt for their food on the ground. Jumping spiders also stalk their prey and, as their name suggests, capture food with impressive pounces many times their body length. Other spiders, such as crab spiders, lie waiting in camouflage for an unsuspecting insect to come within striking range. Some spider species even inhabit tunnels or funnel-shaped webs from which they snatch prey.
One thing is true of all spiders: They’re phenomenal predators of a vast array of insect pests. Collectively, spiders consume everything from aphids and beetles to moths and mosquitoes. Anyone with a garden—indeed, anyone who spends any time outdoors—should welcome spiders. Use these tactics to attract spiders to your garden:
Eliminate pesticides. Powerful chemical sprays temporarily eliminate pests, but many also kill pest predators such as spiders. It’s much more sustainable and healthy to practice organic gardening and rely on natural pest predators.
Provide a diversity of plants. They attract many more spiders than a lawn alone.
Build a brush pile or rock wall. They make excellent hunting grounds for spiders. If you live in an area with venomous spiders, wear gloves when moving brush or rocks, and you’ll be safe from accidental bites.
Leave part of your yard a little overgrown. Spiders overwinter as adults inside or under dead vegetation, or as egg cases. They help ensure a healthy spider population next spring, ready to gobble unsuspecting garden pests.
Fun Facts About Spiders
• Despite their fearsome appearance, tarantulas do not have venom that’s deadly to humans, and they bite only if severely threatened. They’re the largest spiders in North America. Several species inhabit southern and desert areas.
• The black widow is aptly named; females of this species eat males after mating.
• Many spider species have eight eyes. If you go out on a summer night with a flashlight and shine it on the ground, you may be greeted by the eye-shine of wolf spiders hunting in your yard.
• Argiope spiders weave a thick zigzag pattern in the center of their otherwise hard-to-see webs. It provides a visual cue to birds and larger animals to avoid the web so spiders don’t have to waste energy rebuilding torn webs.
David Mizejewski is the author of Attracting Birds, Butterflies, and Other Backyard Wildlife (Creative Homeowner, 2004), the host of Animal Planet’s “Backyard Habitat,” and a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation.