In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
November, 2008
Regional Report

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Black widow spider. (Photo courtesy of Shayne Cornwell, Bartlett Tree Experts.)

Spider Watch 2008

I saw an amazing thing last week. While we were shooting in Los Gatos with the Bartlett Tree Experts, one of the arborists happened to notice a Thumbelina drama taking place close to the ground. Stretched between a landscape rock and a nearby pebble path was a spider web. The web would have been invisible had it not been for the trapped yellow jacket wasp that was buzzing so furiously it caught our attention. A smallish black widow spider sauntered out from her hiding spot behind the rock and wrapped up that wasp just like it was a burrito. We could see that it was trying like mad to sting the spider, but she seemed unconcerned at its attempted attack and went on spinning and wrapping. Once she had the wasp secure, she proceeded to inject it with venom. Soon, the buzzing stopped and the wasp was indistinguishable from the surrounding landscape. When we walked by a few minutes later, the wasp was gone completely. The black widow must have carried it away to her secret lair.

Fall is a good time to observe spiders in the garden. If you are lucky, you may find one of the big pumpkin spiders in the shrubbery. I don't know where they are the rest of the year -- hiding I suppose -- but their size can be startling. A smallish pumpkin spider is the size of a quarter and the larger ones can grow to the size of a silver dollar. It's easy to spot their dew-spangled webs in the early morning hours. A closer inspection will reveal the spider in the center of the web, patiently waiting for breakfast to drop in. By noon, every bit of evidence of the web is gone. I suppose they must do their weaving and spinning at night.

Tunnel spiders are fond of juniper. You can see their interesting, funnel-shaped webs among the branches. The tunnel spider lurks at the small end of the funnel, but I can't imagine any insect being lured into the trap. Instead, it must be the vibration on the surrounding foliage that alerts the spider to an insect intruder.

Black widow spiders are attracted to dark hidey holes. We kept clay pots stacked in the nursery at Sunset Magazine and I was always very careful to wear gloves when handling the pots. Every so often I would disturb a black widow, but they were always polite and never did anything which could be considered offensive. I usually just put the pot back where I found it and waited. Most times, the spider would eventually vacate.

There is a tiny red spider that lives in fields and near woodland areas. It has the biggest teeth in the entire spider kingdom. These little guys are so small as to be almost invisible, but their bite packs a wallop that will definitely get your attention. The curious thing about the red spiders is that they do not have to be provoked. I think they bite just out of pure meanness. If you do get bitten by a spider, take an antihistamine right away. Some people say that urine will take away the pain of a spider bite, but I haven't tried that method. It seems to me that this particular cure is almost as bad as the disease.

I have always been a fan of spiders, mainly because they eat flies. I HATE flies. I find spiders to be interesting creatures and welcome guests in my garden. Now I have a reason to like spiders all the more, because if there is anything I hate more than flies, it's yellow jacket wasps.


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