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08/28/2011 / thriftomancer

How to avoid spiders in the wild

Let’s do some biology.

Spiders occupy a vitally important role in the various ecosystems where they live. They’re beneficial predatory organisms that mean us no harm and would likely prefer to never interact with humans at all. (As we’re massive, loud, scary behemoths to them.) Unfortunately, structures that humans build make ideal habitats for spiders, putting them in close proximity with us almost constantly. (It wouldn’t be unusual if there were at least five spiders sharing the room with you right now. At least.) This leads to frequent human-spider encounters which most often leave the humans stressed and uneasy and the spider dead. Poor buggers.

Now, it’s easy to understand why people react that way. I love spiders, think they’re quite adorable; but I’ve been known to start when something small, skittering, and absolutely silent suddenly darts into my peripheral vision. Might even start swinging on reflex if that something isn’t quite that small.

Even so, it’s obvious that the way to avoid all the death and stress and icky crawly feelings of encountering spiders is to actively attempt to avoid them. They try to avoid us (at least most common species aren’t aggressive), let’s start returning the favor.

While there’s not much you can do in the way of avoidance indoors, there are plenty of ways to avoid spiders when you’re outside that just take a little prior knowledge and common sense.

1) Look where you’re going. It’s not that hard. Pay a wee bit of attention to what’s ahead in your path and you might see that Orb Weaver’s web before you blunder into it.

2) Try not to walk through narrow spaces if you have other options. Spiders usually prefer to build their webs over shorter distances. It lets them use less silk, which means they expend less protein when spinning. If you’re walking through the woods and find you have a choice between a two-foot wide opening in the trees and a four-foot one, choose the four-footer. It’ll be easier for you to walk as well.

3) Don’t crash through the underbrush willy-nilly. Spiders prefer underbrush and younger trees to taller mature trees. It’s not a perfect solution, but if you’re on a trail stay on the trail and you should be fine.

4) Look into natural crevices and small, enclosed man-made spaces before you reach into them. It might not always be easy, especially if you’re climbing a cliff or moving along other wonky terrain, but if you just go sticking your mitts into every hole you find you’re just asking to meet spiders up close and personal.

5) If you feel uncertain about whether a trail is web-free or not, pick up a medium-sized stick and wave it around in front of you as you walk. It’ll break any webs that might be present before your face does.

Up until now this has all been rather simple common sense, right? Well, this is the part where I introduce the prior knowledge, as well as the event that inspired me to write this post. This is the garden by my front door. I’ve got some nice Myrtle, St. John’s Wort, Tiger Lilies, and a few anonymous weeds that I don’t really mind all growing strong.

The Garden

Lovely, if a little unkempt, right? Now, I want you to look closer at the one rolled-up leaf on the plant in the center of the picture.

Let’s have a close-up.

Nursery Web Spider

Why hello there, Ma’am.

I believe this particular crawly is a nursery web spider, but many species of spider display this leaf-rolling behavior. It might be done to create a shelter or a blind while hunting or, as in this case, a defensible place for a female to stow and guard her egg sac. Whatever the reason, it’s common. Really common. The spider will select a leaf, build a web inside that holds the rolled shape, then just sit in there like it’s a little tent. (It’s actually kind of cute, like a little kid with a refrigerator box.)

If you mess with their leaf shelter, the spider will assume a) you’re trying to kill and eat it, b) there’s some really big prey outside and it should run out to kill and eat it, or c) you’re trying to break in and steal its babies, probably to kill and eat them. All of which cause the spider to come barreling out of the shelter to either fight you off or eat your hand. (Note: Spiders usually aren’t aggressive. Unless they’re provoked. Then they’ll wreck your face.)

Story goes my brave, woodsman dad shrieked like a little girl the first time he pried open a rolled-up leaf and was startled by its large spidery tenant leaping out at him. To avoid this (that is, the story of your girly scream of terror being passed down the family and eventually reaching a global audience online), don’t mess with rolled-up leaves unless you’re fully prepared for the consequences.

Of course, being the nature and science-loving folk we are, and being thoroughly warned by dad, my little brother and I were totally prepared and went right ahead in our messing with of the rolled-up leaf. Our main motivations: “Holy-! How big is that thing?!” and “Oh gross. … Think it’ll eat?”

My bro was good enough to catch us a hapless arthropod to bait Ms. Spider with.

Feeding Time

But that got us no response and the earwig crawled away in a hurry. She either wasn’t hungry or wasn’t about to fall for our clever ruse. Our next step was to formulate another cunning plan designed to get her to move and reveal her true size.

So we poked her with a blade of grass. (Genius!)

Poke

She did not approve.

A Reaction

Attack!

Biting

Turns out she was about two and a half inches long including her legs. Big gal.

After she came out to attack the grass we backed off and she returned to her leaf. Nobody got hurt or struck down with the crawly vibes and all was well.

So, in the spirit of inter-species peace and cooperation, remember: Pay attention to where you’re going, avoid narrow passages and underbrush if possible, look in small spaces before reaching inside, and don’t mess with rolled-up leaves.

If you happen to run across a spider even after following all the rules, don’t freak out. Don’t scream, run away, flail wildly, or try to kill it. You’re outside. Outside is a big place. Just step around it and continue on your way. It’s only a spider after all.

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