Monday, August 8, 2011

Confessions of a Spider Sissy

Female black and yellow argiope,
 a common garden spider
Since we have decided not to use any toxic chemicals in our yard, I have had to resign myself to living with creepy-crawly things like spiders. I've even grown to like some of the spiders, like the beautiful female black and yellow argiope that crafted a stunning wheel-shaped web under one of our gutters last fall.

I also admire the pretty little basilica spiders that have built their elaborate three-dimensional webs in so many of our shrubs (see May 2011 posting). 

I have even become positively fearless about taking very close-up photos of these spiders with my macro lens.This amazes my husband, who learned early on in our dating days that a normal conversation interrupted by a sudden "shriek and bolt" means only that I have spotted a spider, not that I disapprove of his choice of outfits. 

Once, on a remote island in the Bahamas, I actually jumped out of a moving car in a complete, brain-freeze of a panic when I saw a HUGE spider crawling on the inside window rim. Fortunately Rick was driving slowly on a dirt road and I was not hurt. Even though he got the spider out of the car, I spend the entire rest of the trip constantly inspecting every inch of that car. 

The spiders in my compost bin illicit the same response. They are big, brown, hairy, hideous things. Wolf spiders? I don't know, because I don't stick around to examine them. I Shriek and Bolt immediately. I admit it -- I am a total and complete Spider Sissy. I am not generally a fast mover, but let me tell you I practically teleport when I see one of those monsters.

I do not recall the instructor in my composting workshop saying anything about GINORMOUS, GARGANTUAN hairy spiders in the compost bin. She showed us pictures and collection jars of worms, sowbugs, beetles, and little spiders. Little, non nightmare-producing spiders.

This photo is by Peter Hollinger, not me. 
I am NEVER going to get close 
enough to a spider like this 
to get a photo of it.
Rick also recently found a black widow in the compost bin. I may never open the lid again.

My rational side knows that spiders are useful, beneficial creatures. They are attracted to the compost bin because it contains a wealth of easily available insect prey for them. They like dark, moist places. That is their nature. 

I'm not getting rid of the compost bin. I love the rich, earthy soil it produces for my herb garden, my butterfly plants and my vegetable Earth boxes. I love knowing that we are not throwing good organic matter into the trash but instead are recycling it.

And I know if I wear good gloves when working with the compost I should not have a problem with spider bites. But I can't help it. If I see one of the monsters, I will SHRIEK AND BOLT. That is my nature.

We do have a secret weapon that we discovered while turning the compost a few weeks ago. A sleek, beautiful glass lizard, about 20 inches long. At first we thought it was a snake, but a close look (snakes don't trigger my shriek-and-bolt mechanism) showed us the little ear holes and head of a legless lizard. These fascinating creatures are called "glass lizards" because they can actually break off their tail if a predator grabs it to escape.

My Hero -- our spider-eating glass lizard.
We see our lizard in the compost bin nearly every time we turn the compost. We are now careful with our little pitchforks not to harm it because this little guy eats -- you guessed it -- spiders! Other insects too, but spiders are apparently a mainstay. Hallelujah!!

The glass lizard comes and goes from the compost through one of the air holes in the compost bin. We watched him slide through the hole when we disturbed him, but the next time we turned the compost he was there again.

Since it's actually the bacteria and fungi that do most of the work in breaking down the compost, I am quite happy to have this glass lizard feasting on any insects he finds in the bin. In fact, I'd like to roll out a welcome mat for him in the bin, or give him a little sign that says "Guard Lizard On Duty," if I weren't afraid to open the lid by myself now.

I think I'll ask my husband to do it for me. 


  1. Hey Nanette! I have never heard of a glass lizard. He definitely looks like a snake, but he has pretty markings. The only spider that gives me the creeps is the wolf spider...way too large! Sometimes we have to put up with some creepy creatures in the garden...but as you said, they are useful and have their purpose.

  2. I love my wolf spiders :) I'd rather have them inside than mosquitoes!

  3. Susan, we found several glass lizards while redoing our landscape last year. They are really fascinating. I'm with you on the wolf spiders--too creepy for me. Sorry Vicki.:-) I would gladly send mine to you!

  4. Nanette,
    Your glass lizard is a beautiful creature. I remember seeing them when I was a kid but can't recall seeing any in years. We have the black sleek ones I think they're called skinks?

    There's been an influx of the basillica spiders in the last month and of course several of the
    argiope spiders all summer around here.

    I've come a long way with regards to creeping critters since I realized their benefits in my garden. But sometimes they can take us by surprise when we least expect them.