DABBS COLUMN: Most Lowcountry garden spiders aren't so scary
Q I have noticed a lot of spiders in my garden this year. I despise spiders! How do I get rid of them?
A: Spiders can be beneficial in the fight against other pests in the garden. They rarely bite humans, and there are only a few venomous spiders in South Carolina.
Garden spiders are actually good indicators of ecological health, helping to create balanced landscapes. As a garden spider observer, I encourage you to learn more about these fascinating creatures before banishing them.
Fall gardens are a great place to see a variety of interesting garden spiders. Dwight Williams, entomologist and director of Cypress Gardens, frequently enjoys watching orbweavers making their intricate webs this time of year.
“Fall is a great time to see a lot of orbweavers,” he says. “The ones I commonly see are the golden silk orbweaver, the yellow garden spider, the orchard orbweaver and the spiny-backed orbweaver.”
Golden silk orbweavers, also known as banana spiders, get their name from the bright yellow strands of silk they use to create large webs up to 3 feet in diameter. Scientists think the yellow strands make them more attractive to bees, who then fly into the web, becoming a meal. The color may also serve as camouflage for webs perched against backdrops of tree leaves.
Arachnaphobes should note that these huge spiders are scared of cockroaches. According to Texas A&M Extension, banana spiders abhor cockroaches and will run from them should one fly into their web.
It seems that spiders don't have very good eyesight, which makes them skittish of the dark, scuttling cockroaches.
Writing's on the web
Despite folklore, garden spiders, also known as writing spiders, do not write the name of the soon to be deceased in their webs. The “writing” is actually a zig-zagging center line called the stabilimentum.
Scientists disagree on the purpose of this structure. Some say it is to keep birds from inadvertently flying through their webs. Other say it has the ability to reflect light, thus attracting insects that will become dinner. Before removing their webs, bear in mind that these beauties eat lots of mosquitoes.
Although they are not web weavers, vegetable gardeners should rejoice when they encounter the stealthy green lynx spider. Aptly named, these hungry spiders run quickly and pounce like cats upon prey.
These bright green hunters are known for controlling corn ear worm and cabbage looper moths, both of which plague gardeners in the Lowcountry.
Williams notes that he often sees these spiders waiting for a meal to amble by on the flat-topped flowers of the Joe-pye weed blooming in the fall garden.
While you are unlikely to encounter one of our local venomous spiders such as the black, brown or Northern widow spiders in the garden, you should know what they look like so you can avoid them. Gardeners are more likely to find these spiders in upended flower pots or under porch furniture or railings.
While the black widow and Northern black widow spiders are native to the state, brown widow spiders are native to Africa and are relatively new to the area.
“Brown widow spiders are gray to brown in color with white and black markings on the top surface of their bulbous abdomens,” say Clemson University entomologists. “The hourglass marking on the under surface of the abdomen is yellow to orange, and the legs have dark bands.”
Their egg sacs resemble naval mines with distinctive radiating spikes.
Although they are widespread throughout the Lowcountry, brown widow bites are rare since these shy creatures will drop from their webs when approached by humans. When working around woodpiles, old garden equipment or other undisturbed areas, wear gloves and look before reaching.
Now, I realize that everyone who reads this is not going become an arachnophile, eagerly observing the daily doings of the spiders in their gardens.
However, I do hope squeamish gardeners will recognize the benefit of garden spiders and give them a wide berth.
If you are inspired to learn more, I encourage you to check out some resources such as “Common Insects and Spiders of the South Carolina Lowcountry” by Shepard, Farnsworth, & McCollough or “Spiders of the Carolinas” by L.L. Gaddy.
Amy L. Dabbs is the urban horticulture extension agent and tri-county Master Gardener coordinator for the Clemson University Cooperative Extension. Send questions to gardening@postand courier.com.