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 Spiders: The Original Web Masters

Mike Hillman

‘Keep an eye out for flies. The spiders haven’t eaten in a few days and I’m sure they’re getting hungry . . ." said my wife over her shoulder as she attempted to drop an unlucky fly into a waiting web.

"I missed again!" The tone of her voice barely masked her growing frustrations. After weeks of hand feeding our indoor spider colony you’d think we would have our techniques down pat, but more often than not, the flies would drop through the web and onto the ground.

Reaching down, she gently picked up the fly and repositioned herself to get a better drop on the web. This time the fly stuck, and the waiting spider lost no time in securing its long awaited feast. "Good. Now I need a small fly for the spider next to the night light . . ."

If anyone other then myself had been witness to my wife’s actions, the response would surely have been one of repulsion. But having participated in many ‘feedings’ myself, her actions were rather . . . err . . . routine.

For the better part of the last twelve years, my wife and I have been engaged in what seems a never-ending battle to keep flying insects out of our house. Having both grown up in antiseptic suburban home environments, where a single fly was enough to mobilize squadrons of bug killing sprays, we were sadly unprepared for life in an old farm house. Given that we have horses, we expected some flies, but add a few local dairy farms, and you’ve got a recipe for the perfect fly breeding environment.

Having stood for well over one hundred years, our house long ago became one with the land, shifting and sagging to meet the demands of its hand-dug foundation. With each gentle shift, a new crack opened to the outside environment. While unnoticeable to us, these cracks were interstate highways to our pesky flying friends. To make matters even worse, forty years ago, in an attempt to bring some sense of levelness to the house, new floors and walls were overlaid upon the old. The resulting gaps between the old and the new, serve as safe refuge for every flying bug ever know to man during the winter and incubators for their decedents in the spring.

Our first real inkling that we were the 'in' place for every bug in the county came on the first warm day of spring. After the long winter, we eagerly opened the windows. Sure in our belief that bugs were not present, we made no effort to close the screens -- not that having done so would have helped much, for the screens that were available were Swiss cheese in nature. Later that evening, we discovered every lamp shade covered with insects, and every wall a moving mass. While a hefty dose of insecticide quickly cleared the second floor, within an hour, the bugs had returned, even thicker than before.

For nearly a week we did daily battle, yet no end seemed in sight. With the house taking on a distinct smell of pine scented insecticide, we switched tactics and began to focus on blocking entry points. Armed with screening material, our ready duck tape, and a dozen or two tubes of caulk, screens were fixed and holes we're plugged.

In spite of all our efforts, we found ourselves losing to an enemy with more than one hundred years of natural selection on its side. The first bugs to take up residence between the walls, bred decedents, who bred decedents, all only knowing the walls. The cracks and the crevasses were soon genetically mapped. As a result, we would no sooner block one entry point, than they would divert to the next on their generically imprinted list.

Slowly but surely, the pleasantries of country life were replaced by an insect enforced isolation. Our long nightly readings, which we both avidly loved, were soon reduced to mere minutes in hopes of minimizing the night's chorus of buzzing and biting pests. Instead of waking up to the sweet sound of chirping birds, we awoke to the clattering of an air conditioner, whose cold air was our only sure weapon against our flying foes.

Having finally come to the conclusion that the weapons of man were insufficient, we decided to enlist the natural predators of flying insects on our side: Birds, bats, wasps, and spiders. We already had a fairly large song bird population, thanks to the many feeders Audrey maintains, but we we’re lacking barn swallows. So when a pair set up nest in our barns breeze way, we blocked it off lest we disturb them and scare them away. Next we put up a bat box, and before long it was happily occupied.

In order to address the principle fly breeding source: Our barn’s manure pile, we utilize a tiny wasp no bigger then a flea that prays on the larva of the flies. Between the three predators, we made a significant dent in the fly population. But we need one more ally if we hoped to deliver a knock-out blow, and the spiders were it.

In the effort to eradicate any and all insects in and around the house, only the spiders that had taken up residence next to the barbeque grill on the back porch had escaped our wrath. It was the perfect spider haven. The bright porch light insured a steady supply of insects from early spring to late fall. The heat and the smoke from the grill continued to lure potential victims long after the outside light had been doused for the night.

Soon, we became active participants in the nightly feeding frenzy. Insects I had grown to hate, invincible while in flight, fell easy pray as they were drawn into the porch light. As we waited for our food to cook, we would pick off the biggest, and toss them into the webs of our new found friends.

Every toss was rewarded with a textbook demonstration of classic 'spidering.' The bug would no sooner hit the web then the spider would scurry to it and inject its venom. Backing away, the spider would wait as the venom took effect. Once sure that its web was safe from any further attempts of escape, the spider would return and finish off its prey.

It didn’t take us long to realize that the spiders were far more efficient at catching flying insects than us, and as such, they would make an excellent addition in our ongoing war. In hopes of increasing their numbers we began to leave the porch light on all through the night. It worked. As their numbers began to grow rapidly, the insect population in and around the house became noticeable reduced.

As winter began to set in, we bad farewell to our swallows and bats, and found ourselves fretting for the spiders, many of whom now bore first names, who we felt sure would meet their end in the long winter to come. While never formally invited into the house, we didn't discourage them as one-by-one, they made their way into our home. At first they were welcomed play toys for our two indoor cats, but in time, even an inch long behemoth wandering across a floor only rated a passing glance and quick sidestep, as each continued their own way.

We gave little attention to the welfare of the spiders at first, for there were still plenty of flies inside for them to catch. But as the depth of winter set in, the easy meals they had enjoyed for so long came to an end. Every morning the spiders would tend to their webs and every evening they would wait patiently for a meal that would never come. Days turned into weeks and weeks threaten to become months and just when we thought they could hold out no longer, a warm day, much like the one we experienced our first year, drew flies from winter slumbers.

Warm enough to move, but too cold to fly, the flies congregated on the windows and quickly became prizes. Moving quickly from window to web, we fed each spider according to its size. The spiders, clearly hungry, wasted no time in securing the long awaited feast.

Pleased with our success, and now assured of our spider colony's survival, fly hunting soon became a daily ritual. Once unwelcome companions, flies were now sought out as prized possessions. Even on the coldest of winter days, some were sure to be found crawling the face of a southern window in a desperate attempt to seek what warmth they could from the weak winter sun rays.

Like a house settles onto its foundations, we've settled on ours. Where a spider once drew disgust, it now only draws a smile. We can once again read safely late into the night. And where in the past, fuzzy letters signaled the evening's near end, now more than likely, its probably a baby spider on its evening walk-around.

Armed with an allied army of swallows, bats, wasps and our homegrown battalion of tamed and ready spiders, our hopes are running high that after 10 years of fighting, this will be the year our battle with flies will finally be won. 

If we are indeed luckily, and have won, it will not be a human web master who’ll deserve the credit, but our spiders, nature’s true ‘web masters.'

Read other stories by Michael Hillman