Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture


Arachnophobia in the Garden of Food and Flowers

By Laura Plant ©

Laura and partner Matt are presently on a one year travel expedition in Asia. Read about their adventures here. A Year in Asia 2006- 2007

I sense one of them is staring at me - beady little eyes and sharp teeth. I sit at the compost hotline desk in the greenhouse, keeping one eye open for sudden movements. I imagine it pouncing and running its eight hairy legs across my hand as I make notes in the phone log about the latest compost conundrum. Arachnophobia - it isn't fun.

It isn't simply a fear of spiders: it is more a fear of everything to do with spiders - sticky, creepy webs, dark places and damp, scary basements. I must acknowledge at this point that my fear of spiders makes me exaggerate slightly. I have actually never seen a big, hairy spider in the greenhouse but I know they are there. I just chuckle when I see chores on the To Do List that relate to going down into the dark, damp storage room below the greenhouse. That is so not going to happen.

One theory on arachnophobia is that it goes back to our early days when those who were afraid of spiders raised fearful offspring. Those who were not afraid were more likely to get bitten and not have the opportunity to reproduce. I like to think of myself therefore as highly evolved. I obviously come from a long, long line of phobics.

One thing I have learned over the years is that the more I encounter spiders the less freaked out I am. Working in a garden helps with the close encounters. I find that as long as the spider is outside in its territory, I am able to handle the situation. It is when they venture into my home that the problems start. I can let spiders live in my apartment as long as they are very, very small and they honour my two simple house rules: 1) You must remain on the wall, and not on the ground, at all times; 2) You are not allowed to invite any friends over.

I actually laughed out loud the other day at a black spider that was on my carpeted steps when I came in the front door. It immediately tried to spread itself out so I wouldn't see it - four legs out front and four behind - it had squished itself into the back of the stair. Its little eyes were squeezed tight shut thinking "I hope that she doesn't see me!" You kind of have to admire that type of disillusionment. To make my escape, I jumped over the step, raced upstairs and tried to ignore the presence of my uninvited houseguest. A few hours later when I returned to the front entrance the spider was gone, forcing me to shake out my shoes for the next few days before putting them on.

After many years of being told that spiders are great (without them we would be over-run with bugs, blah, blah, blah) I decided to go straight to the source: our bug lady, Ursula Dole. City Farmer's School of Urban Agriculture is offering a class on May 4th entitled "Dirt, Bugs & Grass" and Ursula is teaching the biological pest control module of this 3-part course. She brings a wealth of knowledge about what insects we have in BC and how to figure out which is helpful and which is harmful in the garden. Hey Ursula, if you have any trouble finding spiders for your class, just let me know. I am a Spider Whisperer. Eight-legged arachnids are drawn to me. If there is one out there in the garden, I can find it.

First I might look in the old tool shed. The dark, damp corners are perfect hiding places. I will be so glad when the Cob Shed workshop begins this June, as we will have a new storage place for our tools. Just remind me not to be around when they dismantle the old shed and send spiders scurrying out in search of new homes. I could also look under the rim of the small black worm bins. I learned the hard way to always wear gloves when carrying these from their storage space behind the compost toilet building. And speaking of our beautiful cedar outhouse, the toilet is odour-free, clean and a joy to use, but don't look up or you will see webs in the corners. Just look straight ahead and do your business. Remember, what you don't know can't hurt you. But the easiest and most sure way to find a spider is to look under the lid of the big, wooden worm composters. I have learned to open one of these using a long-handled shovel until I am sure it is safe. Let's just say I was less than impressed when my colleague Kate pointed out that there was a spider in one of these worm bins that was big enough to rival the spiders she saw in India. Oh great. Not only are the spiders here plentiful, but they are huge. Note to self: cancel trip to India.

The reason I am so aware of the location of my hairy foes is that I figure it is always better to find them rather than having them find me. The element of surprise is not a good one. One thing that people love to tell arachnophobics is that the spider is actually more afraid of you then you are of it. But the fact is this is just not true. Does the spider's heart begin to race, does its skin crawl, and does it get sweaty palms? No, I didn't think so. Being so afraid of spiders means I never kill them because to squish one requires close proximity and actual contact - and that is just not going to happen. Besides, killing a spider will bring rain. I am infamous for bringing sunny weather to the garden and I am not going to do anything to mess that up! When I jokingly asked Ursula if this old wives tale about spiders and rain had any truth to it she said, "Well, spiders can predict the weather". Apparently, if their webs are close to the ground it means it will rain, but if their webs are up high, it will be dry. I will have to pay more attention to this next time I am backpacking; maybe my little eight-legged friends can help me decide what gear to wear while I am hiking.

In preparation for my discussion with Ursula, I decided to do some research. I wanted to appear to have at least some knowledge of spiders. Now, I need you to understand how truly remarkable it is that I was able to research this information. When a friend suggested to me that I use the Internet, I chuckled to myself. That would involve being at the mercy of my computer monitor as images of spiders flashed before me. No, a book is a much safer route. At least this way, I control when the page appears.

My research taught me that first of all, spiders are not insects. Spiders have eight legs and insects have only six. Not all spiders make webs, but they all have the ability to produce silk. Many females eat their mates and some spiders only eat other spiders. Since they don't have many predators other than birds and some larger insects, they have to control their own large population. There are over 75,000 species worldwide, but no one knows exactly how many species there are in BC. The good news for arachnophobics is only one poisonous spider calls our province home. The good news for gardeners is spiders are the most voracious predators in the garden and they are on your side when it comes to pest control.

I learned most of this in the greenhouse when I opened up the cupboard containing our resource books. My finger ran along the line of book spines: composting, organic gardening, growing better vegetables, Bugs of BC. With a quick shudder and a deep breath I took the book out and looked at its innocent cover. It was written by John Acorn and illustrated by bug-lover Ian Sheldon. I turned it over, and there among all the other hand-drawn bugs was an image of a big, brown, creepy spider. Thanks Ian. Deep breath. I can do this. I flipped to the appendix and looked up spiders. Why am I doing this again? Oh yeah, people claim it helps to face your fears. I turn to page 145, the first of eight pages of BC's spiders.

The first was the Wolf Spider - gross, next page. The Boreal Jumping Spider. I have to admit I agreed with the author that they are kind of cute as they appear to have a smiling face. Hmmm, who knew? Next, the Orb-Weaver. This is the guy that makes all those webs that I have walked face first into on hiking trips. Then the Long-Jawed Orb-Weaver. His unique characteristic is that he holds four legs out in front of his head and the other four out behind his abdomen. This must be the guy who was on my stair!

Then I turned the page to the real horror show - the three monsters known as House Spiders. In university I called them the Cheap Basement Suite Spiders. The first of this group is the Barn Funnel Weaver. This is the guy making those thick webs in dark, damp basements and in the corners of old house windows in horror movies. The Hobo Spider has an "alarmingly ugly bite" and the Giant House Spider, which is in the author's words "quite frankly, the creepiest bug in the whole darn province of BC. When a long-legged male goes running across the floor of the rumpus room, all eight legs flailing like mad, it is no wonder that most people panic and call their exterminators". Thank you. Finally, someone who understands my pain. The author notes that these three beasts are spread easily when people move, which likely explains how they got here from Europe in the first place.

As I turned the next page, the compost hotline rang and I almost jumped out of my skin. I guess I was more tense than I thought reading this book. After filling in the caller on the dates of our next wormshop, I continued my reading. The Six-Spotted Fishing Spider lives on ponds and breathes underwater via air trapped in the tiny hairs covering the body and legs. Very cool. The Black Widow Spider is found primarily in the warm, dry Okanagan region of BC. "Apart from mammal burrows, the best place to look for black widows is in the grocery store - many of them come in with the fruits and vegetables". Great - a whole new twist has just been put on my next grocery-shopping trip. And finally, the Goldenrod Crab Spider. This little guy is either yellow or white and hangs out on flowers blending in to catch his prey.

Hey, I did it. I looked at pictures of spiders (except the Wolf Spider page; I skipped right over that one) and I lived to tell the tale.

Now, if I could just get the staff to not leave balloons in the greenhouse. I opened the door this morning to a dozen huge, blue ones looking like they might pop at any moment. Every time I entered the greenhouse I had to squeeze past trying not to touch them. Balloon phobia - it isn't fun.

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Revised December 18, 2006

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture