Did you know spiders don’t just eat bugs? That’s right! You can amaze your friends when you share your knowledge about our eight-legged friends chowing down at the salad bar.
Researchers have observed various species of spiders (over 60 species worldwide) feeding on plant foods to supplement their invertebrate prey (Nyffeler et al. 2016). What exactly does this mean? Are they going to eat the leaves of your garden plants? Nah! Not to worry. They are primarily pest predators in your garden – little helpers to keep those aphids away.
Spiders have long been thought to only consume insects and other invertebrates. However, in recent studies, we are finding this isn’t entirely the case. Observations of spiders foraging in nature has broadened our understanding of the diets of our arachnid friends. Our prior assumptions were incorrect. Spiders actually eat pollen grains, floral and extra-floral nectar, Beltian and Müllerian bodies (structures produced by plants on their leaf tips or petioles, plant sap, honeydew (a plant-derived sugar produced by homopteran insects like aphids), seeds, spores, and even the vegetative material in the guts of their invertebrate prey (Nyffeler et al. 2016).
I found several papers on this topic, but one of the most interesting to me talked about how pollen is an important source of protein for spiders in early spring when prey may be scarce. It also pointed out that pollen is a critical food source for newly hatched spiderlings. Baby Orbweavers for instance. We have these here in the San Juans. They are delightful!
Well, since the pollen floats through the air, quite a lot will stick to webs, landing exactly where the little spiders can easily access it. Smith and Mommsen (1984) even found that Orb Weaver spiderlings doubled their life expectancy by eating pollen. Eggs and Sanders (2013) concur that pollen is an important dietary supplement for Orb Weaver spiders and found that juvenile orb weaving spiders’ diets consist of approximately 25% pollen.
So, now you know! Our little spider friends, or some of them at least, are more complex than we knew. It’s a good reminder about how important it is to eat a varied and healthy diet. We can put this into practice ourselves. Good nutrition is vital for health and survival – for all living beings.
Nostalgia reigns over the little European (now re-named Western) honey bee (Apis mellifera). We think of honey in terms of “liquid gold” or perhaps reminiscent of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, gobbing it all over himself as he dips his paw into the honey jar. Honey bees are indeed important pollinators, and the economic driver of the honey industry. You can stick the almond industry in along with them because, “without honey bees, we wouldn’t have almonds, right!” More on this if you keep reading.
If you delve into how we use honey bees for pollination, it’s hard not to be sympathetic to the plight of the honey bee. Going back to the almond industry, I can tell you it isn’t pretty. Here, and in other monoculture systems, the honey bee must collect pollen and nectar from one, single, solitary food source. Then that bee and her hive family are loaded onto a truck with many other hives, and delivered to yet another industrial monocrop to do the same thing again. Maybe this time it’s an apple orchard, or soybeans, or sunflowers. In every instance though, the nutrient deficiencies can’t be ignored. Honey bees need a diverse array of nutrients just like every other living organism. They aren’t healthy because of how we are keeping (and exploiting) them (McGivney 2020).
The honey industry brought in $321.22 million U.S. dollars in 2021 (Statistica, 2022). They are packed and stacked in boxes, driven across the country, unloaded in unfamiliar territory, hunger staved off temporarily with a jar of high fructose corn syrup, or sugar water (if they’re lucky), while they familiarize themselves with the new surroundings, and are off to work immediately. They are unpaid transient workers. Valued, and needed, but treated much like the migrant workers we count on to move about the country picking our food crops.
Of course, we are told, the nation won’t eat if we don’t have bees! Partly, this is true. The part that needs clarifying is, Which bees exactly do we need to pollinate our food crops?
I’ll disclose here that I am a former honey bee keeper. Former being the point! I quit. I became enlightened. Not by the unrealized dreams of liquid gold, not from stings received, but rather by the dings of my brain firing at the connections I started to make from my observations and from searching for scientific literature that supported what I was observing.
When I was working on my MS in Entomology and Nematology from the University of Florida, I took a beekeeping course as part of my curriculum. Part of the requirement for the course was to shadow other beekeepers and set up a hive of my own. I enthusiastically set off on these tasks. Keeping my own hives was an incredibly fascinating experience.
Here in our island community, I mentored high school students who set up a hive at the community garden and gave several public talks to various organizations as part of their senior project. I’ve acted as a consultant for other beekeepers, loaned out beekeeping equipment, suits, literature, and several extension agencies have used photos I took of honey bee queens and varroa mites in their educational materials.
Keeping honey bees was fascinating. Yes, I was stung, but it was mesmerizing to watch them working. At one place that I lived, I kept them just outside of my daughter’s bedroom, and to open the window and smell the honey bees was like entering heaven. It was intoxicating.
As to my success in keeping honey bees on San Juan Island, I can tell you it’s a mixed bag. My longest-lived colony survived three years. Mostly, later in the season, the bees would be attacked by wasps, and the hives completely raided. Honey bees died in winter from a lack of food and reduced numbers. Bees ball up together inside the hive in winter. If the population is small, they just can’t generate enough heat to stay warm.
For a few years, I bought new packages of bees. That was also a mixed bag. Some years, the queen died right away. Other packages of bees came with varroa mites. Most packaged bees for purchase are available after they’ve already been at work in other parts of the country pollinating in crop systems where the climate is warmer. They’re worn out and not necessarily healthy.
You see, many people selling bees to hobby beekeepers also make money from renting bees for crop pollination. The queens are reared separately and artificially inseminated. When your package of bees is packed for shipping, they plop the newly fertilized queen into the box with the tired little workers who have been to California, Nebraska, Iowa, or who knows where else before they arrive for you to pick up. As these packaged bees became more and more expensive, my “hobby” was yielding the most expensive, tiny jar of honey you could ever imagine.
There were multiple other things I observed when keeping bees. Like they would gang up on the poor, solitary bumble bee trying to feed on the single dandelion in the yard and kill it. Not the dandelion. They killed the bumble bee.
They actually killed a lot of bumble bees from my observations. I didn’t like it. I also quickly noted that with our cool spring climate, the honey bees didn’t like to come out of the hive until sometime in May or June, way after all the trees had flowered. Honey bees don’t like to fly unless the temperature is over 50 degrees Fahrenheit. I was making a lot of sugar water for them. In case you haven’t noticed, the price of sugar is becoming quite expensive.
That’s another thing. Sugar water is nutrient poor. Honey bees, or pretty much any other organism will never thrive on sugar water alone. It would be like giving your kid cans of Pepsi or Coca Cola every day and nothing else. Of course, they would not be healthy. They’d probably have a shortened life and die before they became a teenager. Honey bees, humans, and pretty much every other organism on the planet needs a diversity of nutrients to survive. Who out there remembers taking a Fred Flintstone vitamin tablet as a kid? Well, there’s a minimum daily requirement for more than humans. Honey bees need a diversity of flowers, trees, mineral rich soil, and clean water to thrive. They also need to collect anywhere from 20-130 lbs per year of pollen and 120-900 lbs per year of nectar, to sustain ONE hive (Goulson, 2003).
So, don’t we have those things out here in the San Juans? Hmmm. Let’s see. Spring temps don’t warm up until after fruit trees, forest trees, and lots of other native shrubs have already flowered or set off pollen. Our soils are poor and deficient in certain minerals like selenium. There’s a LOT of bedrock, but obviously we have some parcels that are exceptions. Summers are hot and dry. I doubt even in a good season, there’s enough pollen and nectar to support all the hobby hives we have now in the islands.
If you’ve lived here for a few seasons, you might note that summer going into fall we have a dearth of vegetation. Pretty much the only wild plants blooming are our non-native Tansy and California Poppies. Of course, the noxious weed folks urge us to pull all the Tansy. It’s toxic. We should do our best to remove it when possible because if you are keeping bees (and continue to do so after reading this), you don’t want Tansy pollen or nectar in your honey. It will damage your liver.
Back to making my point. What bees are we supposed to save? 1. Honey bees? or 2. Those other bees that don’t give honey, but might actually be better suited for pollinating things we have in the San Juans?
If you pick 2, you’re trending along with me. As an entomologist, I can suggest that supporting native bee species will be much healthier and sustainable for our fragile island ecosystem. Why? Well, native bees are already suited for this geographic climate. Bumble bees, Andrena bees, Mining Bees, Leafcutter bees, along with flies, wasps, beetles, moths, ants, and even spiders are all pollinators that work well in our island habitat. In fact, flies are probably one of our most effective early pollinators for fruit trees in the San Juans.
But won’t honey bees pollinate too? What about my garden plants or my orchard trees? Well, again, it’s really not an optimal climate. If you are still holding out, I can offer additional research that might be convincing. While not particularly applicable to the San Juans, since as I’ve already stated, honey bees aren’t going to be flying when our orchard trees are blooming, current research in mainland agro-ecosystems is indicating that wild bees actually increase fruit set in apple orchards (Mallinger & Gratton, 2014), and strawberries pollinated by wild bees are larger than strawberries pollinated by honey bees (MacInness and Forest, 2019). That’s only two papers, but if you take time to go through and read these, look at their references. You’ll find additional citations indicating similar findings in other studies.
What if we ignore everything you’ve written here and keep ordering packages of honey bees?
Good question. Certainly, you are within your right to order honey bees and keep them. Some folks may be determined to try and raise bees in an attempt to get honey. All I can say to that is good luck! I personally have switched from using honey to using agave as a sweetener, or quit using sweeteners altogether. It’s a personal choice, but also motivated by my own economics as well as my concern for preserving a diverse and sustainable population of invertebrates and conserving diverse and healthily functioning ecosystems. Also, please don’t interpret my position as “anti-agriculture.” That wouldn’t be fair. We have to eat, but I do believe in progress and making better choices as the planet becomes more populated. There are a LOT of people to feed. We need to figure out how to do this sustainably, without displacing our diversity of wildlife or injuring the planet’s ability to support life.
It’s a fact that native bees are being displaced in ecosystems under pressure from loss of habitat and competition from managed honey bees. In their 2018 literature review, Hatfield et al., state that “honey bees displace native bees from flowers, alter the suite of flowers native bees visit, and have a negative impact on native bee reproduction.” Citing Anderson & Anderson 1989; Paton 1990, 1996; Wills et al. 1990; Dafni & Shmida 1996; Horskins & Turner 1999, Hatfield et al., continue by stating, “honey bees potentially impact native bee species by removing available supplies of nectar and pollen,” essentially outcompeting native pollinators who are left without enough food to survive and reproduce.
How many hobby bee keepers are in the San Juan Islands? Are there enough to impact native populations of pollinators? Doubtful we could come up with an accurate number or assessment. It would be great to have a count and map of locations of honey bee hives in the islands. The Washington State Department of Agriculture does have a requirement for beekeepers to register their hives annually with the state (WSDA 2022). This isn’t set up to harass beekeepers, but to be able to contact you should there be an issue of concern, ranging from disease to threats from non-native species such as the Asian Giant Hornet (Vespa mandarinia), a species the state is tracking to prevent further spread. If hobby beekeepers are adhering to state laws by registering their hives, scientists will be better at assessing the impact of honey bees on populations of native pollinator species, especially under the unknown parameters of a warming earth.
What are my recommendations? Well, I’ve shared why I quit keeping honey bees. We have a small orchard and keep a little vegetable garden where my husband helps me grow some strawberries, tomatoes, peas, salad greens, and a few other things. The past few seasons, because of my affinity for bug viewing over gardening, I planted some things near my garden plants that I knew would attract pollinators. For instance, I have Nepeta varieties of catmint near my tomatoes. Those purpley-blue flowers on the catmint attract all sorts of pollinators who also happen to visit my tomatoes, peas, strawberries, and more.
Judging from the diverse collection of bugs (and birds) in our garden/orchard area, I don’t believe we need any honey bees at all for pollination. I love watching the varied native bees, especially the fuzzy bumble bees that pollinate our tomato plants. Oh, one last thing! These native pollinators aren’t out to defend a colony like the social honey bees. This means they are WAY less likely to sting you. Oh, I’ve sustained a sting or two from an occasional bumble bee, but that was because they were hanging out on my blue yoga pants, and I accidentally squeezed them when I was squatting down to pull some weeds. Bugs love the colors blue, purple, and black. I learned my lesson. Now I wear blah, sand-colored clothes when I’m gardening.
Thanks for reading. I hope you will consider my points. This is not meant to be an indictment against honey bees or honey bee keepers, merely a perspective on the impacts we may have on our island ecosystem in keeping honey bees. The bumble bees, and other native pollinators will appreciate not being displaced. They’re worth saving, and thank you for recognizing their role in our food web.
Goulson, D. 2003. Effects of introduced bees on native ecosystems. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 34:1-26.
Hatfield, R.G., S. Jepsen, M. Vaughn, S. Black, E. Lee-Mäder. 2018. An Overview of the Potential Impacts of Honey Bees to Native Bees, Plant Communities, and Ecosystems in Wild Landscapes: Recommendations for Land Managers. 12pp. Portland, OR: The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.
Mallinger, R.E. and Gratton, C., 2015. Species richness of wild bees, but not the use of managed honeybees, increases fruit set of a pollinator-dependent crop. J Appl Ecol. 52: 323-330. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2664.12377
When I was a little girl, my mom read me this book, “Be Nice to Spiders.” We read it together many, many times! It was probably one of my earliest introductions to the wonder of ecological systems and definitely played a role in the development of my love for animals and nature.
My mom didn’t have the opportunity for a college education, and was a young mom at 23. She did however, grow up in the mountains of North Carolina, loved nature, and she had a “story” for everything! It made learning about leaves, bugs, rocks, and animals of all kinds really fun.
I was extremely lucky to have a mom like that and to be exposed to so many science opportunities, even though I didn’t really see it as science at the time. As a parent myself, and someone with a background in education, I can’t express enough to other parents out there how important it is to connect your children with nature…in a kind way! Help them to see living things with wonder and respect for all life. Especially spiders!
Here’s a YouTube read aloud of Be Nice to Spiders. There were several, but I just liked this woman for some reason. I’m sure the San Juan Island library has a copy of the book too, and if not, there’s always Griffin Bay Books, Serendipity, Abebooks, and Amazon where you can find a copy for your bookshelf.
There could be a few reasons you’re finding that spider in your sink or bathtub or shower!
Reason #1 – Lots of spiders are nocturnal, so while we’re sleeping they’re stealthily crossing the ceiling overhead. Sometimes one may bungee down to check things out below. If that happens to be over the tub, it’s possible the poor little (or BIG) spider just got stuck, unable to scale the walls of a slippery surface.
Same thing with the kitchen sink. A spider scurries across the counter too fast, one of those 8 legs slips or maybe a knee buckles (yes, spiders have knees), and the next thing that spider is facing is our equivalent of falling down into a deep well.
He…or SHE, needs someone to throw in a lifeline to get back out.
Reason #2 – Sometimes…yes, sometimes spiders end up in your tub or shower or sink because deep in the cracks or seals around the shower door or down in the drain, you have these teeny little spider snacks squirming around. That’s right! You might not see them, but even if your shower is squeaky clean, you probably have drain fly larvae living in your pipes.
Yikes! I got into our shower one morning and there were these teeny little wiggly worms down at my feet. When I poked around the rubber strip that prevents water from leaking out the shower door, there were MORE!
To help you visualize this, I’ll try and get creative. I’m not a very good drawer, so I scribbled in the wriggling larvae to enhance this image I found online. In my mind, I pictured the woman in the movie Psycho, screaming at the top of her lungs since the scientific name for drainflies is Pscho-di-dae!
The adults aren’t scary looking at all though. They’re called Moth Flies and they are sort of cute…and fuzzy-wuzzy! The larvae, also called sewer flies, actually are beneficial and help purify water, so I am viewing them now as an important part of an ecosystem while trying to get over being creeped out by them around my feet.
I also am much more welcoming to my house spiders now that I know they are working hard to save me from DRAIN FLIES!
Reason #3 – Did you know that spiders drink water? Yes…sometimes spiders end up in the sink, bathtub, or shower because spiders get thirsty! I actually had a little spider I found in my home that was in a declining way and Rod Crawford (also known as the Spider Whisperer) at the Burke Museum messaged me about how to give it a drink. Here’s what he said, “For future reference, the way to give a spider a drink is to rest the mouth area (under the front of the “head”) directly in a drop of water.” I must confess that now I’m so sensitive to spiders needing water that whenever I get one out of the bathtub, I’ve put a moistened cotton ball on the floor nearby so it won’t die of thirst!
Sleuthing Spiders Day TWO! It’s all about the NAME.
Did you know I name the spiders in my house? I also can recognize some of the cuties that are repeat offenders. Repeat offenders? Oh yes! These are the ones who I find in my kitchen or bathroom sink on a regular basis.
I even have some that end up in the shower or bathtub. The toilet you ask? Well, we keep our toilet lids down so they don’t accidentally fall in and drown. Also, keeping that toilet lid down (especially when you flush) prevents weird germy bacteria and viruses from spewing out into the air where you might breathe it back in! That’s another topic entirely though. Tomorrow, I’ll cover why spiders end up in bathrooms in the first place, so stay tuned!
Are any of these spiders in my house going to bite me? Doubtful. And, even if they did, most likely all that would happen is NOTHING! At most, I might feel a small pinch like I did when the one hanging out in my bath towel bit me.
I knew it was a spider because I was patting myself dry, felt it bite my leg, then watched it drop to the floor. Sadly, I was the one inflicting pain and had mortally wounded the poor creature. All I suffered was a tiny raised red mark on my skin that went away in less than 20 minutes.
Was I worried about the bite? First off, I’m no spider expert because entomologists study INSECTS and spiders are ARACHNIDS. It’s all about legs (and math). Entomologists can’t count beyond 6 and Arachnologists can count to 8. Bad joke, right? I wasn’t worried because most spiders (and I’m referring to the ones that are found in the San Juan Islands) are harmless (or you can use the scientific description of “medically insignificant” to impress your friends)!
Learning to correctly identify some of these spiders will put your fears to rest. We’ll go through some of the ones commonly found in homes, especially at this time of year. We will learn to identify a black widow and where they might be found. Also, we’ll be learning about widow look-a-likes that you might not want to squish in your home because they chase the real widows away!
I named my spider Tinkerbelle! I think Tinkerbelle is a SHE spider. Tinkerbelle is giant house spider hanging out in my bathroom this week. Her scientific name is Eratigena duellica.
I looked around the ceiling of the bathroom and can see little shelf-like webs where some of those super irritating fruit flies are landing. I’ve resisted my OCD urges to clean the webs away and actually appreciating the natural pest control that is free of toxic chemicals.
If you want to become FEAR-Less of Giant House Spiders, and we’ll be seeing LOTS of them through the upcoming fall months, someone I know put together an awesome YouTube video about them. You can check out Arlo’s video here –
AND, don’t forget! Post your spider photos here! Brownie points for whoever has the most creative name!
Today is officially the first day of September Spider Sleuthing in the San Juans. I’m excited about seeing those “spidee” photos and learning together about some of the very cool things that spiders do. We’re also going to conquer any FEARS of spiders and to start off, I’m going to post a link so you can discover Lucas the Spider. If you don’t know about Lucas, he is the cutest spider in the world, AND he wants to be your friend. *Kid and Adult Friendly!