Pest management in row crops has come to an end for this year. In fact, most of the crop has been harvested and fall tillage and preparation for next year’s crop is in full swing. Stalks, which just a few days ago held the snow white bounty of the delta, are being shredded and reduced to mulch as disks, para-tills, and hippers form the mellow planting beds for spring.
Finally, I had enough time to help finish the work in the woods that will hopefully be my home for the next few months. Most of the fall planting has been completed and all that is left to do is to make sure deer stands are safe and secure and ridden of those pests that are not welcome in the pre-dawn darkness as one settles in and awaits daylight.
Nothing is more terrifying, to me at least, than to have a giant red wasp fall from a nest onto your neck or have a spider crawl across your arm. I can’t stand those things. It’s a wonder I chose the profession I did, but that’s a story for another time. So armed with ratchet straps and a can of insect spray I spent all day Saturday ascending into the branches securing and spraying. Wasps and spiders scurried for cover as I fought my way up and down ladders checking stands. It was a tedious task but somehow I made it through without being bitten or stung.
The remnants of the wood pile held only a few logs that didn’t make it to the fire pit last winter. The summer rains and weathering enhanced the decomposition of the red oak logs to the point where they crumbled as we moved them to make way for fresh split firewood that will soon be placed in the pit. As each old log was turned a variety of insects and spiders were discovered. A multitude of beetles and grubs would be revealed under each log. There were fire ants and earwigs in the mulch-like media of rotten wood as well. The forceps-like pinchers from the posterior end of an earwig can leave a mighty welt as they protect themselves with a defensive pinch. Of course we all know what kind of pain the dreaded fire ant can inflict when our exposed skin is stung and venom is injected into our bodies. We all handled these pests with little regard but when we began noticing black widow spiders in the rubble too, the game changed.
Black widow spiders belong to the genus Latrodectus. There are more than 30 recognized species and they are distributed worldwide. Adult females are easily recognizable by the red hourglass markings on the underside of the abdomen. Note however, these markings can vary to a certain degree. Males typically have red or white markings on the dorsal surface of the abdomen and as with the female, these markings can also vary. Only the female black widow is considered dangerous and it is reported that her venom is 15 times more toxic than that of the prairie rattlesnake. The bite from a black widow can be extremely painful however it is rarely fatal. I have read there are more than 2,000 black widow spider bites reported each year and of these, only a dozen or so are serious. Of course I don’t want to minimize the hazard, for if you are one of the 12, it could be pretty rough.
There is an interesting phenomenon regarding the behavior of this arachnid. The prevalence of sexual cannibalism, where the female sometimes eats the male after mating, leads to the common name, black widow. Though this behavior is documented, it may not be as common as we think. Male spiders are able to determine if the female has fed by sensing certain chemicals in the web. They tend to select females that have already eaten rather than run the risk of being eaten themselves. Dang, what is wrong with these women?
The black widow’s web is constructed of irregular, sticky silken fibers. When a certain prey is captured the female rushes to her prize and injects it with venom and wraps it in silk. She covers the meal to be with juices containing enzymes that decompose the tissue and she can then lap the slurry into her mouth. Most of her prey consists of insects like grasshoppers, beetles, and other flying insects that may become trapped within her web.
It is ironic that my friend Ford Day called and asked what was up with the intrusion of insects and more notably, black widow spiders as of lately. It’s really pretty simple. They know the weather is about to change and it’s time to prepare a place to overwinter. As beetles, roaches, etc. find their way to our warm homes, barns, and buildings, the black widow sets her trap. She is a hunter, as we are, and her instincts tell her where to set her “stands” so she is successful in capturing her prey. That just happens to put her in close proximity with us too. Really, there is no difference than us encountering a cottonmouth as we scout out the woods than it is finding a spider in our home.
You know that Halloween is approaching and spiders are always part of the haunting. My neighbor, Sara, has a huge spider above her door to add to her décor for the upcoming festivities. Though bug season is about over, if hers comes to life I’ll have to bring out the planes again. This thing is huge. You’ll have to tell me, after reading this, if you feel creepy crawlers in your bed in the middle of the night. Watch out for the pesky critters as the weather begins to change. This is just nature’s way of realizing it’s time to go inside.
Until next time enjoy our woods and waters and remember, let’s leave it better than we found it.