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  • HOME
    • LOCAL EATS IN NORTHERN CALIFORNIA’S CENTRAL VALLEY

    • LOCAL LIBATIONS INCLUDING BEER, WINE, MILK & COFFEE

    • FOOD FOR THOUGHT

    • GARDENING. EVENTS. TRAVEL. SHOPPING. MEET YOUR MAKERS.

    • FIND STORIES ABOUT LOCAL FOOD, FARMS, CHEFS, ARTISANS AND MORE IN OUR PAST ISSUE ARCHIVE.

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How to Train Your Spider

(and other ideas that sometimes work)

“Now you’re a curious looking critter.”

Such was my first innocent thought when I spotted a grey, ornately-decorated insect perched on an unripe cherry tomato. Partially hidden by the dense foliage, it was handsome, as far as insects go, with a dusky white horizontal stripe across its back and leaf-like fins protruding from the lower part of its rear legs, which brought up images of the alien “bugs” from the B-movie “Starship Troopers.” It turns out it actually was a bug, a “true bug” in the scientific sense of the word. Unlike beetles, which have larva which grow, form a cocoon, and then eventually hatch into adults (like ladybugs), true bugs hatch from eggs and then remain sixlegged critters for the rest of their lives, shedding their skin each time they get a little bigger.

The specimen in my yard was a leaf-footed bug (Leptoglossus sp.), and it was not long before I had a chance to meet its entire family. Within a couple weeks I noted red nymphs, or instars (a.k.a. baby leaf-footed bugs), and brothers and sisters (and aunts and uncles and cousins) in various stages of growth, tip-toeing delicately over the cherry tomatoes. But they weren’t just tiptoeing.

I had planted a substantial row of tomatoes of mixed varieties, so I was not too concerned when some of the cherry tomatoes began to look like they had the measles. With plenty to go around, even my family wouldn’t be able to eat tomatoes faster than these ripened. Besides, I am a full (fool?) believer in the power of natural biological control, and I was sure something in my yard would find the leaffooted bugs to be a tasty treat if they got too out of hand— perhaps birds, or a parasitic wasp, or some other cool critter that one of those partially-read gardening books on my shelf mentions. I kept a lookout for one creature in particular that I trusted would help me out.

The first tomatoes to ripen are the cherries, and the larger varieties follow a few weeks later—Black Krims and Mortgage Lifters and others whose names sounded equally worthy of purchase. Soon these plants were also crawly with leaf-footed bugs. A veritable army of them had moved in, and they were literally sucking the juice of out my tomatoes. The bugs were as casual as cows grazing a pasture, and if I stuck my hand into the tomato thicket to harvest, they would simply sidestep over to an adjacent fruit and the damage would continue. Perhaps a third of each tomato was edible, if that. Where was my biological control? Where were the praying mantises, the black phoebes, and the parasitic wasps?

My savior—or so I thought—appeared the first week of August, and she built her home between the Green Zebras and the nearby landscaping, partly over my garden path. I slept well that night, dreaming pleasantly of leaf-footed bugs unwittingly meandering into her web, forever leaving my tomatoes in peace.

My savior—or so I thought—appeared the first week of August, and she built her home between the Green Zebras and the nearby landscaping, partly over my garden path.

Neoscona oaxacensis was likely one of the multitude of North American spiders collected in the late 1800’s by the German-born George Marx, which he subsequently sent on to his friend and esteemed arachnologist Eugen von Keyserling of Silesia (now Poland). Even though Keyserling never visited Oaxaca, he is credited with assigning the spider its scientific name. Also called the western spotted orb weaver, it can be found from Peru all the way to eastern Washington state. Though I am sure it is a year-round resident in my yard, it seems to emerge from nowhere in the latter half of the summer, making a grand entrance with an iconic, spiraling web that often stretches four feet across, with anchor points even further out. It is, in my opinion, the classic arachnid.

It diligently spins or repairs its web, as needed, once a day, a beautiful geometric tapestry that this particular summer stretched lavishly between a tomato cage and a nearby crepe myrtle, a total span of nearly ten feet. With her legs extended, she measures two inches from front leg to back leg, with a robust, decorated brown and yellow abdomen and pronounced fangs. She was, in my mind, the perfect weapon against the leaf-footed bugs.

Each day I carefully ducked under the web as I waited for the spider to make an impact. Her net trapped many insects—small flies, a ladybug, and even a honeybee, but I never saw a single leaf-footed bug. By summer’s end, my entire tomato crop had been turned into redundant shrubbery. Only the cool chill of November finally put an end to the devastation.

Lessons learned: 1) Dense foliage on tomato plants is the perfect habitat for leaf-footed bugs (and other critters). Liberally pruning the leaves is recommended. 2) That same summer my daughter had her own tomato plants in the ground ten feet away, separated from mine by two hearty zucchini plants. Her tomatoes were minimally impacted by the bugs, which pretty much liked to stay on a single plant. So a good idea is to scatter your tomatoes throughout the yard, which can limit the damage. 3) Spiders are hard to train.

OBSERVATIONS

I glimpsed a spider on the ceiling of the chicken coop, calmly and deliberately dabbing its abdomen between the crack of two boards. When it moved away, I saw a soft, tiny blanket of spider silk, not wrapped around a victim, but rather protecting a ball of eggs. May they hatch and grow big and strong and dine on earwigs.

As I was rescuing a young garlic stalk from the growing encroachment of some wood sorrel (clover-shaped leaves and little yellow flowers), I heard the familiar buzz of a honeybee nearby. It was not interested in the sorrel; rather, its attention was, strangely, on the garlic. I watched the bee patiently. It landed at the base of a garlic leaf, where a teaspoon’s worth of sprinkler water had collected in the crevice between the leaf and the stem earlier that morning. Then the bee relaxed its wings, stuck out its tongue, and took a drink.

A morning walk reveals an unexpected flash of lavender in the joint of the sidewalk: a wild (?) pansy, also known as a Johnny jump up, simply happy to be growing amidst the sea of concrete. Around the corner, a different color: An emerald green sweat bee, its metallic sheen dusted with pollen, scurries around a blue bachelor’s button flower. Does it know how pretty it looks, or how unique?

Of all the roses in our yard, it is the native California rose (Rosa californica) that smells the sweetest and, once picked, is the first to drop its petals, as if to say, “Leave me in the wild, and not in a vase on the counter.”

VACANCY

Your yard is already home to insects galore, so why not give bees a proper place to rest their wings? Bee hotels, also called nests or houses, are a great way to attract pollinators to your family’s flower or vegetable garden.

—National Geographic Website

I admit it, I got suckered.

But who wouldn’t? Do an image search for “bee hotel” and you will see what I mean. They look soooo elegant, so natural, so simple. Bee hotels are functional pieces of art, made of material found in nature. They have the same appeal as wicker chairs, or Christmas wreaths, or a log cabin. They are diverse in size and shape and texture. And lastly, they don’t seem very complicated to make. (Read: famous last words.)

The ideal place for a bee hotel would probably be adjacent to a native plant garden in an urban setting, where space is taken up by concrete sidewalks and proper habitat for native bees is in short supply. This does not describe my property at all. There are cracks and crevices everywhere in my yard—in rotting stumps, discarded playground sand, soil, compost, tree bark, rock walls, and spaces between the house siding, just to name a few. And native bees are plentiful as well. So why did I want a bee hotel? Certainly for my benefit, not for the bees’.

The author’s bee hotel, fashioned for hundreds of native bees, apparently pleased its architect and builder more than the bees.

So I built one, roughly two feet by two feet, seven and a half inches deep, with a nice sloped triangular roof, complete with real roofing material. The hotel was partitioned into ten “rooms,” six below, and four smaller ones in the attic. I collected pine cones and chunks of tree bark, I drilled holes in logs and hollowed out dozens of elderberry stems. I carefully filled each cubicle with a different material, and when I was done, my hotel had hundreds of crevices from which the bees could choose, from single occupancy economy holes to deluxe suites (multiple holes drilled into the shape of a heart, which was my daughters’ idea). A last, late addition to the hotel was a wire screen, recommended to keep birds from mistaking the bee hotel for a snack dispenser. The downside was that it made the edifice look more like an insect penitentiary than a five-star Marriott. This was not a bee hotel that would make the cover of a magazine.

At the end of March, I situated my creation against the fence on the west side of the yard, open to the east to catch the morning sun but avoid the afternoon heat. Too heavy to actually mount on to the fence, I placed it up on cinder blocks to get it off the dirt, though this was not enough to jack it up to the recommended height of three to five feet, which apparently best accommodates the flight path of the bees. (This is a project for a later date). At least the attic rooms were roughly three feet above the ground. And then I waited.

A few spiders moved in first. Local laws prohibit exclusion based on species, so there was nothing I could do. Then some more spiders moved in, including a black widow. I saw a slug one evening. The summer dust and pollen accumulated on the spider webs and pine cones, and soon the entire structure started looking more like a dreary miniature version of the Addams Family’s mansion than a whimsical work of art.

It wasn’t until well into the fall that I spied little plugs of dried mud in three of the drilled holes, evidence of mason bees. There might have been more, but I fear that a number potential tenants had been eaten by the spiders soon after their arrival. The following April I noticed two plugs were askew, the third was gone. A bit anticlimactic: I had imagined that the bees’ emergence would have been heralded by an inspirational music magically emanating from the hotel, but hey, I’ll call it a success.

The spiders, meanwhile, haven’t paid their rent in weeks.