Our back yard is a refuge for black widow spiders. Perhaps it was the famous storybook character, Charlotte, who convinced me that spiders deserve to be allowed their quiet livelihood in our yard. Or maybe it’s my over-developed ecological sensibilities that respect the necessary role that spiders play in nature, even in the suburbs. Rather than spraying our home regularly with pesticides, we've chosen to let these eight-legged, venomous predators live in our yard, where they weave webs, lay eggs and provide food for the numerous lizards and birds that also visit. Whenever I see a gleaming black widow with slender legs and red violin tattoo on her belly, I am fascinated rather than repulsed.
This may seem reckless or foolish to most people, but so far, these quiet, nocturnal creatures have obliged by keeping out of sight during the day, and sinking their tiny fangs only into edible prey, such as crickets and grasshoppers that also enjoy refuge here. Once in awhile I'll see one resting on its tangled web in a potted plant on the patio at night, but as soon as she senses my presence, the spider scurries out of sight, knowing rightly that I am far more dangerous to her than she is to me.
Out in the log pile, I reach in with gloved hands to gather wood for a new moon fire, setting aside the marble sized egg sacs full of soon-to-be spiderlings. Each of those little sacs may contain more than 750 eggs; one black widow can build half a dozen sacs in a summer. The idea that nearly 5000 spiders will soon be crawling around in my back yard is a bit daunting, but in reality, only a dozen might survive to become adults. The rest are eaten by each other or by the birds and lizards that abound in our refuge.
Sticky masses of black widow cobweb are a minor nuisance to me, but not to the hummingbirds that buzz in to gather this critical nest-building material. Without an abundant supply of ultra-strong and resilient spider web, a hummingbird nest cannot be bound to a branch or hold together well enough to protect the jellybean-sized eggs that will be laid in the down-lined cup. After the eggs hatch, baby spiders are excellent food for the young hummers. This is where the web-of-life becomes quite literal! For two years we have enjoyed watching baby hummingbirds grow and fledge from nests in our back yard refuge.
So far, we have not experienced any grotesque infestations of roaches, ants, crickets, spiders or scorpions, some of the "pests" that support a thriving chemical industry in Arizona. (However, I will admit that when the termites start drilling into our walls, I call the exterminators.) Yes, all of these creatures are here in our refuge, but as long as they stay outside in the back yard, we coexist peacefully. I like it that way.