Tim Lockley: Oh, what a tangled web they weave

When I went on active duty in the mid-'60s, there was no room for us to live. As a result, at my first duty station, I was placed with about 50 other unfortunate GIs in a barracks that had been condemned.

There was a square piece of wood nailed to the front of the barracks that had been painted over. However, near sunset, you could still make out some of the words under the thin layer of white paint. They said, in part, "This property condemned! Unfit for human habitation. By order of...." In order to make the building more accommodating, the powers that be had divided the barracks into cubicles with two bunks and four lockers. They promised us it was only temporary. I lived there until I shipped out for my first tour in Vietnam.

After my fellow residents and I had been ensconced for a fortnight or so, I was awakened early one morning by a faint squealing sound. The noise was coming from under my bunk. Upon investigating, I observed a house mouse caught in the web of a black widow spider. I got out of my bunk and stretched myself out to get a better view. Over the next 45 minutes, I watched the spider bite the mouse several times until it ceased to struggle. Then, it slowly lifted the hapless creature 2 or 3 centimeters off the floor, at which point it began to feed on the paralyzed mouse.

The reason for this journey down the path of my ancient memories to introduce you to a family of quite interesting spiders -- a family that is, in all likelihood, living with your family even as you read this article. These are the comb-footed spiders (Theridiidae). Within this family are the aforementioned black widow as well as the brown widow. There are five widow spiders in North America. We have three here in Mississippi: the northern black widow, the southern black widow and the brown widow. They are all documented as causing problems with their bites.

To date, I know of no deaths caused by any of the three. With regard to black widows (the brown widow is a quite recent arrival here), their major hazard to us humans occurred before the advent of indoor plumbing. Black widows understandably were attracted to outhouses. The abundance of food to be found in a typical outhouse was more than adequate for dozens of widows to feed happily. The problem arose when a human intruded. Yes, it was the human who built the outhouse, but for some reason, widow spiders took extreme umbrage at our invasion of what they considered their home. Us, squatting over the hole, blocking out the light and frightening their lunch away -- of course they'd take offense. And our exposed bits made an excellent target for their revenge. These days, you have to go out of your way to be bitten by a widow.

However, there is one member of the family that enjoys being around us and is considered to be the most abundant spider in residence with us. It's called the common house spider. It was first described from Germany but originally is from South America. It now has a worldwide distribution and can be found in every state except Alaska. It's a yellow to brown spider with darker rings on the legs. The females are less than a centimeter long with the males around 4 millimeters. Like their cousins the widow spiders, they live upside down in a tangled web. They construct these permanent webs in closets, upper and lower corners, under furniture, in the angles of window frames and along baseboards. In high populations, individual webs can be almost contiguous, covering large areas. The common house spider is a major contributor to the build-up of cobwebs. Aesthetically displeasing as these cobwebs might be, the common house spider feeds on a wide variety of pests, including cockroaches and other species of spiders.

If having a spider in your house upsets you, here are a few things that will assist you in getting rid of them. First, seal up your home. A little caulking can go a long way in keeping things out of you house. Turn off outdoor lights. The lights attract insects which, in turn, attracts spiders. If you must have a light on for security, use the old-fashioned yellow lights. Keep a tidy house. Clean homes offer spiders fewer refuges and significantly fewer potential meals. Vacuum up spiders and their webs.

A strong solution of MSG (monosodium glutamate) in water will dissolve webs, by the way. An application of a residual insecticide will kill insects that supply the spiders with their meals and can kill any spiders that wander into your house. Spray your baseboards and any site where you've seen spiders establish their webs in the past.

If you don't maintain at least some of these efforts, your spider problem will come again.

Tim Lockley, a specialist in entomology, is retired from a 30-year career as a research scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For answers to individual questions, please send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Tim Lockley, c/o Sun Herald, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi MS 39535.