The evidence of last night’s battle in our basement is still there, up in that shadowy corner were ceiling meets wall above our computer desk. It was a silent battle that we might have missed entirely if my wife, Sue, hadn’t looked up just as it was starting. She was working on the computer, and when she asked me to come downstairs, I thought she needed help with something or had found something there that I needed to see. I was in the final pages of a good book, but pulled away to see what was up.
When I arrived downstairs, she pointed up into the shadows instead of at the screen. At first, all I saw was one of those infernal Asian lady beetles crawling slowly along. They spend their summers being useful while chomping on aphids out in the bean fields. When the fields are harvested, they become pests themselves as they look for sheltered places to winter over. They can find ways to get into even newer, tighter homes than ours. We hadn’t seen many inside so far this fall, but with the soybean harvest well along, there will probably be quite a few more looking for winter quarters in our house. I don’t like using insecticides, and those beetles are tough to kill even with poison. I use a vacuum sometimes to gather them up when too many get in. It turns out that I have some rather unlikely allies in my fight against them, too.
Almost unseen in the shadows, one of those allies was beginning an attack on the lady beetle. Its pale, thin, tan-colored body was barely a quarter of an inch long and only about a third the size of the lady beetle. Its eight legs, though nearly ¾ of an inch long, were as fine as baby hair and barely visible. It was using its back legs to pull filaments of web so fine they couldn’t be seen from the back of its abdomen and throwing them around the beetle. Even though I couldn’t see the entrapping web strands, I could see that they were having an effect. The beetle’s progress grew ever slower, and after nearly ten minutes of constant web slinging, its progress was stopped entirely. Goliath, a chunky Asian lady beetle, was apparently under full control of little David, a long-bodied cellar spider.
As the evening went on, the little spider finished wrapping the victim and eventually hung it near one end of the nearly invisible “cobweb” lair. Like most spiders, it didn’t kill his prey outright. I was amazed that so delicate a little spider could not only subdue a bug so much bigger than itself, but also pierce its hard, thick shelled, beetle body with his tiny fangs to inject just enough spider venom to keep it quiet. Little spider was right on top of the bagged beetle and apparently enjoying some supper as I sat down to write the column this evening. He’s resting about a half inch from his still trussed up prey now. I’m guessing that the beetle is still alive. The spider will cut the empty body loose and wait for the next meal to come along once it’s sucked all the food value out of the hapless beetle.
Long-bodied cellar spiders are harmless to people, stay out of sight most of the time and seldom get much larger than the little guy up there above me. I suppose I’ll eventually have to clean up the “cobwebs” that the little spiders leave behind. For now, though, I welcome this brave little ally and all the hidden brothers and sisters in my battle against those pesky and smelly beetles. I wish them good hunting.
Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.