When Nature Comes Knocking

By Michael Caduto

“Do you realize that if I didn’t eat them, bugs would get so numerous, they’d destroy the earth? Spiders are really very useful creatures.” -Charlotte, Charlotte’s Web, E. B. White

We two-leggeds build inviting habitats and fill them with ample food supplies. We heat these spaces in winter, cool them in summer and keep them dry year-round. And when our wild neighbors have the audacity to move in, we frequently kill them on sight. 

In 2012 my wife and I restored an old brick farmhouse that had been built in 1790, back when Vermont was still an independent republic. We removed walls and ceilings to expose and repair the original structure, and then vacuumed every nook and cranny to get rid of debris left behind by two centuries of sundry inhabitants.

The cavities were crammed with butternut shells and tiny ears of corn that had been stripped clean—the work of red squirrels and mice. After we pried back a battered kickboard near the kitchen, a river of ancient wheat seeds cascaded out onto the floor. These must have been pilfered from human food stores and cached by mice during an era when Vermont farmers still grew their own wheat. I saved some of those seeds to see if I can resurrect what could be a lost heirloom variety.

Most of the wall and attic spaces were stuffed with clumps of useless insulation, replete with evidence of mice: countless droppings, pee-infused nest material, rodent skeletons and desiccated mouse-mummies. These were the remnants of nesting deer mice or white-footed mice – the most common denizens of homes in the hinterlands.

Amidst the myriad nests of wasps, mud daubers and mice, countless ancient spider webs festooned the roof rafters and basement joists. For more than two centuries spiders wove their webs unseen, spinning silk as soldiers fought the Civil War; snagging prey as Amelia Earhart flew solo across the Atlantic and weaving egg sacs while the Apollo 11 astronauts walked on the moon. 

The network of webbing was so extensive that I couldn’t help but get entangled. As I squeamishly tore at the strands of silk, my imagination conjured images of the dramatic scene in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers whendeep in the shadowy subterranean passages of Torech Ungol—the giant she-spider Shelob ambushes Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee on their way to Mount Doom. This archnemesis of arachnids uses her thick silk to wrap up Frodo like a Hobbit hot-pocket.

Most of the webbing I encountered was spun by the common house spider, Parasteatoda tepidariorum – a round-bodied arachnid, about one tenth to one third of an inch in size, often with banded legs. This species is one of the “cobweb” spiders, known for their messy-looking snares. It seeks warmth and shelter in the quiet corners of our homes, and earned the species name, tepidariorum—which is Latin for “warming house”—because of its propensity for living in greenhouses. When a mosquito, silverfish or other prey is captured in these “cobb webs,” sticky silk is used to reel in the hapless meal and wrap it tightly. The prey is injected with a powerful enzyme that liquefies its organs so that the spider can suck them up. Brown egg sacs each contain up to 400 eggs.

In time, I worked my way up to the top of the house. Balanced on a rooftop while painting a dormer, I inadvertently invaded the flyway of a colony of paper wasps going in and out of a soffit vent. They buzzed loudly to warn me off; sometimes a wasp landed on my face or neck and crawled around ominously. Since I had no free hand—with a paint can in one and a brush in the other—I allowed the wasps to creep around on my skin, trying to quell my nerves and exude an air of calm, all while continuing to paint.

I now do my writing in an office alcove beneath that same roof. As with many south-facing locations in old houses, this is the most active animal abode. Some time ago, I heard skittering in the wall, followed by the sound of our live trap tripping. I looked inside to find a masked shrew—one of the smallest mammals in the world—wiggling its tiny, tubular nose at me.

My encounter with that diminutive shrew was an epiphany; it put an end to any remaining hopes I harbored of critter-proofing a house that was more than two centuries old. After years of trying to block every conceivable crack and hole that could serve as an entryway for mice, ladybugs, spiders and the like, I realized that “our” house is as much an extension of the natural habitats that surround it, as it is a domesticated refuge from the wild.

This house spider wove its web in the perfect location to catch insects drawn to a nightlight. Photo: Michael J. Caduto.

What you can do: 

Portions of this article adapted with permission from Through a Naturalist’s Eyes: Exploring the Nature of New England by Michael J. Caduto.


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