Hummingbirds and spiders: Nature’s peanut butter and jelly

Guest author Susie Hill, Frederick County Master Gardener
This post originally appeared in the Frederick News-Post

“Ahhhhh!” The sound waves of a bloodcurdling scream bent corners and penetrated the chestnut logs of my house. Up two flights of stairs and many rooms away, I heard the call. “A tarantula!!!”
Seriously? I have spent a great deal of time with my shrieking friend, so I take ownership of the fact that I have not yet desensitized her to one of our greatest allies in the battle against unwanted six-legged pests. Not only do spiders capture and feed on insects in the house and garden, but the common house spider performs a job that is little-known but truly miraculous: Spiders spin the silk that ruby-throated hummingbirds use to make their nests.
This spring, when redbuds and sassafras come into bloom, hummingbirds will start to arrive. Let’s call them Joe and Sally. Joe will arrive first to stake out territory and identify nectar sources. Sally will arrive about one week later, and once she is wooed, nest-building will begin. The nest will be built on a horizontal branch, close to a water source. Joe will search for pieces of lichen as building blocks, just as the three little pigs used mud, straw, and bricks. Then, assuming that all the spiders in town haven’t suffered sudden death by vacuum cleaner or shoe bottom, Sally will retrieve spider silk to weave a nest for her young.
Close-up view of hummingbird nest hanging from small tree branches; photo by Dave Powell, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org
Spider silk is vitally important to hummingbird baby survival, and it is both strong and flexible. Eggs are only the size of jelly beans, laid in a tiny cup-like nest. As the babies grow, the nest expands but still holds them snugly because of the spider silk. As a kid, I put nesting materials out for the birds. I’d put strings in onion bags in the hopes that some migrating songbird, exhausted from its journey, would find these nesting materials and have a head start on setting up camp. That may work for some birds, but not for hummingbirds.
Lobelia cardinalis and hummingbird by Sara Tangren
There are, of course, other ways to support hummingbirds. Use native plants in your landscape. Aim to provide a succession of bloom throughout the season. Some native plants that are good nectar sources for hummingbirds and are easy to find include columbine, monarda, coralbells, cardinal flower, blue lobelia, trumpet creeper and our native honeysuckle. Jewelweed, which grows naturally, is a great late-season nectar source. Not only do these plants provide nectar sources, but Joe and Sally can catch small insects on the flowers too. These insects provide a crucial protein source for them and their young. There is a synchronicity in this cycle. The hummingbirds and spiders team up to feed on insects, and the birds use the spider silk to provide a safe nest for their babies. They go together like peanut butter and jelly.
As I sit here, a jumping spider has serendipitously fallen into my water glass. I’ll call her Charlotte. My friend is upstairs sleeping, so she didn’t have a chance to scream. I quietly emptied my glass into a houseplant and encouraged Charlotte to go find something to eat. I’ll take a spider over a stinkbug any day. This spring, as I do my spring cleaning, I will leave the cobwebs behind. You will never find a spider in my vacuum bag or on the bottom of my shoe — not only do they eat lots of insect pests, but Joe and Sally might be needing their silk soon to make a safe nest for their little ones. If spiders and their webs go together with hummingbirds like peanut butter and jelly, who am I to interfere?

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