Profitable Spiders

If pest management professionals decide that spider control can be a valuable service to their clients, they need to make sure to structure and price their programs accordingly.

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September 12, 2000

Of all the animals on Earth, people fear only snakes more than they do spiders. Spiders are typically small creatures and although each carries venom, a tiny minority are considered dangerous and bites happen by accident. It is interesting in my experience that far more men than women are afraid to touch or hold one of my pet tarantulas, even when she sits quietly in my hand. I listen to co-workers describe how they must vanquish an errant arachnid intruder because their husbands would rather not go near it.

Additionally, homeowners despise web-building spiders for the cobwebs that mar the apparent cleanliness of their homes. Cobwebs are old, abandoned spider webs that have collected dust and thus become highly visible. This fact moreso than fear prompts a desire by homeowners and business-owners for spider control. But is total control of spiders possible? If not, how can spider control services be offered and sold or be profitable?

Spiders comprise about 30,000 species in comparison to more than 1 million insect species, but spiders more than make up the difference in sheer numbers. It is this propagational propensity that renders spider control difficult and total elimination nearly impossible. New spiders may appear as quickly as others are killed or physically removed.

The fact remains, however, that people want spider control and will pay for such services if they are properly designed and marketed. Experience also shows that the typical customer understands the futility of total spider elimination and that they have a willingness to accept the inevitable occasional spider and spider web. The goal in a successful spider control program, therefore, is to minimize the threat of spider invasions. The design of the program is not unlike that for other pests and can easily be folded into an overall pest management program. Certain situations will call for specific control efforts, e.g., brown recluse spiders or spider control in warehouses, food plants, etc.

Review. A quick review of the key aspects of spiders as pests is necessary. Three basic groups of urban spiders are of concern within structures: hunting spiders, passive hunters and web-building spiders.

Hunting Spiders. The hunters, such as wolf spiders (see photo on page 41), jumping spiders, ground spiders and sac spiders, are active arachnids that run down their prey. Use of webbing is for retreats only, never for capturing prey. Of this group, wolf spiders are the most important as many species can be quite large and will commonly enter homes while searching for prey. Most wolf spider species are considerably smaller and, together with ground spiders, make up most of the specimens captured on monitoring traps indoors.

Passive Hunters. This is a small group that relies on ambushing prey as it happens by. The most important species is the brown recluse whose bite can be serious, especially if it becomes infected. This species readily establishes itself within buildings and is difficult to control. Specialized service is necessary to deal with brown recluse infestations, the highlights of which will be discussed later.

Web-Builders. As mentioned earlier, web-builders are the more despised of spiders for the residuals they leave behind. The species of most concern are the black widow and the hobo spiders, due to their bite, but many other web-building species are far more common in buildings. Comb-footed spiders, orb-weavers and funnel web spiders are the most common groups seen.

A Spider Program. The basic components for managing spiders include exterior lighting, harborage removal, sanitation, exclusion and treatment.

Exterior Lighting. The key to minimizing spiders begins with analyzing the situation and determining the factors contributing to the spider problem. A major issue is the type of exterior lighting. Mercury vapor lighting attracts a far greater number of spiders than sodium vapor lighting. Attracting fewer flying insects limits the food supply for spiders thus resulting in fewer spiders. In one case in Florida, an extensive web-building spider problem was only solved after the office building finally changed the types of bulbs that were being used.

For homes, switching to yellow buglights is helpful in reducing flying insects. Keeping outside lights off as much as possible is even better.

Harborage Removal. For hunting spiders, ground cover, piles of items on the ground, leaf litter, etc., all serve as shelter for spiders and the insect food source. Eliminating as much potential harborage as possible results in fewer spiders near the building.

Sanitation. Although eliminating harborages is part of a sanitation program, for spiders, this step means regular removal of webs and cobwebs. This is easily done with a broom or a product called Mighty Cobweb Duster, but vacuuming removes spiders, egg sacs and webbing at the same time. Clearing webs provides the customer the appearance of immediate control and provides additional value in the customer’s mind. Clearing webs is one less thing they have to worry about.

Exclusion. As with most pests that invade from outdoors, excluding spiders is one of the more effective control measures. Sealing cracks and holes is one step, but installing tight-fitting screens on all attic and foundation vents is also important. Exclusion services can be an add-on service to sell to customers.

Treatment. Treatments for spiders involve two separate issues. The first issue involves web-building spiders. Once webs and spiders have been removed, spot treatments with a WP or ME insecticide can be made to those corners and other sites where spiders have built or might construct webs. For hunting spiders, foundation treatments have some limited value, as will applications to ivy and other heavy vegetation. Treatment of exterior cracks with a residual dust followed by sealing such openings is much more effective.

Brown recluse spiders require extensive treatment measures including:

• Dust treatment behind all base-boards, door frames and window frames.

• Dust treatment of wall voids behind all electric outlets and plumbing voids.

• Dust treatment beneath attic and crawlspace insulation where spider activity is found.

• Dust treatment of exterior cracks and holes.

• Dust treatment of cracks in basements, garages and crawlspaces.

• Spot treatments using a WP or ME insecticide to baseboards and floor/wall junctures behind furniture, boxes, etc., in areas where spiders are active.

Traps. Monitoring traps are especially helpful for hunting spiders. Often an offending wolf spider can be captured with little treatment needed. For brown recluse spiders, however, one cannot use too many traps. Each spider captured is one that cannot bite someone.

Making Spider Services Profitable. To enjoy a profit from spider control efforts, a company must make a conscious effort to structure and market spider control services. Including spiders in every pest control service may not be wise unless specific control measures for spiders are offered as part of the service.

For example, Company A explains to homeowners that spider webs will be removed on the outside of the home on each service — that explains a few added dollars in cost of the service. The benefit to the customer is they avoid having to clean off the webs themselves. This service also permits easier recognition of new spider activity that allows the service professional to better target his or her efforts. Value is realized for both client and the company.

Brown recluse control services are often vastly underpriced if the service is to be completed correctly. A company must realize the considerable effort that is often necessary to gain control of an infestation of this dangerous pest. Given the potential liability should a person be bitten, pest control companies should specifically exclude brown recluse, black widow, hobo and sac spiders from regular pest control service agreements unless services to control them are specifically included. Given that four or more man-hours may be needed to complete a treatment for brown recluse spiders, pricing for the initial service should be adjusted accordingly.

A considerable amount of potential spider control services may be overlooked. How many PCOs service warehouses or food-processing facilities where spider activity (particularly web-builders) is evident in many parts of the facility? Have you talked to the customer regarding regular web removal? Is the warehouse interested in a space treatment to reach and control spiders up at the ceiling level (many warehouses contract for such treatments)? Or is the facility interested in having a professional go up on lifts to remove the spiders in higher areas? A few food processors contract for these services at a cost totaling tens of thousands of dollars. Are you missing out?

CONCLUSION. It is important to note that total spider elimination is not possible, especially if the client does not wish to reduce or correct those conditions contributing to the infestation. Regular sanitation, exclusion and limited treatments can vastly reduce spider activity, given client cooperation. The first step is to decide that spider control services can provide a viable service value to many of your current and potential clients. The evidence is hanging on the walls and in the corners. It is up to enterprising professionals to go out and get the business.

The author is a board certified entomologist, a registered sanitarian and manager of technical services for Terminix International, Memphis, Tenn. He can be reached at shedges@pctonline.com.