This time of the year, we see an upsurge in insect life - the last gasp of summer. We also see an increase in the predators - Spiders and Snakes. We have several poisonous spiders and snakes in Missouri and of course, people should be wary. We also have lots more that are beneficial to us. We also have insects that most people consider pests that are actually bugs you want around. I'd like to go over a few of these beneficial creatures and why you keep these species around your homestead. Warning: There will be pictures.
So, I'm walking down to the bee feeder, along the path through the high grass and goldenrod. I swing a stick as I go because likely or not an Orb Spider has made their web across the path from the tips of one goldenrod to another. If they are across the path, their web has to go, I'm sorry but dealing with 300 or so bees flying around my head is bad enough without combing spider webs out of my hair.
The Orb spiders are everywhere this year and the early dawning light shows them up wonderfully. They are shimmering with dew and their symmetry and beauty always amaze me. Their dexterity amazes me, too as they captured and killed the Japanese Beetles that were eating my green beans. Other insects that eat my garden are being caught right now and while the spiders don't get every one of them, they do take out a lot. That's helpful to our final crop for sure.
The Wolf Spiders have been doing their hunts, too. They eat insects that eat my plants, too. Their prey is a tad smaller. They go after ants and other burrowing creatures. They will even take larger prey like crickets that eat my greens. They don't make webs but hunt on their own. Some varieties do make small circular webs down at the base of the tall grasses but these are funnels, rather then the big traditional orb spider webs. The wolf spider web coaxes prey to walk into the funnel and Wolf waits at the bottom.
Orbs and Wolf Spiders can bite, they have significant fangs but they are not interested in you, and are not aggressive. You can usually scare either one away with a breath of air. Which ever kind you have, they are good spiders and don't care to bother you and will eat the bugs that bug you.
We have Brown Recluses and Black Widow Spiders here in Missouri and neither one is particularly nice. Both are somewhat aggressive and will bite first and scurry away later, so kill them upon sight. They both like to hide in dark and damp places, like basements, in the corners of cardboard boxes. I find them inside my stored mason jars - so always check before you put your hand inside a box from your storage. If you are bitten by either one, seek medical help immediately, they are no laughing matter.
Brown Recluses can range from an inch to an inch and a half across with a smaller body with long spindly legs. It's body is marked with a brownish tan violin shape on it's back. Black Widows are only around an inch across but have a bright red hourglass on it's abdomen and they hang out in a web. Don't mess with these spiders - get rid of them fast. Please don't use insecticides outside of your home.. only spray for spiders inside. You don't want to kill the beneficial spiders.
If you aren't sure what kind of spider you are looking at, capture it gently by putting a jar over it and sliding a piece of paper under it to trap it in the jar. Then slip a piece of cardboard under the paper or another sturdy surface so you can pick up the entire thing. Identify your arachnid and either kill or release depending on what you determine. Don't just smash it cause it's a spider - be picky about it.
There are a number of snakes in Missouri, too and some of them are really no big deal and some will eat your eggs. Folks might remember me telling about the Big Black Rat Snake that was eating eggs in my henhouse. He was captured and released a goodly ways into the woods away from any homes.
We also have smaller snakes that take care of mice and smaller vertebrates that would also eat my produce or invade my house. The garter snakes do their job in the gardens and the ring necked snakes are in the gardens, too. Most people recognize the garter snakes and know they are harmless.
The Ring Necks are a tad different because they are mimics - the snake they mimic is the juvenile Copperhead. You see, Copperhead babies have yellow tips to their tails and come in several colors ranging from all black except that yellow tail to the traditional diamond pattern in blacks and grays. The black Ring Neck mimics this by having orange scales on the underside of the tip of their tails. They also have attractive tan or yellow necklaces on and slender smooth heads with large black eyes.
If the Ring Neck feels threatened it will flip up that tail, showing the orange tip and most predators will back off from that 'copperhead baby'. Ring Necks don't get very large and are not aggressive, so leave them alone. Most aren't big enough to give you a wicked bite but you should never play with wild snakes anyway. If you find a ring neck in your basement or crawlspace, capture it gently the same way you capture a spider and move it outside and release it on the edge of a fence row or woods.
If you aren't sure of your ability to recognize the big three venomous Missouri snakes, one trick is to remember the shape of the heads. Venomous snakes have large triangular heads with hooded eyes and defined necks while constrictors and boas have smooth slender heads and large eyes and relatively no distinct neck. These three snakes are the Copperhead, the Rattlesnake and the Cottonmouth.
Don't just kill a snake because you don't know. Get away from an unidentified snake outside. It knows you aren't prey and some will aggressively defend themselves, even if they aren't venomous. Leave snake handling to the pros. Avoid them and they will avoid you. If they are in your hen house, basement or home and you aren't sure, call a pro!
There are other insects that you could be wary of but know they are predators that help. Wasps are dangerous insects that can sting you over and over again but they eat insect caterpillars that decimate melons, cucumbers and other similiar veggies and who doesn't like that? While I don't recommend you leave them to build nests in your eaves, if you find a nest in the wild, leave it alone. You want them eating the insects that bug you.
We've been conditioned to be afraid of Spiders and Snakes but, as with everything else, knowledge breaks through fear. We need our spiders and snakes and wasps just like we need our bees. Be kind to the fauna and flora that exists around you naturally and leave the stalks and leaves in your garden alone to become habitat for the beneficial creatures to use to overwinter. To all creatures, great and small, be kind.