It’s a jungle out there! Get to know three of the critters that scare people the most and discover how they help mankind.
Most wasps are very beneficial, providing insect control and pollinating our gardens. Some types are social and will defend their nests by stinging if they feel threatened, others are solitary, often ground dwellers. Unless their nest or themselves are threatened most are non-aggressive.
Ann M. Mason, Fairfax Master Gardener lists some of the wasps local to our area. Scoliid wasps are dark blue ground nesters who circle very low over lawns searching for grubs. They are also non-aggressive and good pollinators. Common Mud Dauber wasps build ‘pipe organs’ or domed structures on outside walls. They eat spiders and are not aggressive to humans. Bald Faced Hornets are social, building large roundish paper nests in trees. They consume insects, including yellowjackets. They only use the next one year, so you can remove it in the winter when the hornets are gone. Paper Wasps build umbrella-shaped nests open at the bottom. These often hang from eaves. Like many social wasps, they will defend their nests if bothered, but leave them alone and they will help rid the garden of caterpillars and other insects.
Two of the easily identified wasps are the Eastern Cicada Killer and the Eastern Red-Velvet Ant, which is really a wasp. The Eastern Cicada Killer, one of the largest wasps, is a solitary ground dweller. The female captures cicadas in flight, paralyzes them and deposits them in her borrow to feed her young. Only the wingless female of the Red Velvet Ants can sting. They run across the open ground searching for other wasps’ nests to parasitize the larva by laying their eggs on them. Red Velvet Ants have stings that earn them the nickname of ‘cow killers.’
Yellowjackets are the wasps most likely to present a problem to gardeners and those mowing lawns. They are social and can build nests above ground or below ground. Lawn mowers cannot outrun attacking Yellowjackets. Abandon ship and get inside. Pat Dickey, Fairfax Master Gardener explains that they are likely to invade your picnic or trash cans and hover around you. Don’t swat at them. If they feel threatened, they signal others to come join them in facing the threat.
Many people are fearful of snakes, mainly because they are unfamiliar with them. Most snakes are harmless, and much like bats, provide a valuable service around the home or farm in the way of pest control (snakes control rodents, bats control insects).
Snakes are non-aggressive towards humans, preferring to escape rather than confront us. They are not slimy, instead their scales are smooth and dry. Snakes flick their tongues to ‘smell’ the air. They can feel vibrations in the ground if approached and usually hide or move away.
The Virginia Herpetological Society states that Virginia has 32 species of snakes, but many are rare or have very limited distribution. Twenty varieties are in Patrick and surrounding counties, again many being very rare, and only two are poisonous. Small snake species eat insects, worms, lizards, and frogs and live under leaf litter, rocks and logs or burrow into the soil. The larger species consume voles, mice, rats, and some bird nestlings. Water snakes also eat fish and frogs. They have thick bodies and are banded, often being mistaken for a Copperhead.
Hognose snakes, which eat toads, will try to frighten predators away by rattling their tails or spreading their necks and hissing. If that doesn’t work, they will flop over and play dead. A Black Rat snake will sometimes rattle its tail against fallen leaves to scare away predators. Snakes shed their skin, and the resulting shed will be longer than the snake due to stretching. Snakes are great climbers, sometimes going into attics after mice and rats.
The only poisonous snakes found in our area are Copperheads and Timber Rattlesnakes. Both species give birth to live babies that are just as poisonous as adults. Poisonous snakes have slit pupils, like a cat, while non-poisonous ones have round pupils. It is illegal to kill any snake in VA unless it is threatening to injure you.
Eeek, a spider! Just like most snakes and wasps, spiders are good guys. Spiders eat insects, lots and lots of insects and are very beneficial in our gardens and around our homes. From the tiny Green-Legged Orb Spider, whose body is less than a quarter of an inch to the one inch, plus legs, of the Yellow and Black Garden Spider, all are insect eaters.
According to Jim Revell, Extension Master Gardener, Bedford, VA; and Tim McCoy, Extension Associate, Virginia Tech Pesticide Programs, spiders are divided between web builders and hunters. Web builders wait for their prey to become tangled in their webs, which can be round, irregular, cone-shaped, or random. Web building spiders have poor eyesight and depend on the escape attempts of trapped insects to alert them that dinner has arrived. Hunting spiders, like Wolf Spiders, hunt on the ground, often jumping at or shooting out a strand of silk to capture their prey. Hunting spiders have great eyesight, at least for a spider, and can spot prey up to eight inches away at night. They can also jump four times their body length after prey.
Spiders do not have teeth but do have fangs and poison. They paralyze their prey with the poison, then inject a liquid that dissolves tissue and ‘drink’ their dinner. If a human is bitten by a large spider, it’s usually no worse than a bee sting, but two of the hundreds of species in Virginia are of concern to us. The female Black Widow, males don’t bite, and the Brown Recluse can inflict a nasty bite and require medical attention. Brown Recluse are not native to our area, present only by hitching a ride from somewhere else.
Like snakes, spiders are found in tall grass and shrubs, wood piles, clutter around the outside of buildings, under rocks, leaves, and bark slabs, wherever it’s dark and damp. Some spiders will try to winter over inside homes, often in old cardboard boxes. They will help to keep the insect population down, wherever they are.
With the hundreds of snakes, wasps, and spiders around us, we seldom see or interact with them. The benefits they provide in rodent and insect control plus pollination far outweigh any trouble they cause us.