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Spiders and snakes: when not to be scared

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By Bryce Roberts

 “I don’t like spiders and snakes…” are the lyrics to the catchy 1970s tune by singer Jim Stafford.  Although the song has little to do with wildlife, the sentiment holds true for many whose fear, when they cross paths with a common snake or spider, is real even when the perceived danger isn’t.  

Arachnophobia, the fear of spiders, and Ophidiophobia, the fear of snakes, are the two most common phobias people experience about animals and wildlife. A phobia is a strong, irrational fear of something that presents little to no actual danger.  The best way to control these fears is to educate yourself on the subject or to avoid the source altogether. 

However, if you enjoy outdoor activities like gardening, hiking, camping or even just setting up the backyard barbeque, chances are eventually you will run into one of these creatures. 

Spiders and snakes are predators that prey on insects and other animals that feed on many plants found in yards and gardens.  Both of these backyard visitors are often misunderstood.  While it is true that some snakes and spiders will bite if disturbed, generally, neither are aggressive toward humans and actual bites in the yard are rare. 

Two spiders found in Kentucky are considered dangerous; the brown recluse and the black widow.  Both of these spiders prefer to live in dark, seldom disturbed areas.  You are more likely to find them hiding in garages and storage sheds than among plants in your yard or garden.  For this reason, it is always a good idea to wear gloves when searching through items in these areas.  Look at pictures of these and other spiders so you can identify them. The black widow has a distinct red, hour-glass shape on her underside.  A dark, fiddle-shaped mark is found on the body of the brown recluse.

Some of the more colorful spiders found outdoors include orb weavers like the large yellow and black garden spiders, funnel web spiders, jumping spiders, wolf spiders and crab spiders. 

Of the 33 snake species found in Kentucky, only four are venomous; the Northern copperhead, Western cottonmouth, timber rattlesnake and pygmy rattlesnake. These four species have very specialized habitat requirements and are rarely found around suburban homes and buildings. 

Garter snakes, rat snakes and Eastern Milk snakes are harmless and more likely to be seen in populated areas.  These beneficial species prefer damp, dark and cool areas where food is abundant.  Stacked firewood, old lumber or junk piles, heavily mulched gardens, lawns and abandoned lots with tall vegetation, cluttered basements and attics, and feed storage areas in barns where rodents may be abundant, provide attractive habitats. 

There a several ways to differentiate between venomous and harmless snakes.  For a detailed list of identifying characteristics, go to the website: http://www.ca.uky.edu/forestryextension/publications_wildlife.php.

If you encounter a snake, the best approach is to retreat.  A cornered animal is more likely to strike, but if left alone, the intruder will probably initiate its own retreat.  If a problem persists, homeowners can try altering the habitat to make it less attractive.  No chemicals exist to kill snakes so cultural practices such as mowing, removing clutter and controlling rodent populations must be used to reduce opportunities for human-snake interactions.

As predators, spiders and snakes are an important part of our natural world.  They provide free pest control by reducing populations of undesirable insects and rodents that can damage crops, landscaping and property. 

Feel free to contact me at your Spencer County Cooperative Extension Service at 477-2217 or email me at broberts@uky.edu.