Published in the Toronto Star – November 26, 2016
My heart skipped a beat. I was, for a second, breathless. I had waited 10 years for this moment. As I approached my garden pond, a garter snake slithered away in front of me. A beauty, about 60 cm long, a healthy specimen dressed in black and yellow. I had met a new level of success in my gardening efforts.
Some readers, no doubt, are squirming right now. How I would like to change that. Canadian snakes are, for the most part, not poisonous. The only one that is in our region is the Massasauga rattler and you would know it to see it, as it has a rattle attached to its tail. I have it on good authority that there are no Massasaugas in Mississauga or anywhere near here, except on and near the Bruce peninsula.
Nevertheless snakes get a lot of bad press. Why is it that when I play Snakes and Ladders, the ladders give me short cuts to where I want to go and the snakes cause me to go backwards? I know the answer: snakes don’t advertise very well. They slither, are cold-blooded, one of them introduced Eve to sin and there is that poisonous thing about them that poisons their reputation.
Truth is, our native snakes are an important part of the natural web that makes up our ecosystem. They consume copious quantities of insects including ground beetles and slugs. Every so often, a snake is lost to a hawk or other predator. This is the part of dynamic biodiversity that we really don’t like to talk about: wildlife sometimes eats other wildlife.
The common garden spider is a good example of a creature in need of a public relations agent. Allow me to be that agent for a moment.
Spiders are major predators of flies and other insects, many of them pests. Like the snake, they have a special place in the food-chain web. While a hawk may not swoop down and take a spider, a garden toad or frog will. In a nanosecond, a frog tongue will snap up a juicy spider and gulp it down.
As Jean Vernon, columnist with The Garden magazine, is fond of saying, “Even if you can’t bring yourself to love spiders, you have to admire their handiwork and role they play in nature.” Some spiders lay sticky traps, much like fly paper, and lie in wait for the kill. Others spin elaborate webs of spider-silk and wait for a meal to become entangled in it. They are more patient than a hungry cat waiting for a mouse. The orb-weavers are amazing for their artistry and hard work. This is difficult to appreciate when you open the front door of your house only to walk through their handiwork, face-on.
And speaking of venom (as I was with regards to snakes), the only indigenous spider that is poisonous is the black widow and there are precious few of them out there. Often they are confused with the False Black Widow, the genus Steatoda.
This time of year, we frequently spot spiders indoors as they seek shelter from the cold weather. There is a temptation to stomp on them, unless you are my vegetarian brother-in-law Randy. He scoops them up in a dust pan and carefully moves them out of doors. I argue that this is a good idea but you don’t have to be a vegetarian to do it. Anybody can take pity on a lowly spider and put it gently in its’ proper place.
While you are transporting your charge out of doors, contemplate this:
- Spiders spin silk that is among the strongest fibres know to mankind.
- Spiders don’t chew their food. They trap it, coat it in digestive enzymes and chow down the whole works when they are ready. No need for refrigeration or chewing.
- Spiders are arachnids, not insects as they have eight legs, not six.
- The Government of Canada reminds us in their bulletin, ‘Spiders’ from the Department of Health, that they are, “natural and efficient pest control agents.”
I hope you got that last point: spiders are effective pest control agents. This must mean that they are not pests themselves. You cannot have a thief who is a thief-control agent, now can you?
Which brings me back to my first point and my life mission: to convince readers who think that many creatures that are bad, that they are indeed very helpful and worthy of nurturing, if not just leaving alone.
I urge you to consider this the next time you are trapped in the shower with a spider.