Welcome the least-loved critters

This means snakes. And toads. And bats. And spiders. These are not a witches’ brew, but a cadre of great garden helpers.

With these scaly, warty, scuttling friends, you’ll have fewer insect pests, healthier plants, and lots more fun.

Without them, mosquitoes would eat us alive. Cucumber beetles, cutworms, and their ilk would mow down the garden. Hummingbirds would not be able to make nests. Slugs would devour every host a leaf and then have the petunias for dessert.

PRAISE SNAKES

If you encounter a snake in your backyard, it’s probably a garter snake. If it has stripes that run the length of its body, it is even more likely to be a garter snake. This most common snake in North America, sometimes called the ribbon snake, is no threat at all to humans.

Garter snakes favor long grass, such as is found in a meadow garden, along a fence, or around a pond. They also like densely planted gardens where they can slither unnoticed during their daytime hunting.

The garter snake’s backyard prey include slugs, grasshoppers, and small rodents, including the voles that chew the bark off your fruit trees. Frogs, toads, and salamanders get stalked, too. In water, garter snakes nab tadpoles, fish, and other aquatic prey.

An unmanicured garden or naturalistic part of the yard will make a garter snake feel at home. A garden pool or a birdbath basin set on the ground will satisfy their craving for water.

Blame It on the Bullfrogs

Garter snakes eagerly eat bullfrog tadpoles and youngsters; adult bullfrogs, which can reach 1 6 inches long, are too huge to swallow. This is where the tables turn: Adult bullfrogs devour garter snakes–so many, in fact, that in some areas, such as the Southwest, garter snake populations have shown a marked decline. Bullfrogs were once native to only a wide swath that ran from Texas eastward up to New England. Today, they are found almost everywhere on the entire continent.

ROMANCE A TOAD

Toads love slugs, so embrace your toad, even if you don’t stoop to give it a smooch. (There’s no chance of it turning into a prince: Those are frogs.)

These amphibians go to work looking for mosquitoes when the Sun goes down, just as those bugs begin to rise from the foliage or ground. With each quick zap of the toad’s incredible tongue, another pest goes down the hatch. And not just ‘skeeters. A toad will eat all night, devouring countless slugs, sow bugs (aka roly-polies), flies, beetles, cutworms, and caterpillars.

In the backyard, a toad will quickly adopt a favorite damp, cool shelter during the day. (Once you discover its hiding place, you’ll be looking for your friend whenever you pass by.)

You can court a toad by adding a “toad house” to your garden. It’s easy to make: Just knock out part of the rim of a clay flowerpot. Then set it upside-down in a shady spot among your plants, and the rim opening that you made will serve as the entrance. A garden pool might attract singing, mating toads in spring.

Toad-ally a Myth

Toads have gotten a bum rap for centuries as the cause of warts, but this is simply not true. Warts on human skin are caused by a human virus. As many as 1 0 different kinds of warts have been identified, including the “common wart,” which often occurs on fingers and hands–the one that’s often blamed on toads. Toads may be lumpy and bumpy, but they keep their warty skin to themselves.

BRING ON THE BATS

Without bats, we would be up to our necks in bugs. Luckily for us, from dusk to dawn, bats skim the skies with open mouths. Mosquitoes, wasps, flies, gnats, midges, moths, beetles (cucumber beetles and emerald ash borers among them) … whatever is on the wing is fair game. Just one brown bat, barely 4 inches long, can consume about 1,000 mosquito-size insects in an hour. A colony of bats at the University of Florida eats an estimated 2,500 pounds of insects–about 2.5 billion bugs–every night.

In south-central Texas alone, bats are credited with saving farmers $1.7 million a year in pesticide costs, thanks to the bats’ penchant for gobbling up corn earworm moths, which damage tomato and cotton crops as well as corn. Imagine what they can do for your garden!

Better yet, stop imagining and put up a bat house to help attract a colony. And put down that tennis racket. Instead of swatting a bat that gets into the house, wait until it lands, put a small box or other container over it, and slide a piece of cardboard under the box. At night, carry the closed box outside and release the bat into the air.

SET YOUR SIGHTS ON SPIDERS

Every backyard hosts zillions of spiders, and every spider eats lots and lots of insects. Many of these super predators spin webs, from sheets of silk on the ground to classic orbs stretched between twigs. When an insect contacts the sticky strands, the spider leaps to devour its victim on the spot or wrap it securely in silk for more leisurely dining later. (Not all are fatal attractions: Hummingbirds depend on spider silk to glue their nests together. Kinglets, gnatcatchers, and other small songbirds use the ultrastrong fibers for their homes too.)

Instead of tending a web, jumping spiders and big, hairy wolf spiders pursue their prey. Well-camouflaged crab spiders have an even simpler method: They sit on a flower and grab any insect that happens by.

Whatever their method, all spiders help to control insects. And whether flying, scuttling, or sitting, all insects are potential meals to spiders.

Cold-season gardeners will appreciate this: Many spiders overwinter as adults, so they’re on the prowl early in the year, eating young grasshoppers and other pests before they get out of control.

Spiders will naturally take up residence in your garden. Using mulch will boost the prey for ground spiders to stalk.

Sites Unseen (by Us) Spider silk reflects ultraviolet (UV) light, which is visible to insects and birds. the uV warns birds away from webs, so that spiders don’t have to repair their silk. But the UV attracts bugs to webs, using the same trick that flowers employ to lead bugs to their nectar.

Snakes, toads, bats, and spiders don’t know when their prey is a garden pest. Only we do, so expect to see spiders catching butterflies, if they’re able to, or other insects that we deem to be “good.” The same goes for snakes, toads, and bats: If it’s gettable, it’ll be gotten.

But don’t worry. Insects abound. Without the least-loved critters here and others to keep them in check, we’d love our gardens a lot less.

Battling a Killer

Bats are in deadly danger. White-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that attacks hibernating bats, is spreading fast. It’s killed millions of little brown bats in the Northeast since first reported in New York and now is moving west. Insects may be celebrating, but not gardeners and farmers.


Leave a Reply