Large bullsnake who calls the author's place of residence their home turf.


It is cold outside — bone chilling cold at times in the Midwest this time of year.

Lakes and rivers are frozen over, the prairie grass is covered in snow, and hardly a leaf remains on a tree or shrub from the relenting wind. A perfect time to talk about two unheralded and misrepresented members of the animal kingdom, right — spiders and snakes? Snakes have taken to underground wintering areas or dens in the Midwest where their cold-blooded metabolisms slow and they spend the time in a hopefully constant temperature to survive the winter.

Spiders, contrary to my daughters’ beliefs that they all reside in their basements during the winter, are doing whatever they need to do to survive the winter as well. Seeking shelter in a cool space like underground, alongside a foundation of a south facing house, inside houses, caves, under deep leaf litter in forests, and anywhere in nature they can find enough warmth to survive.

Most people are not big fans of these two creatures. Mainly I think because they tend to startle us when they appear out of nowhere or when uncovered from a hiding spot and when spooked they run or slither away very fast, or, depending on size and attitude, they may try and take you on. I have to say I am not a huge fan of snakes. I can tolerate them at a distance, but never was one to like to handle them, tame or wild. Spiders, either — no inclination to handle them.

But both species fascinate me. My oldest daughter is deathly afraid of snakes. Working in the field of emergency room medicine she has seen about everything already — stuff I cannot envision. Yet, a small garter snake will put her into a full blown panic attack? My youngest daughter, a nurse who has also seen some wild stuff, is deathly afraid of spiders? Go figure. I hope I am not responsible for this fear, I thought I was pretty fair in the treatment of these creatures while they were growing up.

Now, if we examine these two creatures' habits, we find that it is highly unlikely we could survive without them, really. Snakes, for one thing, are amazing predators. Able to access places where mice, rats, insects, and other things that wreak havoc on our food supplies and dwellings hang out. Where we live in the country, our buildings are under constant attack by mice especially, and most land snakes are mice hunting experts.

Example: As a teenager I worked on my Uncle Virgil Drake’s farm and we had to grind feed for his dairy cows often. To do this, you added a healthy amount of oats to the grinding mix — oats that were piled in a walk-in bin or shed. Not a big deal — shovel up some oats and be off to the grinder. But the oats pile was guarded by a black rat snake that to me looked 20 feet long (but was actually a healthy 6 feet or so long). Rat snakes are fairly calm, can climb about anywhere, and they are aptly named. Rats and mice make up almost the entirety of their diet. I was under strict instructions from my cousin/boss Mike, “do not harm the rat snake in the oats bin.” I should have asked him if he gave the snake the same order for me. He would have just laughed and said “go get some oats, Johnny."

I never shoveled anything so fast in my life as then. I imagine every farm had many snakes patrolling stocks of commodities that got the same respect. I learned to deal with it and now I respect and appreciate the snakes I encounter as guardians of our resources, as well. From a distance if possible.

Now spiders, they come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and purposes just like snakes. From giant bird-eating spiders (yes, birds) to fish-eating spiders in the Amazon and other jungle regions (yes I said fish), to the common wolf spiders and garden spiders in our basements and barns and crops. What makes a spider a spider is they all have one amazing ability; the capability to spin thread. Not all spiders spin thread into webs, but they all have this tool at their disposal, and seem to know exactly what to do with it.

Spider thread is pound for pound the toughest material on earth. It has a higher tensile strength than that of steel (of comparable thickness), is made up of proteins, and can be used for many things. The standard old web for catching insects is the most obvious, but they also can be made into a funnel to lure insects underground, made into a trap-door to snap closed on unsuspecting prey or streamed for hundreds of feet behind a spider like a kite tail to allow them to catch a breeze and actually float great distances to travel to food sources.

Researchers and scientists are so fascinated by this spider wire material, they are replicating it, using of all things goats, who are given the protein in some bizarre twist of science and science fiction, which then can produce the silk from their milk. Don’t believe me? Look it up on the world wide web, no pun intended.

Now these spiders across the world eat mainly other insects — a lot of insects. Did you know these crazy scientists again estimate that if you took all six billion plus of us humans on this planet and put them on a swinging scale, and then put all the insects on the planet on the other side of the scale, it would be no contest. The insects would outweigh us humans easily. That is impressive. Imagine without spiders each consuming pounds and pounds of disease carrying mosquitoes, flies, crop eating locusts, grasshoppers, and cutworms, not to mention cockroaches (yuck), our world as we know it would probably soon be taken over by insects.

The same could be said about snakes. Mouse and rat population explosions have caused worldwide disasters such as the plague and ravaged our crops. Now there are many other species of insect and mouse/rat eating animals and insects around, but these are the two we most commonly see around here, and the two most people seem to dislike the most. I can talk about the other beneficial species in some other article later on, but for now I am just trying to shed some positive light on two creatures that get very little kudos for what they do for us and our environment.

So maybe next time you see a snake, instead of reach for a hoe to do them in, gently encourage them to move on. Same with spiders, if you can catch them in a jar in your house or garage and release them out into the wild rather than crushing them underfoot, they may save your life someday. OK, that may be a stretch, but think of all the fascinating things they do to help us out, and give them some respect, please.

Remember, get out and enjoy nature whenever you can, and look for the good and fascinating things it has to provide every day. You will truly be amazed.

John F. Knoble is a retired Natural Resource Specialist. He lives in rural Goose Lake, Iowa, with his wife Tina of 34 years, and their two dogs.