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What’s up with all the spiders and snakes?

Like people, critters are seeking relief

September 2, 2012
By JOE SUTTER, , Messenger News

The hot, dry weather can be hard on animals as well as people - even those animals considered "creepy-crawly" by some.

"Just like people, we have animals like snakes trying to deal with the lack of water too," said Webster County Naturalist Karen Hansen. "That's sometimes why they end up in places they weren't before - they're going down basements or window wells or drain pipes, just places where they're trying to get a little bit lower to find moisture."

When snakes come closer to people, the reaction is sometime to cut off their heads, which Hansen said is completely unnecessary.

Article Photos

-Messenger photo by Joe Sutter
Webster County Conservation Naturalist Karen Hansen holds a fox snake. The snake has been kept by the Conservation office for a couple years, and is used in programs. These harmless snakes are one of the most common in this part of Iowa, and often mimic rattlesnakes to frighten enemies.

"I usually hope it's a one-time incident if a snake comes into a basement," she said. "I encourage people to somehow carefully get it out of the house without killing it. It's probably not going to be poisonous snake. It can do a lot more benefit for your surroundings as far as rodent control than if you were to dispose of it."

People can pick up a snake with a stick or hook to help get it out of an area.

"I often pick them up by the end of the tail and just hold them away from me," she said. "I definitely don't encourage anyone to run them over or chop their heads off in order to move them to a new location."

It's pretty much guaranteed any snake in this area is not venomous, said Karen Kinkead, wildlife diversity program coordinator at the DNR office in Boone.

"There are no known rattlesnakes in the area," Kinkead said. "Copperheads and rattlesnakes have a fairly limited range."

She said is a good resource to find out more about Iowa snakes, including their ranges. Poisonous snakes in the state are found mostly in the south and along the Mississippi river.

However, there are plenty of snakes in the area which can be mistaken for rattlesnakes.

"The fox snake is the one most mistaken for a venomous snake," Kinkead said. "Because they are bigger, they have the blotches on their back, and they can mimic a rattlesnake because they can make the sound with their tail."

Fox snakes and garter snakes are the most common snakes in this area, said Hansen. Bullsnakes and little brown snakes also are common.

Bullsnakes, the longest Iowa snake, also mimic rattlers, Kinkead said.

"They're becoming more rare. I think it's because people mistake them for venomous snakes, and then they kill them when they shouldn't.

"Snakes are an important component to the ecosystem. They eat a lot of mice," she said. "They're usually just trying to get away."

Spiders seek shelter

Wolf spiders have been getting into homes much more often than usual this year, said Iowa State University Entomologist Ken Holscher.

"They were as hot as you and I were, looking for relief," he said.

Wolf spiders are "the big ones that frighten a lot of folks, the biggest spiders in Iowa. Because they wander around at night, they have excellent vision, they can find their way into a home. People see a big old spider and get concerned about it."

Though they may seem intimidating, wolf spiders won't bite except in defense, Holscher said, and they won't take up residence in a house long-term.

"Those wolf spiders and other hunting spiders are not going to live very long in your home. That's not a place they can live. They can't reproduce there," he said. "They'll die on their own in a couple days."

The best way to keep them out is to minimize the amount of insects around a home.

"If you have a lot of insects, you will have a lot of spiders," Holscher said. "A lot of insects are attracted to lights. If you leave porch lights on, if you have a lot of window lights shining out, that's going to attract insects and spiders will follow."

Spider bites are uncommon

Spiders have a bad reputation, but Holscher said it's unjustified.

"The term 'spider bite' is grossly overused by the public, and by the medical community," he said. "Spiders don't bite as much as people think they bite."

The most common spiders in homes are those commonly known as cobweb spiders, he said. These include short-bodied and long-bodied cellar spiders, and comb-footed spiders. They are basically blind, so they don't often venture out from their webs and most are too small to bite a human.

"For any spider to bite you it has to be big enough physically. So some spiders are so small, they couldn't penetrate your skin if they wanted," Holscher said.

Holscher said he doesn't understand why so many people are afraid of spiders.

"On the whole spiders are beneficial. They feed on insects, and as long as we don't force them to bite us, they're not a concern for us," he said. "I think it's like anything in life. If we don't take time to really understand something, we fear it."

To find out more about spiders, he recommended any website run by a university. He warned that many sites look official but contain misinformation.

"The thing with the internet, it's a marvelous tool, but too many people think everything on the internet is true. Not everything you find is true, even if looks fancy," he said.

Venomous spiders

Iowa's two venomous spiders, the black widow and the brown recluse, are very rare, Holscher said.

Black widows are only found in the far southern part of the state, he said, unless they catch a ride on something shipped from the south.

Brown recluses are found in the southern two-thirds of the state, basically anywhere south of U.S. Highway 20.

It's called a recluse because it's a very shy spider, he said. It waits in dark secluded areas for insects to come and find it. In fact, people can live in a house with brown recluses for years and never see them.

"You find them in attics, maybe basements crawlspaces, maybe closets you haven't cleaned out, but you won't find them out wandering around in the living room or kitchen," he said. "The only way people are bitten by those are when people reach back into those areas."

The bite can be dangerous, but it all depends on the amount of venom in the spider and a person's sensitivity.

"If you look online and start looking for pictures, you will get the worst case possibility, because that's the most dramatic. Most people who are bitten don't have that dramatic a reaction."

You usually don't feel the spider's bite, he said, but will notice a reddening around the area the next day. The venom acts on the skin, and kills whatever skin cells it comes into contact with.

There is no antivenom, he said. Once you see the symptoms, there's not much else you can do except let the bite run its course.

A full-grown brown recluse is between the size of a nickel and a quarter, including the legs. The body is a pale tan color, except for a brown marking on the spider's head shaped like a violin. The legs are thin and sometimes take on a reddish brown color.

To avoid being bitten, Holscher said to be careful when reaching back into dark areas where the spider could hide, or when cleaning out areas that have not been cleaned for a long time.



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