Common Garden Creatures: Learn to Love Wasps and Snakes

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When in doubt about which predatory insects live in your area or what sort of nest they prefer, give them a choice. Here is an example of an easy-to-build insect hotel which offers multiple possibilities—bricks, drilled logs and hollow reeds to entice a variety of garden helpers.
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While wasp larvae feed on pest insects in your garden, their adult progenitors feed on nectar. Planting umbrel-shaped flowers like dill and carrots—which have shallow nectaries to let wasps feed more easily—goes a long way toward attracting them to your garden and keeping them there to lay their eggs.
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Wasps, such as this Aleiodes indiscretus, often parasitize pest caterpillars—in this case a highly invasive gypsy moth caterpillar—to provide food for their emerging larvae.
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A common garter snake (Thamnopsis spp.) takes advantage of a pile of leaves destined for the garden compost pile to bask in a spot of welcome autumn sunshine.
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Providing water for garden helpers can be beautiful as well as functional.

You’re weeding around your tomato bed and come face to face with a snake working its way through the vines, or perhaps you discover a wasp nest in an empty, overturned flower pot. You run screaming to find something to kill it, right? Wrong! Take a breath—maybe it’s time to reconsider what you think about these creatures. That seemingly frightening snake or wasp may be your new best friend, and here’s why…

Everyone knows that many creatures commonly found in gardens are desirable, especially toads, lizards, praying mantis, honey bees and ladybugs—all of which either eat pests or pollinate our plants. However, while we welcome these generally non-threatening animals, almost no one actively encourages wasps and snakes into their gardens. Yet of all the potential garden helpers, they are two of the most beneficial visitors we can invite into our garden.

Snakes and Wasps in the Garden

Snakes feed on insects, snails, slugs, mice and other small rodents. Wasps are equally useful. They not only kill many pest insects, but they also use the bodies of undesirable caterpillars, beetles and grubs to feed their offspring—which means future wasps to continue the fight against your garden pests.

While it seems reasonable to doubt the wisdom of purposely attracting animals that bite or sting, it should be remembered that the “weapons” with which snakes and wasps are equipped are primarily defensive or for use in capturing food. It makes no practical sense for a snake to bite a human unless forced to that extreme, because in doing so, it uses up precious venom that it would prefer to save for killing its natural prey. If a snake bites you, it may go without a meal. And though wasps do not die after they sting, as honey bees do, they prefer not to waste stinger-venom on something they have no chance of killing or making use of.

Addressing Stings and Snakebites

When forced to bite, snakes rarely do lasting damage to humans. In fact, the teeth of non-venomous snakes are too small to pierce most clothing, and since the frightened snake is likely to speed off in the opposite direction after making its defensive strike, you will likely end up more surprised than hurt. If the snake does make contact with bare skin, you need only properly clean the bite with soap and water and apply a mild disinfectant to prevent the wound from becoming infected. It may be some consolation to note that should you be bitten by a venomous snake in your garden, according to the Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, University of Florida, death by snakebite is so rare, that you are actually nine times more likely to get struck by lightning than to die from a bite.

In the event of a poisonous snakebite, it is no longer recommended to cut into or suction the wound or use a tourniquet. Get away from the snake and do not attempt to capture it; stay calm,  wash the wound with water and apply a dry dressing.  Keep the bite area at or below heart level if possible.  Call 911 or get to a hospital immediately. The Mayo Clinic, CDC, Red Cross and American Heart Association all concur that these are the appropriate steps to take in the event of venomous snakebite.

Stings, especially from larger wasp species such as the colonial predatory wasps, can hurt a lot, but unless you are one of those few unfortunate folks with allergies—who, if stung, should seek trained medical assistance immediately—they usually cause no more than minor swelling, itching and burning. Such stings may be treated simply by washing them, then applying ice to reduce swelling and/or vinegar to help neutralize the sting.

Wasp stings usually occur when a wasp feels threatened—either because it thinks you are about to attack or because you are too close to a nest it is guarding. This is especially true of colonial wasps such as those in the Vespidae family (hornets, yellowjackets and paper wasps), though solitary wasps in the Sphecidae family, including the familiar mud daubers, do not usually sting at all. Remaining calm and still when near wasps is enough to prevent most stings.

In addition, many of the most beneficial wasps in the garden, such as the aphid predators (Aphidiinae), are so small that they are unable to pierce human skin with their stingers, even if they wanted to, rendering them completely harmless to us.

Harmless to us, but so beneficial in the garden! The stingers of these tiny parasitoid wasps are specifically adapted to egg-laying in the bodies of pest species like aphids, moth caterpillars and beetles. The Aphidiinae wasp lays a single egg in each aphid it encounters. The wasp larvae matures by eating away the inside of the aphid host before boring through its back and flying away. Braconid wasps lay multiple eggs upon the backs of large caterpillars, such as tomato or tobacco hornworms, and the hatched larvae feed on the caterpillar until it dies. Ichneumonid wasps help control moth, butterfly, beetle and fly eggs. Another group, the Trichogramma wasps, lay their eggs within moth eggs and pupae, killing them and turning the eggs black.

The little parasitoid adult wasps require flowers with shallow, open nectaries to feed upon because they lack the mouthparts necessary to draw nectar from the deep tubular flowers that many larger wasps, bees and other insects prefer. Plants in the carrot family—including many herbs and vegetables you may already be growing—provide the ideal type of flowers to feed these tiny, highly specialized wasps. Mints and asters are other important groups of flowers sought out by these and other beneficial insects.

Attracting Wasps and Snakes

Attracting wasps to the garden is as simple as ensuring a supply of fresh water and planting the right flowers and vegetables. For nectar-eaters see the sidebar for flower suggestions. Predatory wasps enjoy seeking their prey among plants in the Brassica family. These crops offer prime hunting grounds because they tend to attract so many pests. The communal wasps appreciate overturned flowerpots, boxes or other roomy debris in which to attach their nests safely sheltered from rain and harsh sunlight. Natural cavities in hollow trees, logs or rock walls offer additional possibilities. Ground-nesting species will find their own favorite places. To attract and keep snakes in your garden, avoid pesticides and other chemicals—even organic and homemade brews or soap mixtures may cause harm. The same commercial organic products or kitchen concoctions that effectively kill a variety of garden pests may inadvertently kill or repel wasps, other beneficial insects, reptiles and amphibians. A balanced predator/prey system in your garden may take a few years to establish, but once in place, you will seldom need sprays, baits or traps.

Imitate nature in your plantings by foregoing straight, neat rows and concentrations of one crop in any given area. Growing in that artificial way makes crops highly susceptible to damage by pests—which find in them a convenient and limitless supply of their favorite food. Mixing crops and inter-planting herbs and flowers that are attractive to pollinators and other beneficial insects, confuses would-be pests while simultaneously calling in the natural pest-control crew to eliminate those few undesirables who do manage to find your garden.

Provide sunbathing areas for snakes to warm up on cool days. Reptiles need heat to wake up cold muscles, digest food and incubate eggs. A large flat rock or packed-earth area near a brush pile or other shelter will be greatly appreciated.

Give them a road less traveled. Like other wild creatures, snakes may hesitate to come into an obvious human habitation unless they can do so safely and (preferably) unobserved. Hedges or vines growing along a fence or wall, extending from sheltering rocks and brush piles to the garden, offers them a protected travel corridor while they hunt the pests who crave your crops.

Build a den area for resting, breeding and birthing. A carefully constructed brush pile or rock pile over an old chimney tile, a large overturned clay pot,  or a scooped out hole in the ground provides welcome shelter, but be sure to build in well-drained areas that do not collect water when it rains. In summer, snakes will seek cool, shady retreats until evening before resuming their hunting. Keep them in the garden where they can do the most good by providing inviting “caves” for their afternoon siesta.

Once they live in your garden, move rocks and other large objects carefully to avoid harming snakes or other animals who may be sheltering underneath. Make a habit of using a stick to stir grassy areas before mowing so hidden creatures have a chance to move out of harm’s way. If you do move a rock and discover something living under it—do NOT attempt to replace the rock! Doing so could harm or even kill the creature you are trying to spare. Move the stone over a few inches to a fresh spot. The snake, lizard or other creature will soon learn where its shelter went and return to it.

Give them cover. Most snakes would be happy to sleep under a bush or lie in the sun if not for predators, so build rock piles and brush piles wherever possible, leave old logs to decay naturally on the ground or leave a few random holes in stone walls; plant hedges or anything else that offers dense cover.

Above all, provide water. All life depends upon it and snakes are no exception. A garden pool with a gradual slope is ideal for many species, but a shallow bowl or clay saucer on the ground offers a welcome cool drink on hot days. Fill the saucer with a handful of pebbles to create a safe watering hole for beneficial insects, as well.

A garden that can boast all of the above is prime habitat for snakes, wasps and other beneficial creatures—making the job of pest-control in your garden that much easier.

Plants That Attract Beneficial Wasps

Carrot family (Apiaceae/Umbelliferae)—garden carrots, parsley, dill, fennel, Queen Anne’s lace, coriander, chervil, angelica, caraway, celery and parsnip.

Mint family (Laminaceae)—spearmint, peppermint, oregano, sage, rosemary, thyme, lavender, basil, lemon balm, catnip, pennyroyal, bergamot, apple mint, hyssop, horehound, savory, bugleweed (ajuga), coleus, germander, motherwort, perilla and skullcap.

Aster or daisy family (Asteracea)—yarrow, chamomile, marigolds, tansy, calendula, strawflower, ironweed, thistle, sunflower, daisy varieties, chrysanthemums, dahlias, coneflowers, joe-pyeweed, blanket flower, liatris (blazing star), golden rod, feverfew, dandelions, goatsbeard, sweet allysum, fleabane and zinnias.

For more information about treating a snakebite, visit the following websites:

First-Aid Basics: Snakebites

How to Prevent or Respond to a Snakebite

American Heart Association and Red Cross Guidelines for First Aid

Deborah Stephenson has been a writer and naturalist for the last 24 years, and can’t remember a time when she did not love studying plants and animals. When not writing about gardens or natural history, she can generally be found roaming the national forest next door to her southwest Missouri homestead with her dogs or up to her elbows in dirt in one of her organic gardens.

Mother Earth Gardener
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