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Garden Q&A: What is this mottled patterned snake and are wheel bugs friends or foes?

A wee baby eastern ratsnake (barely bigger than the acorn). Note the “bandit” dark stripe between and across the eyes, one feature to look for in this species. (Miri Talabac/ The Baltimore Sun)

Q: This small snake with a mottled pattern appeared near the house recently. Who do we have here? Nothing venomous, I hope? Snakes make me nervous, but I try to tolerate them.

A: No worries, this is a juvenile eastern ratsnake (black ratsnake), a very common species often seen in suburbia. Like several other local species, juveniles have a different body pattern than adults, and different juveniles might be confused with each other at this age at first glance due to similar patterns. Several animals will prey on baby snakes, and they need help blending in to stay hidden.

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In comparison, copperheads, the only Maryland venomous snake likely to be accidentally encountered during gardening (as timber rattlesnakes have a much more restricted range here), have a yellow-tipped tail when young and a distinctive pattern of blotches. They create Hershey’s-kiss shapes when viewed from their sides, where the tops of those darker blotches are narrower along the snake’s back and the bases of the blotches (near its belly) are widest.

Do not rely on the vertical-slit pupil vs. round pupil trait for snake ID, as pupil shape can change in response to light levels. Although these two native pit viper species do have that namesake second pair of pits (one pair being their nostrils) near the front of the face for sensing warmth from prey, this is not an easily seen feature at a distance. Additionally, don’t rely on a triangular head shape alone either, since several nonvenomous snakes can flare their head to look more intimidating when they feel threatened.

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Snakes are a bonus in the garden because, for the most part, they consume animals we consider pests. Even for species like ratsnakes that occasionally pilfer an unprotected bird box, they’re part of our natural ecosystem and should be welcome members of the animal community we seek to support with our sustainable gardening practices. Snakes will almost always give us a wide berth if they can avoid us, and aren’t looking to get into a confrontation. I always admire the feats they can accomplish like climbing trees and vertical walls, which ratsnakes are renowned for, with no appendages. That’s skill!

Q: I found what looks like clusters of bug eggs on some of my plants, and the cluster is in a near-perfect hexagon! Strange it’s that symmetrical. Friend or foe?

A: Not all garden insects fit neatly into our friend-or-foe designation, and might eat both pests and beneficial insects (as a generalist predator) or might feed on plants in-between preying on pests, even if generally considered a predator. In this case, these sound like the egg rafts of wheel bugs, native insects that are generalist predators. We consider them beneficial because they consume enough pest insects to help gardeners suppress outbreaks without chemicals.

Wheel bugs get their name from the shape of their thorax, the middle body segment where all legs and wings arise. It looks oddly like a circular saw blade was embedded there, with just the top half sticking up vertically, like some kind of steampunk art or edgy fashion statement. It won’t hurt if you touch it, though the mouthparts on the end of their strawlike beak might break your skin if you harass them. Otherwise, they just roam your garden looking for other insects to eat.

The buzz of their wings is somewhat jarring when they fly around, and if they land on you, don’t panic. They’re not out to get you and merely saw you as a convenient landing spot. Eggs are laid in autumn (they seem to prefer using smooth surfaces like plant stems or walls) and will overwinter. Want to learn more? Assassin bugs, the group to which wheel bug belongs, and other beneficials are profiled in our pollinators and beneficial insects resources online.

University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center offers free gardening and pest information at extension.umd.edu/hgic. Click “Ask Extension” to send questions and photos.


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