Snakes don't care for clean yards

By Tim Lockley

The ancient Greeks associated snakes with healing. That's why the symbol for the medical arts is the Caduceus, two snakes coiled around a winged staff. The Pharaohs of Egypt wore a likeness of the deadly asp on their headress, believing that it afforded them protection.

In the New World, the Aztecs, Maya, Mixtecs, Olmecs and Toltecs worshiped the feathered serpent Quelzacoatl, the inventor of books and the calendar. It also gave mankind corn and was the creator of the world. Among the Hopi Indians, celebration of snakes still occurs. During our Revolution, a rattlesnake with the words "Don't tread on me" was used as a symbol of our defiance. Conversely, snakes are also presented as figures of evil. Eve and Adam being tempted to eat of the tree of knowledge is a well-known example.

Many of you were brought up to believe that snakes are inherently bad and, no doubt, will kill any snake you see indiscriminately. When snakes come in contact with people, it's the snake that comes out on the wrong side of the encounter. The fact that snakes are, invariably, beneficial and hold a significant and important place in the world's ecology doesn't seem to change too many viewpoints.

Snakes are Mother Nature's most efficient mouse trap. Obviously, snakes can't completely eliminate rodents. The furry little buggers can breed faster than they can be eaten, but snakes can manage to keep there numbers in check most of the time.

There are even snakes that eat other snakes (black racers, king snakes, milk snakes, queen snakes). We've even managed to create a number of medicines using snake venom. Research is still being conducted on venom for the treatment of various blood and heart disorders. It's even being studied as a bactericide. When a snake wanders into your domain, remember those benefits before you lash out.

If you think you have a problem with snakes, there are things you can do without bashing them with a rake. Start with making your yard unattractive for them. Keep your yard clean and mowed. Remove old boards, wood piles or trash that they can use as hiding places. Trim your shrubbery at least 30 centimeters from the ground. If you have fire wood, stack it as far away from your house as is practicable. Place garbage in sealed cans to discourage rodents. The fewer the rodents, the fewer snakes.

Snake repellants are available but have not been proven effective. Using lime might help your lawn but it will do nothing to repel snakes. The idea behind the use of lime came about when people didn't have nice green lawns and would use "quick" lime in an attempt to keep snakes away. Quick lime is lye and is a very caustic substance and will kill most plants. However, a good rain would drive it into the soil, where what limited use it might have is no longer available.

Some people have gone so far as to build a "snake-proof" fence around their property. I can't recommend that particular method. It's too labor intensive and expensive to build and maintain.

Overall, if you run across a snake, just step aside and let it continue on its way. A snake may look fast, but you can easily outpace one by just walking away. Should you be called upon to kill a venomous snake (they're easy to distinguish from the non-venomous species primarily by the shape of their heads), club it with a long stick or garden tool. Never try to kill a snake with anything that might bring you within its striking distance (around half its length).

Once the snake is dead, carefully pick it up with a long tool and dispose of the body. Do not pick up a "dead" snake with your hands. Overall, you are more of a threat to snakes than they are to you -- even the venomous ones. Leave them alone and they will readily reciprocate the gesture.

Tim Lockley, a specialist in entomology, is retired from a 30-year career as a research scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For answers to individual questions, please send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Tim Lockley, c/o Sun Herald, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi MS 39535.