Creature Feature: Nonvenomous Snakes

Spring is here and so are the snakes. Taking advantage of increasing temperatures, our native Texas snakes are more active this time of year as they emerge out of hibernation in search of food and mates for breeding season. Snakes are more active when their prey is active, so spring and summer provide a buffet of frogs, rodents and other critters for snakes to eat. Chances are you may encounter a snake along a pathway, in your yard or at a local park. Good news is that all but three of the snakes commonly found in The Woodlands are nonvenomous.  

Let’s get acquainted 

Most snake species are shy and generally keep out of sight. They travel alone and prefer brush, rocks and woodpiles. Multiple snakes will share a den for winter hibernation, emerging in late February through early March. They are active during the day in spring and fall and at night during the summer to avoid the intense heat.  

All snakes are strictly carnivorous. The type of prey varies by the species and may include mice, rats, frogs, birds, squirrels, rabbits, lizards, insects, eggs, snails, scorpions and smaller snakes. Aquatic species, like the Diamondback water snake, also eat fish, crustaceans and amphibians. 

Snakes play an integral role in maintaining a balanced ecosystem by helping keep prey populations in check. For example, controlling the rodent population results in the reduction of common diseases like hantavirus, lymphocytic chorio-meningitis and salmonellosis.  

Preventing Snake Bites 

Most snakes in The Woodlands are harmless and an important part of the ecosystem, especially in controlling rodents. Snake bites are usually the result of them being surprised or cornered and are easily avoided with a few precautions. Because most snakes live on or near the ground, the majority of bites happen around the ankle. About 99% of all bites occur below the knee.   

SAFETY TIPS: 

  • Wear protective clothing; fangs are sharp but break easily and almost never penetrate leather shoes or boots. Long-sleeved shirts and pants will help further reduce your risk. 
  • Watch where you step, sit down and put your hands (never blindly into a hole). 
  • Avoid stepping over a log without first seeing what is on the other side. If you must move a log, use a long stick or garden tool first, to ensure snakes are not near. 
  • Use a flashlight when moving about at night. 

AROUND THE HOME: 

  • Keep the grass short, shrubs trimmed, and flowerbeds free from debris. 
  • Limit wood and brush piles and keep them away from the residence. 
  • Keep storage sheds and garages as neat as possible. 
  • Treat overturned boats, plant pots, tarps and similar objects as potential shelter for snakes. 

Snake Encounters and Recommended Responses  

Removal – Who to contact 

When removing wildlife from your private property, it is best to call a professional.  

  • Montgomery County: Woodlands Snake Removal, Nathan Wells: 346-218-0279 
  • Harris County: Texas Snakes & More, Clint Pustejovsky: 713-934-7668 

Keep in mind that living in a densely forested area means that you may encounter snakes at local parks, ponds and along trails. Follow the recommended responses above during an encounter and avoid handling any wildlife. Snakes are a valuable asset to the health of our forest and we don’t want to remove them from their natural home. 

Want more information? 

Air BeeNBee

Looking to purchase new property with a small footprint and a big return on investment?

What if you could build a house for pennies and fill it with tenants who get right to work improving the house and the whole neighborhood?

Sound good? Then it’s time to invest a bee house!

Meet The Renters

Native Solitary Bees, also known as pollen bees, account for approximately 90% of bee species native to Texas. Because these bees are not honey producers and don’t have the ‘job’ of protecting and providing for a hive, they’re not aggressive and are fine around children and pets. Most solitary bees only sting when provoked (smashed, swatted or sprayed) and they’re safe to have in the garden.

The most common bees to take up residency are mason bees, leafcutter bees, carpenter bees and sweat bees. A couple hundred of these friendly neighbors can pollinate as many flowers as a thousand honeybees!

In Spring and Summer, a female bee will select a cavity or ‘room’ in your bee house, fill it with food, lay eggs, seal the room shut, and then move on to her next nest. She won’t revisit or defend the nest. Once the eggs hatch, the larvae feed on the stored food, winter inside the nest and then emerge in the spring to start the cycle all over again, providing you an endless stream of renters and pollinators!

Hard Hats Required: Construction Zone

Bee houses come in many shapes and sizes; something roughly the size of a birdhouse is common for most urban landscapes. Whether purchasing a pre-made one or building on your own, consider the following:

Be sure to avoid pressure-treated wood – the chemicals deter would-be inhabitants. If you want to up the curb appeal you can paint the roof and sides; just allow a few weeks for the smell to wear off before bees will move in.

Provide a variety of “room” sizes for bees to choose from – about 1/8″ to 1/2″. A variety of materials provide dark tunnels perfect for nesting: bamboo, hollow reeds, cardboard tubes, small logs or tree branches. Commercial premade nesting tubes or blocks are also available. Whatever material you choose, make sure the tubes are all cut 6″ to 8″ deep, allowing plenty of room for bees to nest. Use sandpaper to smooth any rough edges at the ends. Make (or purchase) extra tubes so you can change out rotten or damaged ones over time.

The back of the house should be closed and the front open. A roof will help keep rain out and should extend 2″ over the front.

After collecting your materials, fill the frame with various sized rooms and add in some bits of nature (pinecones, branches, foliage) in any gaps around the sides, to make the bees feel at home. If you’re concerned about birds or other predators, cover the front of the house with chicken wire.

Room With A View

Find a spot in your yard within 300 fee of plants that flower, aka bee food. Distance is important as some native bees don’t travel very far to find food. Place the house on the south side of a building, fence post or tree that gets morning sun and afternoon shade.  The higher the better: place the house a minimum of 3′ from the ground. 

Avoid hanging your house from a pole or hook; it will swing too much to be considered a safe home by bees. Best to have the back of the house flush with a sturdy object. Once your house has residents, DO NOT MOVE!  If you must relocate, wait until November when most of the tubes will be filled with eggs waiting to hatch in the spring.

Upkeep

Bee houses require little maintenance; however check periodically that the house remains dry and no mold or mildew is occurring. Look for signs of pollen mites, chalkbrood, and parasitic wasps. All are threats to your bee house. 

Your bees may be fine on their own, but the best way to prevent the spread of parasites and disease is to “harvest” your cocoons at the end of the season, or around mid-November. To do this, simply open the nesting tubes and remove the contents. Separate the cocoons from any debris and wash them off in a bowl of cool water. Then place into a container, such as a Tupperware with air holes, in the fridge. Store your cocoons through the winter until temperatures break 50 degrees consistently. At that point, they can be placed in an open container, outside near their nest.

To learn more about harvesting solitary bees, check out this video by Bee Built.

If not harvesting, consider replacing the tubes every few years to reduce potential disease or infestations that are harmful to your bees.

To provide the best long-term housing option, AVOID PESTICIDES in your landscape, certainly around the bee house.

Identifying the types of bees in your neighborhood and meeting their specific needs will help you become the best landlord you can be. Check out the free iNaturalist app for help in identifying and documenting the activity in your yard.

Get your bee house buzzing with activity then sit back and enjoy your new neighbors!

Creature Feature: Opossums

Opossum or possum, however you pronounce it, we’re talking about one cool marsupial. Prehensile tails and opposable thumbs equip them for skillful climbing. They help rid our lawns and woodlands of grubs, ticks and other damaging insects, clean our roadsides of disease-spreading carrion, and they make great parents, to boot. Read on for more cool facts about our neighbors, Didelphis virginiana, whose origins trace back more than 65 million years!  

Fast Facts: 

  • The only marsupial (pouched mammal) in North America 
  • Male opossums are called jacks and females are called jills. Babies are called joeys. 
  • ‘Playing possum’ is a real defense used to confuse a possible predator. 
As they grow, offspring emerge from the mother’s pouch and will cling to the mother for up to two months as they continue to develop

What do they look like? 

  • Up to 30 inches long and weigh about 15 pounds 
  • Cone shaped nose with a pink tip, hairless ears, short legs and a long hair-less tail.  
  • Fur color is variable from pale gray to black. 

What do they eat? 

Opossums are omnivores who eat primarily animal matter such as insects, earthworms, small mammals, snakes, birds, fruits and vegetables. They are also amazingly immune to snake venom, so rattlesnakes and cottonmouths make the menu too. If available, they will dine on pet food, garbage cans and bird feeders. 

What eats them? 

  • Predators include owls, coyotes, hawks, snakes, foxes and feral cats.  
  • An estimated 19 million opossums are killed by vehicles every year in the United States. 

Why do we need them? 

Opossums are extremely beneficial to the environment. They eat a variety of critters considered pests or vermin by clearing your yard of roaches, mice and rats. In one season an opossum can consume about 5,000 ticks, helping minimize tick-borne diseases such Lyme disease.  Also known to eat carrion which minimizes disease in the environment.

Interested in learning more about local wildlife? Check out these past articles:   

Mother (Nature) Knows Best

Spring is springing. Warmer temps are just around the corner and our forests are about to explode with new life: bunnies, otters, owls, deer, foxes and more!

Every year, during this baby boom, kind conscientious people “rescue” young birds and mammals who are perfectly fine. It turns out that most of the time these spring babies aren’t abandoned; they’re just waiting on mom, or dad, to return. Foraging for those growing forest babies is a full-time job, not to mention, wildlife parents need to feed themselves too.

It’s quite likely that mom is even watching from a distance, waiting to return to her little one when it’s safe. If humans don’t interfere, the parents will feed, protect, and teach their offspring to survive. So, even if your intentions are good, you might actually be disrupting an important process. Remember, this is a natural occurrence. You’re just getting the unique opportunity to witness it.

So, what should you do if you encounter young wildlife?

Observe from a distance. Give mom plenty of space so she feels comfortable returning with food. If the animal does not appear injured, cold/wet, or endangered by a neighborhood dog or cat, there’s a good chance that mom will return and provide care. If mom hasn’t returned after 4 to 6 hours, and you’re sure you didn’t just miss her visit during that time, consider asking for help.

Call the experts

If you feel you may have found an abandoned animal, here are some important considerations.

Handling of any wild animal should be done with extreme care and caution. If you’ve determined that you need to intervene, first contact a local wildlife rehabilitator for assistance. And know that you’ll likely need to turn the animal over to them: nearly all mammals and birds are protected by State and Federal laws.

Keep in mind that local wildlife rehabilitators are volunteers. If you don’t reach someone with your first phone call, be patient and follow these guidelines from Friends of Texas Wildlife to provide basic care for commonly found wildlife in our area.

I found a Baby Bird 

I found a Baby Rabbit 

I found a Baby Opossum 

I found a Baby Raccoon 

I found a Baby Squirrel 

I found a Baby Deer 

If you’ve found wildlife, of any age, that appears to be injured or sick do not approach the animal without first speaking to a professional. Contact one of these local wildlife resources who can help evaluate the situation and provide instruction.

So, if you come across babes in the woods, remember that they may not need rescuing. Mom might just be taking a much-needed break or is teaching her young how to be independent. Remember…mother knows best.

These pollinators aren’t winning any beauty contests

Bees and butterflies – the beauty queens of bugs – have reached celebrity status in the world of pollination. But, while they get the limelight, they’re only a small portion of the over 200,000 species that help produce our crops.  These less adorable species include beetles, ants, moths, wasps and even flies. More than 80% of all flowering plants in the world require the service of pollinators, along with more than 1,200 commercial crops. Without pollinators, we lose 1 out of every 3 bites of food and more than $20 billion of the US economy.

Awareness of the decline of the monarch butterfly and the honeybee has spurred communities across the country into action to ensure their survival.  But what about the less celebrated? 

Let’s take a look at some of these unsung garden heroes.


Hover Flies

Hover Flies, also known as Syrphid Flies, are a large group of medium to large flies with black or brown bodies, yellow banded abdomens and two wings.  Resembling a bee or wasp, adults can be seen hovering above flowers, feeding on their nectar. They can’t bite or sting but may try to steal some of your salty sweat from time to time. The larvae play a beneficial role in gardens, consuming up to 30 aphids per day – a great natural pest control. Hover flies feed on the same flowers preferred by bees, such as purple coneflowers, blanketflowers and sunflowers.

Black and yellow stripes don’t always belong to bees. Hover flies can easily be mistaken for bees but these petite pollinators don’t have stingers.

Hawk Moths

Experts at finding sweet-smelling flowers at night, hawk moths have the longest tongues of any moth or butterfly  – some up to 14” long!  These acrobatic fliers include sphinx and hummingbird moths, built with stout bullet-shaped bodies and long, narrow wings.  See them mostly at night hovering in place enjoying nectar from heavily fragranced flowers. While many tomato gardeners, admittedly, fear the larvae of the hawk moth (a.k.a. green hornworms), the adults are excellent pollinators for your garden.

Hawk moths, including this Hummingbird Moth, have long tongues, or proboscis, to suck nectar from flowers, similar to a straw.

Soldier Beetles

Beetles present the greatest diversity of insects and pollinators, with more than 450,000 known species.  Regular flower visitors like the soldier beetle feed on pollen and even chew on flowers.  Solider beetles are one type of “mess and soil” pollinators, as they will defecate within flowers in the process of carrying pollen from one flower to another.  Soldier Beetles are commonly seen on flowers that are strongly fruity and open during the day such as marigolds, magnolias and many flowering herbs.    

Beetles have been pollinators for millions of years.  Based on fossil records, they were among the first insects to visit flowering plants as far back as 150 million years ago.

Ten Things You Can Do in Your Yard to Encourage Pollinators

1. Plant a pollinator garden—provide nectar and feeding plants (flowers and herbs).  Visit our website for more information on planting a pollinator garden or register your existing garden.

2. Provide a water source—place shallow dishes of water in sunny areas or create a muddy spot.

 3. Provide shelter and overwintering habitat (bee boxes, undisturbed soil areas, and piles of woody debris).

4. Stop using insecticides and reduce other pesticides.

5. Provide sunny areas out of the wind.

6. Use native plant species whenever possible—mimic local natural areas.

7. Grow flowers throughout season. Provide a variety of colors and shapes.

 8. Plant in clumps and layers. Use trees, shrub layers, with some low growing perennials and vines—intermix with flowering annuals.

9. Use compost instead of commercial fertilizers.

 10. Look but do not touch.


Questions or comments?

Email enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov