Halloween can be a terrifying holiday for small children. Boogeymen and scary creatures strike terror in their hearts. I'm hoping we can dial back the fear factor associated with real creatures that often show up in Halloween decorations.
Spiders, snakes and bats are three groups that strike fear in the hearts of many, even adults. So let's consider their ecological values and then share these lessons with younger children.
Walking through spider webs can be nasty, and it often happens on walks through the woods. But we should consider ourselves lucky; even small children are too big to be fatally entangled.
Next time you spot the beautiful web of an orb-weaving spider, take a few minutes to observe and teach. Unlike Miss Patience Muffet, daughter of the spider-loving Rev. Dr. Thomas Muffet (1553-1604), many naturalists love orb-weavers. My favorite is the striking black-and-yellow garden spider. It's big, colorful, and common.
Orb weavers begin their web by building a bridge from one anchor to another. From a twig or grass stem, for example, the spider releases a strand of silk from its silk-making organs called spinnerets. A breeze catches the strand and carries it until it touches another perch, and a bridge is formed.
After reinforcing the bridge by laying down more strands of silk, the spider drops from the center of the bridge. It repeats this process a number of times in all directions until there are a series of strands radiating outward from the central hub. Then the spider adds an outward spiral to complete the web. Spider silk is strong, elastic, and sticky -- perfect for snaring unwitting prey.
Snakes also evoke strong emotional reactions from the public. Few love and appreciate them. Many fear and loathe them. I can't count the number of times I've heard people, including more than a few little old ladies, brag about chopping snakes to bits with a shovel or hoe.
And that's too bad because snakes earn their keep by eating mice, chipmunks and other small mammals. Smaller snakes that eat insects and earthworms go largely unnoticed, but larger backyard snakes bear the brunt of the typical snake-hater's rage.