Food & Water Stories

Creepy Animals? Think Again

How these scary animals are beneficial for farmers.

A close-up view of a garter snake, showing the head.
Common Garter Snake A harmless snake that can grow to nearly 4 feet long and is found in a wide variety of habitats throughout much of Kansas, including the Red Hills. © Judd Patterson

Would it surprise you that some animals which may seem creepy are actually beneficial for farmers, the soil and the Earth? It’s true. The web of life is intricate, and it includes all sorts of beneficial animals that may seem unpleasant at first glance, but which often help people and the crops we grow.

Take a farm’s soil, for example. Soil is by far the most biologically diverse part of the Earth. The soil food web on a farm includes thousands and thousands of creepy, crawly beetles, springtails, mites, worms, spiders, ants, nematodes, fungi, bacteria and other organisms. This multitude of soil organisms engineers pathways for rainwater, boosts plant nutrition and breaks down of organic matter from previous crops. These beneficial insects and soil creatures—and bigger predators that patrol the soil surface—provide checks and balances to the food web that makes farms fertile. They don’t mean to be creepy.

A close-up of an earthworm, pink in color and slightly translucent.
EARTHWORM These faceless fellows can be big friends to farmers. © Flickr Creative Commons / Larah McElroy

Earthworms

It’s hard to get the warm fuzzies for earthworms. They have no legs. They don’t have eyes or a face, and their bodies stretch like rubber. They secrete a slime—mucus—that helps them slide more easily through the soil. But these faceless fellows can be big friends to farmers. Earthworms break up hard soil, create tunnels that allow air and water to better penetrate, and bring important minerals to the soil. Most of the 180+ species of earthworms in the U.S. bring great benefits to soil health on farms and can help improve fertilizer efficiency. It’s true that some non-native species of earthworms can negatively affect the soils in some forests. But when it comes to farms, earthworms are friends

A close-up view of a millipede, showing its head and some of its many legs.
MILLIPEDE Millipedes shred the leftover residue of previous crops—organic matter—and mix it through the soil. © Flickr Creative Commons / Adam

Millipedes

Their name comes from Latin, meaning “thousand legs.” As it turns out, no known species of millipede has a thousand legs. Most top out at several hundred. Although millipedes look creepy crawly, these arthropods (they are not insects) are harmless to humans and are in fact very beneficial to farm soils. Millipedes shred the leftover residue of previous crops—organic matter—and mix it through the soil. This gives smaller soil organisms like fungi and bacteria greater surface area to work on, and speeds breakdown of the crop residue, which ultimately makes the soil more fertile. 

A black and yellow garden spider spinning a web around its insect prey.
BLACK AND YELLOW GARDEN SPIDER Spiders are primary controllers of insects. © Michael Glaspell/TNC Photo Contest 2019

Spiders

What is it about spiders that unnerves people? Is it their sticky, often hard-to-spot webs, or the way they pounce so quickly when prey is near? Something about spiders spooks most people. Yet spiders are incredibly beneficial to us. “If spiders disappeared, we would face famine,” Norman Platnick of New York’s American Museum of Natural History told the Washington Post. “Spiders are primary controllers of insects. Without spiders, all of our crops would be consumed by those pests.” A study found that more than 600 different species of spiders patrol U.S. croplands, keeping crop-eating pests under control. 

A close-up view of a plains garter snake, with its red and pink tongue sticking out.
PLAINS GARTER SNAKE Snakes prey on gophers, field mice, rats, rabbits and other rodents that damage crops. © Chris Helzer / TNC

Snakes

Snakes get a bad rap. Many people seem to have an almost visceral revulsion to the sinuous reptiles. But snakes are generally shy creatures that avoid human contact. There are about 50 species of snakes in the U.S., and 20 of those are venomous—but even they shy away from human contact. While snakes are sneaking about our fields and avoiding us, they are preying on gophers, field mice, rats, rabbits and other rodents that damage crops by feeding on them or burrowing into their roots. Ways to distinguish different kinds of snakes.

A striped skunk walking through green grass and clover.
STRIPED SKUNK Skunks consume pest insects like caterpillars and grubs, field mice and voles, helping to keep them under control. © Flickr Creative Commons / Marcio de Moura

Skunks

Anyone whose dog has ever been sprayed by a skunk knows: it’s Grade A horrible. No one wants to be anywhere near a skunk. We fear skunks with good reason. But these slow-moving, stinky beasts can bring benefits to farms. Skunks consume pest insects like caterpillars and grubs, field mice and voles, helping to keep them under control. They also eat berries, leaves and grasses. Beekeepers do not like skunks, however. Because of their thick fur, skunks aren’t deterred by bee stings and they will seek out honeybee hives to dine on. 

A close-up view of a red bat, with its mouth open, exposing its teeth.
RED BAT A single insect-eating bat can consume hundreds of pest insects in a night, equivalent to half its body weight. © Cory Holliday / TNC

Bats

These winged mammals are the poster child for Halloween, and they have been associated with all things scary at least as far back as Bram Stoker’s classic horror novel Dracula, published in 1897. Some people fear that, like Dracula, bats will drink their blood. But none of the 40 bat species inhabiting the U.S. drink blood. Three species are nectar feeders that help pollinate desert plants, while the overwhelming majority of U.S. bats eat insects--in great abundance. A single insect-eating bat can consume hundreds of pest insects in a night, equivalent to half its body weight. A cave full of thousands of bats can consume literal tons of insects. Economists have quantified the dollar value of bats’ insect pest control to U.S. agriculture at $23 billion annually. Check out more amazing facts about bats.