How to identify and avoid some local backyard dangers

How to identify and avoid some local backyard dangers

As the days warm up, more and more B.C. families are starting to spend time in the great outdoors. While playing in the backyard is a childhood summer staple, it’s not all fun and games when it comes to some plants and wildlife.

Click through to learn about some common dangers that could be lurking in your own backyard and how to keep you and your loved ones safe.

Death Cap Mushrooms (Amanita Phalloides)

Death Cap Mushrooms (Amanita Phalloides)

Where you'll find them:
Death Cap mushrooms can be found all around the world, both in rural and urban settings. Originally from Europe, they are now spreading throughout the Lower Mainland. They’re particularly dangerous because they resemble other species of mushrooms that are edible.

What’s the danger?
Death Cap mushrooms are accurately named since eating even one of these pretty mushrooms is enough to kill an adult. Symptoms can be delayed and include diarrhea, vomiting and nausea. The mushrooms cause damage to the liver and kidneys, which can be fatal if not treated promptly.

How to stay safe:
The safest way to avoid ingesting a Death Cap Mushroom is to buy mushrooms from the grocery store rather than foraging for your own. If you are picking your own mushrooms, make sure you do your research and go with an expert. It’s important that kids know to never eat a mushroom in the wild, and that you keep an eye on your yard for any suspicious fungi.

Giant Hogweed (Heracleum Mantegazzianum)

Giant Hogweed (Heracleum Mantegazzianum)

Where to find it:
The towering flowers of the Giant Hogweed are so pretty that it was originally brought to North America to keep in gardens. Since then, the plant has spread and has been reported in the south of Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands and around Vancouver. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, it tends to grow in places that are moist. You can recognize Giant Hogweed by its size; it can grow to be as tall as six metres when it's fully mature. It often has a cluster of white flowers at the top that form a sort of umbrella over the plant.

What’s the danger?
If your skin comes into contact with the sap of the Giant Hogweed, it can be severely burned when it is exposed to sunlight. These burns often require medical attention, and can leave a purple-ish scar. Even small amounts of sap can cause temporary blindness if it gets in your eyes.

How to stay safe:
The sooner a Giant Hogweed plant is removed the better. If you think you have one growing in your yard, it’s recommended that you contact a professional to help with extermination. The Invasive Species Council of Metro Vancouver can help you find a service. If you decide to clear it yourself, make sure to wear protective gear and follow this guide that the City of Vancouver has released. Should you come in contact with the sap, wash the area with soap and water and keep it out of the sunlight. If a burn develops, get medical help. 

Poison Hemlock (Conium Maculatum)

Poison Hemlock (Conium Maculatum)

Where to find it:
Giant Hogweed’s deadly cousin is Poison Hemlock, which grows mainly in the south of B.C. It tends to grow around Vancouver and Victoria, but it has also been spotted in the Kootenays, the Okanagan, the Cariboo and around Vancouver Island. It resembles a parsley plant, but the stems have distinctive purple patches on them.

What’s the danger?
Poison Hemlock is, as the name implies, very poisonous. Ingesting the plant can be fatal, causing a wide range of symptoms, including dizziness, muscle paralysis, numbness and respiratory failure. You should avoid coming into contact with the plant completely, as there have been cases of people being poisoned just by touching it.

How to stay safe:
If you find Poison Hemlock in your yard, follow a guide to be sure you’re removing it thoroughly, such as this one from the Coastal Invasive Species Committee. Weeds B.C. also offers a few options for effective removal. It’s recommended that you wear protective clothing when handling it and wash everything well afterwards.

European Fire Ants (Myrmica Rubra)

European Fire Ants (Myrmica Rubra)

Where to find them:
These creepy crawlies have proven to be more of a pest in B.C. than they are in their native Europe. They can establish up to four colonies per square metre, which can lead to green space being unusable. They’ve been confirmed in neighbourhoods around the Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island. You'll find Fire Ants in moist places, like well-watered lawns with long grass, and underneath things like play structures, lawn furniture and paving stones.

What’s the danger?
European Fire Ants are much more aggressive than most ant species that are indigenous to B.C. They come equipped with a stinger that they’re quick to use. A sting can cause a burning feeling that lasts anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, and it will itch for a few days.

How to stay safe:
Deterrence is the best option to keep your backyard safe from these invaders. Put gravel underneath paving stones to avoid encouraging nests and avoid clutter on your lawn. Most ants are spread through moving soil from infested areas, so do your research and check your purchases before moving anything into your yard. You can send a sample to the B.C. government for identification to make sure that you’re dealing with Fire Ants. Thompson Rivers University’s Dr. Robert Higgins has created a guide to help homeowners control the pests and limit the spread, which you can read here.

Black Widow Spiders
Credit: Flickr/Steve

Black Widow Spiders

Where to find them:
These infamous little spiders can be found all over North America and, according to HealthLink B.C., they like to build their webs in suburban areas in barbecues, garages, woodpiles and near swimming pools. They’re most active from mid-spring to mid-fall, but are not generally aggressive unless they feel threatened. Female black widows are more dangerous than males, and can be identified by a red, yellow or orange mark on their back.

What’s the danger?
Despite their deadly reputation, a Black Widow bite is normally not fatal. Symptoms of a mild bite can include a sharp pain, redness and swelling. In more serious cases, victims could experience muscle cramps, chills, nausea, fever and a number of other symptoms. Children and babies are more at risk of having a severe reaction than adults are.

How to stay safe:
You can make your home inhospitable to spiders by eliminating spots for them to build their webs. Get rid of any empty planters, woodpiles, and other unnecessary potential hiding places. If you find a Black Widow, vacuum it up, empty the vacuum bag into a sealable bag and dispose of it. For bigger infestations, call a professional exterminator. If you think a Black Widow spider has bitten you, get immediate medical attention and, if possible, catch the spider or otherwise confirm that it’s a Black Widow.

Ticks

Ticks

Where to find them:
Contrary to popular myth, these parasitic bloodsuckers don’t drop down on their targets from trees. They prefer to hang out in long grass and forested areas waiting for a potential host to brush up against them so that they can attach themselves. Ticks burrow partway into the skin of their victims and suck their blood. This leaves part of their body exposed, which may look similar in size and shape to a sunflower seed.

What’s the danger?
While ticks can carry diseases like Lyme Disease, the chances of contracting it are slim. There is also a risk of contracting a disease called Tick Paralysis, which can be fatal if not tended to. Tick Paralysis is actually mostly a problem for household pets, but it can also be dangerous for children and babies. Symptoms include numbness, and then a descent into partial or full paralysis.

How to stay safe:
Be on the lookout for problem spots like tall grass or low shrubs that may harbour ticks. If you are in a grassy area, wear long pants and keep exposed skin to a minimum. It’s important to remove a tick as soon as possible, so check your kids and pets after they’ve been outside and remove it with tweezers if you find one. If anyone has any unusual symptoms after a tick bite, make sure that they seek medical help immediately. 

Rats

Rats

Where to find them:
Rats are unwelcome visitors in homes around the province because of their tendency to damage property and ruin gardens. They are generally attracted to anywhere they can find food and water, and can even get inside the walls of your home. You can recognize an infestation by finding chew marks, hearing them in the walls or finding their droppings.

What’s the danger?
Rats carry a major risk of contaminating food and can spread diseases through bites, as well as in their urine and droppings. They can even carry in other unwanted pests, like ticks and fleas. Another danger is their tendency to chew on wires, which can lead to electrical fires.

How to stay safe:
Keep out these intruders by limiting their access to food, including pet food or birdseed you keep outside. Check your home regularly for any openings that could invite rodents and seal them up. HealthLink B.C. gives a detailed overview of things to look out for here. If you find a rat or rodent of any kind, act fast to get rid of it before it breeds. Poisons aren’t generally recommended as they may make the body hard to find later, and a decomposing body could lead to even more trouble. Traps tend to be effective, but if you’ve got an infestation on your hands, then it’s better to let a professional deal with it. 

Raccoons

Raccoons

Where to find them:
Sure, they look cute and cuddly, but the last thing you want to do is get too friendly with a raccoon. Raccoons are smart animals that have adapted to living near humans. They like to scavenge for food in garbage, ponds and gardens, and are skilled at using their hands to get food.

What’s the danger?
Raccoons can be aggressive, particularly towards household pets, and their bites and scratches can transfer disease. However, it's their feces that is the biggest concern. It can carry a roundworm parasite that can be very dangerous for humans.

How to stay safe:
Do not handle raccoon droppings without taking the proper precautions. like wearing protective gear. As with other pests, you can make your home inhospitable to these masked critters by not leaving food outside and protecting your gardens and ponds. If they have chosen to nest in your yard, you can gently deter them by using tricks like shining a light on their den, playing loud music or putting rags soaked in apple cider vinegar where they are a problem. The SPCA has a more in-depth guide to keeping your yard raccoon-free here.