I saw a black widow on the playground at my elementary school once. Some adults made a big deal of corralling all us kids around it and explaining how we should always avoid spiders with a little red hourglass, because if they bit us we’d have to go to the hospital or something.
So I grew up thinking that being bitten by a black widow meant instant death.
According to NC State University, a black widow’s bite is 15 times more venomous than that of a rattlesnake. And this is a spider we’re talking about. Fortunately, while that is a scary statistic, black widow bites are rarely lethal as long as you get the proper treatment – spiders are still much smaller than snakes, so it’s not the same amount of toxin as a snake bite would give you. Just try to avoid sticking your hand in random dry holes outside or in rooms directly connected to the outdoors and you’ll be fine. And avoid outhouses if you can.
Something to be aware of when watching out for black widows is that there are actually 31 different black widow species spread out across every continent except Antarctica. Not all of them are black or have the hourglass marking, either, so your best bet is to just not handle random spiders you find unless you’re absolutely certain what species they are.
As scary as they may be, black widows aren’t out to hurt you and won’t bite unless they think you’re about to smush them or their eggs. These surprisingly beneficial spiders actually eat a lot of pesky insects, like flies, fire ants, and mosquitoes. Additionally, black widow webs are being studied to make stronger plastics, fabrics, and other synthetic materials, and for good reason: if you have enough of it on hand, black widow webbing is tougher than steel. Additionally, female black widows will intentionally show off their hourglass marking when they’re waiting for prey to fly into their webs to warn other animals (and us) of their toxicity. How thoughtful.
One thing I didn’t know about black widows is that the males and females look different: the female spider’s hourglass is pretty well known, but male black widows actually have red or pink spots and are smaller and lighter than the females. Baby black widows look different, too, and start out white or pale but gradually darken over time.
Another difference between male and female black widows is that the male’s bite won’t send you to the hospital, while the female’s is obviously no joke. While the bite itself isn’t incredibly painful, symptoms develop within the hour in the lovely forms of nausea; sweating; abdominal, back and muscle pain; and difficulty breathing. These symptoms only worsen the longer you go without treatment, so you’ll want to see a doctor as soon as you can.
One thing I thought I knew about black widows was that the females always ate the males after mating, but this may not be true: while black widow females in lab settings have been observed devouring their husbands, this has actually never been documented in the wild. In fact, the male spider will even strum the female’s web in a special way so she knows he’s a lover and not dinner before approaching. So the question remains… what on earth did they put those poor spiders through in those labs?
Just kidding, I’m sure there’s a logical explanation. Well, as logical an explanation as there can be for spider cannibalism. Whatever the case, arthropod love is still absolutely bizarre. Maybe I’ll do a Valentine’s Day post about all the weird ways different arthropods show their affection for one another.
Since black widows are seldom widows, I think it’s only right we give them a new name. How about Steel Silk Spiders? Now they’ll be known for their special webs instead of death! Yay!
…But seriously, take caution the next time you use an outhouse. The bite of a Steel Silk Spider is seldom lethal, but it’s still not something I’d be eager to experience.