Mommie Dearest

It’s time to rethink the black widow’s lethal reputation.

Robert Meganck

spider main

It’s time to rethink the black widow’s lethal reputation.

Pity the poor black widow spider.No, really, do. True, she can deliver a nasty bite that could—though it probably won’t—kill you. But putting aside this minor point, she’s really just a quiet, retiring, hard-working mom, trying to give her spiderlings a good start in life. It’s not like she wants to bite you. And that whole man-killer reputation? Mostly a bum rap.

So, you know, cut her some slack, OK?

Let us instead consider her excellent qualities.

You have to hand it to her on style points. There are several widow-spider species in the U.S., but the Southern black widow is the glamour girl of the bunch. In glossy, always-fashionable black with long spindly legs and a striking, red, hourglass-shaped accent on her abdomen, she’s the creepy-crawlingest standout in the world of eight-legged arthropods.

And though the arachnid is armed with the biochemical equivalent of a thermonuclear device, black widows are, so the bug experts tell us, actually quite timid and non-aggressive. Although their fondness for nesting in dark, undisturbed places can lead them to our woodpiles and sheds, our garages and attics, and that pair of work boots in the mud room that you haven’t put on since last fall, still, when threatened, widow spiders are more likely to prefer retreat over engagement, unless you come into direct physical contact with them (say, by putting your foot in that work boot).

And about that bite. Here, it seems, Mother Nature has gone in for a serious case of overkill. Why does a creature that could fit in a thimble, whose diet consists generally of small insects that blunder into its web, come equipped with a neurotoxin so potent that it can reduce a grown human to a writhing heap of agony?

Should you be so unfortunate as to suffer a black widow spider bite in all its glory, it is an experience you will not likely soon forget. It starts unassumingly enough, typically with no more than a pinprick sensation. Within a half-hour to a few hours, however, symptoms, which can last for up to a couple of days, develop. Victims commonly suffer severe abdominal pain and cramping, but also possibly cramping of other large muscle groups such as the back, chest, legs and shoulders, along with other assorted unpleasantries like nausea, vomiting, profuse sweating, headache, increased blood pressure and—not surprisingly—anxiety. Widow spiders belong to the genus Latrodectus, and collectively these symptoms are known as “latrodectism.”

On the bright side, then, take comfort in the fact that black widow bites aren’t all that common, don’t always produce symptoms and very rarely prove fatal. Interestingly, we can thank modern plumbing for a decline in the frequency of black widow bites. Apparently, in the days when the outhouse was a common domestic feature, widow spiders found that the cozy space beneath the seat suited them ideally, and were inclined to take offense when bare parts disturbed their tranquility.

Black widows belong to the family Theridiidae, also known as the “cob weaver” or “cob web” family, and to insert an etymological note into this entomological narrative, the word “cob” is derived from “coppe” for “spider,” in turn derived from the Old English “attercoppe,” meaning literally “poison head.” Widow webs are indeed cobwebby, and not particular works of beauty (one website refers to them dismissively as “often tangled and grubby”), but it is there that the black widow lays her eggs in spherical sacs, several hundred to a sac.

The Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Widow Spiders publication notes that, “A single female can produce between four and nine egg sacs in a single summer,” a fact you may not want to dwell upon too closely before bedtime.

It should be noted that not just the egg detail, but everything else you’ve read here applies almost exclusively to the female black widow. Remember when Liz Taylor married Larry Fortensky? So it is with the black widow spider—all the glamour and reputation are hers, and he is but the bit player in the shadows of the limelight.

And speaking of “bit,” it’s time to clear up a bit of a misconception, the most common misconception, in fact the misconception that earned the widow spider its familiar—and undeserved—name: that the black widow female always kills and eats her mate. Alas, for the metaphor that launched a thousand noir novels, she doesn’t, at least not always.

Which isn’t to say that she’s exactly June Cleaver; Mr. Widow is wise to beat a measured retreat before love’s passion cools, because if he hangs around long enough, she may figure what the hell, he does kind of look like dinner.

When it comes to encountering the black widow, respect always beats regret.

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