Several years ago, I was outside talking to an elderly neighbor man. Somehow we got on the subject of spiders and he mentioned to me that our area, i.e., our neighborhood, had an abundance of black widow spiders (not what I particularly wanted to hear). I casually mentioned to him that I had only seen one black widow spider in the wild and that happened to be when I was a little girl. While growing up, we had a milk man who delivered milk in glass bottles to our back porch. My mother had a small insulated metal milk box that sat on the back porch, just outside the back door. One morning she went outside to get the milk off the back porch and there was a black widow spider in her milk box.
After talking to my neighbor for a little while, we said our goodbyes, and I went back inside my house. About 15-20 minutes later, my doorbell rang. I opened my front door to find the same neighbor man standing on my front porch with a clear glass jar which contained a very LARGE black widow spider in it. He handed me the jar and said if I ever wanted to find a black widow, all I needed to do is look inside the water meter, where this one had apparently been captured, and where they seem to like to reside. I’m not sure I was real happy to have this newfound knowledge, or to be handed this spider in a jar but I thanked him all the same. He seemed right pleased with himself to be “gifting” me with this deadly arachnid.
This very large black widow spider had one of her front legs lifted, which I was told was a common defensive posture for a black widow. Not wanting this jar containing this highly venomous spider in my house, I quickly moved it to my screened-in porch.
As a veterinarian, I was often asked by my clients what black widow and brown recluse spiders looked like. At the clinic I was practicing at, we had a brown recluse spider preserved in formalin in a specimen jar. I decided it would be nice to also have a black widow specimen to be able to show my clients when they asked. Besides, I had no desire to have a live black widow spider in my house. So I called my veterinarian friend and colleague who was working that day to inform him I was on the way to the clinic with a beauty of a black widow spider– who was very much alive!
When I arrived at the veterinary clinic, we decided we would open the top to the jar this spider was in and pour the formalin in, then after the spider was dead, we would transfer it to the smaller specimen jar. We carefully did just that. Then we got busy talking about cases and went downstairs to look at some of the animals. About 30 minutes passed and we went up to check our spider. She had sat at the bottom of the formalin for a half hour and she wasn’t moving. My friend removed the lid of the jar and reached in with some long tongue forceps and grabbed her large marble sized black body. As he was transferring her into the smaller bottle, she suddenly spread her legs and started thrashing them. We were both amazed that after spending 30 minutes completely submerged in formalin, that she was still very much alive! Why had she not drowned? I had always thought formalin was pretty potent and toxic but this spider had sat in it for a half hour and it had not fazed her.
Black widow spiders are very feared spiders in North America as their venom is very potent. They are found in almost every state in the U.S. but are more common in the southern areas. The females are shiny and black and usually have a characteristic red hourglass marking on their ventral abdomen (or their underside). Some black widows will have red spots instead of the hourglass marking. Their marble-shaped round bodies are usually about 1/2 inch long. The male black widows are much smaller and can vary greatly in their appearance. They can be black but can also be brown or gray and can have yellow and red bands or spots on their back.
The female black widows are usually shy and not considered aggressive. They usually only bite when they are disturbed. They have been known to aggressively defend their egg sacs. They prefer to live in a dark, damp habitat and build their webs in woodpiles, rubble piles, under stones, in hollow tree stumps, outdoor sheds and garages and outdoor privies. I also learned that they seem to especially like railroad ties. We have railroad ties at the back and sides of our driveway and I have found numerous black widow webs in the cracks of the ties. The black widow web is a tangled web (see photo above) and their silk is very strong. One day I took some spider spray outside and sprayed it in the cracks of the railroad ties, especially where I saw the characteristic black widow webs and after a minute or two, the black widow spiders came crawling out. This is particularly frightening to me because if you look around many playground areas, what do you see? Railroad ties! I can just see small children sitting on these railroad ties and unknowingly sticking their little fingers down the cracks of these ties directly into a black widow web.
While black widow venom is very potent, it is usually not deadly to healthy humans. Fatalities, if they occur, are usually in elderly people, small children, or the infirm. The venom is neurotoxic, meaning it affects the victim’s nervous system. Symptoms of a black widow bite can be muscle aches and pains, headache, nausea and vomiting, fever, paralysis of the diaphragm causing difficult breathing, abdominal pain, weakness, tremors, swollen eyes, sore feet, excessive sweating, high blood pressure, and sometimes a red skin rash.
Black widow females rarely will kill and eat the male black widow after mating and that’s how they get their names.