Monday, 14 October 2013

Guest Post: The False Scourge of the False Widow

Unless you’ve been hiding inoffensively in a dark corner (much like our chosen subject) you cannot have failed to notice the recent mounting hysteria surrounding a certain type of spider. Pictures of horrific injuries and tales of ‘vicious’ attacks by False Widow spiders have been dominating the local tabloids with every Tom, Dick, and Harry apparently having a brush with death at the hands of these largely harmless arachnids. Now this may come as some surprise to you, but very little of this hyperbole is based upon truth. The media are fuelling and feeding off the public’s fear, which in turn is based upon ignorance. So, I am going to set the record straight in an attempt to support the beleaguered False Widow. 

The Invasion
Firstly, the False Widow is nothing new. These spiders have been in the UK longer than you, regardless of how old you are. Believed to have come into the country on goods imported from the Canary Islands, the first documented sightings date from around 1879 and they have been slowly spreading throughout the south of England, living in fairly close proximity to us since then. It is hypothesized that recent changes in climate have prompted the False Widow’s accelerated expansion into most areas of the UK, although it is still confined mainly to the south. 

The Spider
The reports of the False Widow that have been circulating have been focussing upon Steatoda nobilis or the Noble Widow. However, this is only one of an entire family of spiders, many of which are present in the UK.  The genus Steatoda is a relative of Latrodectus, which contains L.mactans or the Black Widow. What many people don’t realise is that the Black Widow has also made its way over to the UK, albeit in vastly reduced numbers. And it’s the FALSE Widow that people are concerned about! Steatoda has a few species that are present in the UK and all of them are capable of inflicting a bite. But then a Garden Spider (Araneus diadematus) is also capable of biting and that bite is extremely benign. (I should know, I have been bitten by one as a child – and yes it was totally my fault, I picked the spider up) 

The Bite
Now the bite itself. Steatoda, and Latrodectus (and indeed most arachnids) have neurotoxic venom, which can cause pain, swelling, nausea and, in rare cases, even cramps and a fever. It doesn’t cause the skin to rot and fall off, nor does it result in significant muscle loss. What CAN cause that is secondary staph infection - even MRSA - or potentially a very severe allergic reaction to the venom. However this reaction would only occur in an EXTREMELY small percentage of people. 

The most you should expect from a False Widow bite would be some swelling, some pain and possibly generally feeling unwell, and much of that may be psychosomatic  - no worse than a nasty bee or wasp sting. If bitten, clean and dress the bite. If you start feeling ill go to A&E for treatment; it’s unlikely to amount to any more than administering pain medication and antihistamines. This said, the effect is likely to be more profound for those in poor health, the very old, or the very young so caution should still be exercised in those cases.

The Coverage
So that’s the spider’s history and the bite itself covered, let’s talk about the reports and the errors within. Aside from the fact that the spider actually pictured varies from Tegenaria gigantea (the large Common House spider you often see crawling about – usually a male in search of a mate) to the Laceweb spider Amaurobius similis (both utterly harmless), in these articles the spiders are described as killers, deadly, poisonous, vicious, and flesh eating.  Let’s handle these one at a time. 

  • Killers: these spiders have killed NO-ONE. Peanuts and wasps have caused more deaths than S.nobilis. Then again, so have elephants and stepladders.
  • Deadly: admittedly most papers do normally specify that a bite can be lethal only in the case of the most extreme allergic reaction.  This being the case, why keep spouting about how ‘deadly’ they are? Unless ,of course, you’re in Ireland, where deadly has entirely different connotations, it is a grossly unfair adjective to use - unless you are also going to start referring to peanuts, wasps, bees, ants, strawberries, coffee, or anything else to which you might suffer an allergic reaction to in the same manner.
  • Poisonous: poison refers to a toxin ingested or absorbed through the skin; venom is injected by an animal by a bite or sting. A small distinction, but an important one - how can you trust a report if they don’t even get the basics right? A False Widow probably wouldn’t taste nice but it won’t harm you by eating it, so they are not poisonous.
  • Vicious: Steadota, and for that matter most spiders, are NOT vicious. They are shy, retiring creatures that want to be left alone and undisturbed and will only react if they are provoked or threatened. Most False Widow bites occur because the spider has ended up in clothing and was disturbed as the ‘victim’ dressed. That said, shirts and trousers are not the chosen habitat of the false widow; they prefer dark corners and will often be found in a shed or garage. It is only with the arrival of the colder weather that these arachnids start to encroach upon our homes. So they aren’t vicious or malicious unlike some of the pieces of journalistic fiction that have been written about them.
  • Flesh Eating: despite the sensationalist headlines like ‘Spider Tried To Eat My Leg!’ and ‘Millions Of Flesh Eating Spiders Invade Britain!’ the lower limb of the average human is FAR too large for even the largest spider in the world to consume. S.nobilis would much prefer to feed upon flies or other small insects. These spiders are only around 2cm in size! Hardly the terror they have been portrayed as.

And you’re SCARED of this?! Look at the way it viciously attacks anything in its path!
Image copyright: Richard @

So hopefully this has gone someway to defuse the hysteria surrounding these unfairly maligned creatures. The truth is that these spiders are not out to get you, they have been around for over 100 years and just want to be left alone. They have no desire to attack ‘like out of a horror film’ and will not eat your flesh. They can bite and it can be a painful one but apart from very, very rare occurrences it will be no worse than a severe bee sting. Spiders perform a vital role in ecology; they control the populations of the small disease-carrying bugs that otherwise would plague us in the summer months and should be seen as useful creatures rather than something to be feared. 

The upshot of these horrendous articles is that people are killing every spider they come across, regardless of species and, although our eight-legged friends are probably numerous enough to not be wiped out by our misguided indiscriminate slaughter, ecosystems can be a fragile thing and a natural equilibrium can easily be disrupted. Don’t kill them; if you are concerned then remove them with a jar and a piece of card - they won’t spring at you with fangs bared - and put them outside.

Not every spider you see is a False Widow. They are small with noticeably longer front legs (a trait of Steatoda/Latrodectus) and round bulbous dark abdomens which in the case of Nobilis have a dull cream pattern on them. The press are feeding off people’s fears and the information they are spouting is both inaccurate and unhelpful. Treat any animal with respect and it will have no reason to react in a negative manner. Hopefully the ridiculous furore surrounding False Widows will die down soon and we can return to the pedestrian levels of spider hatred and intolerance these misunderstood yet wonderful creatures have to endure.

Allen Ward is an experienced keeper and breeder of arachnids, sharing his home with more than 300 spiders and tarantulas from all over the world - many of which have medically significant venom. He also has a large collection of various invertebrates and reptiles. The only times he has ever been bitten by spiders was when he was a child and was in the habit of just picking them up in the wild for a better look. He is still in possession of all of his limbs. He is available to advise on all relevant stories until the False Widow drama has died down – please contact the Elwell Press for details.