A Halloween story: Black widows and you
by Louise Estabrook
August 29, 2014 01:16 AM | 2637 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
It was a dark and stormy night. (Isn’t it always, in these stories?) A beautiful dark-featured female settled down in the strange rocky retreat she called home. She had just injected her unsuspecting new lover with a powerful neurotoxin. He collapsed in agony as he looked into her black, merciless eyes. Later, she would return to eat his lifeless body. That sounds pretty gruesome, doesn’t it? Well, folks, it is a true story that happens pretty regularly in the world of black widow spiders.

The black widow spider, Latrodectus mactans, is one of the two spiders found in Georgia considered hazardous to man. The other, even scarier, spider is the smaller brown recluse. Black widow spiders are abundant in Southern states but related species occur in more Northern and Western states. The black widow females are a glossy, jet black color. They have large globular abdomens with a bright red hourglass-shaped marking underneath. The males are less flashy and lighter in color.

Male black widows do not bite but the females will bite when their web is disturbed. Black widow spiders produce venom some sources claim is 15 times more potent than rattlesnake venom. Fortunately, they have tiny mouthparts and inject a very small dose. Victims may not even notice the initial bite. The bite is normally followed, however, by severe pain. The pain often spreads to the abdomen and is accompanied by chills, vomiting, abdominal cramps and profuse perspiration. Fortunately, the bite is seldom fatal. Victims often recover within a few days. Tissue does not slough off around black widow bites like it will with brown recluse bites.

Mating usually takes place in the summer months. Although the female sometimes eats her mate, this is not common. After mating, the female lays clutches of eggs in a silken egg sac that may be up to ½ inch in diameter. The sac is white to tan in color and may contain up to 250 eggs. The female guards the egg sac during the four week incubation period. The spiderlings actually hatch in the sac and molt once before leaving. They disperse to new territory by “ballooning.” That simply means they produce a long strand of web silk and are blown to new locations like a hot air balloon. The fine threads are what we call gossamer and it’s truly a spectacular site. It looks like hundreds of tiny spiders with parachutes!

Black widow spiders primarily feed on insects. Beetles, cockroaches and other food items become trapped in the female’s web. She then dispatches them with a bite, before feeding on them. Black widows are most often found in outdoor rubbish. Beware when handling old stacks of firewood, rock piles and stacks of building materials. They seem to especially enjoy building webs in the openings in bricks and concrete blocks. Black widows can also be found on occasion in clutter that accumulates in basements and storage areas indoors.

Control black widow spiders by eliminating clutter, rubbish and other attractive web building sites. Many household insecticide products will kill black widow spiders. Wear gloves for protection when working in areas that are attractive to black widow spiders. Closed-toe shoes, socks and long pants and sleeves make sense as well. Make it a habit to always look before reaching under stones and outdoor debris. Anytime you move a stone, brick or log, lift it away from you. If there is anything hiding underneath it will have a chance to escape before facing you directly. Remember that as scared as you might be, anything small enough to live under a log will be much more scared of you!

In the unlikely event of a black widow spider bite, remain calm and seek immediate medical attention. Experts recommend putting an ice pack on the site of the bite. If possible, you may want to collect the spider, even if it has been crushed, so it can be positively identified.

Just use normal precautions when working around environments that are attractive to black widow spiders. Don’t give her a chance to work her wicked ways on you!

Information about Extension Solutions for Homes and Gardens can be found on the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension website at www.caes.uga.edu/extension/cherokee or by contacting the Cherokee County Extension Office at 100 North St., Suite G21 in Canton at (770) 479-0418. The Georgia Extension Master Gardener Program is a volunteer training program offered through county offices of the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension.

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