My first real encounter with a black widow spider occurred when I was only three years old. We lived in a new house that my father built. He was still working on parts of it. The basement was still dirt and the front steps leading to the dirt road were made of cement blocks.
My mother would often find black widows, hanging in their rather disorganized webs. There, in the darkness, they would guard their egg sacks. We would find them around the outside of our house, in the corners of the basement and inside the holes in the center of the cement blocks. The black widow produces a very strong web material. I have taught many people to take a stick and push against the web. If they find the web is very strong, it is probably leading to a black widows nest. I admit that it is fun to see the look on my “students” faces when I scatter the leaves or probe into the rocks and produce a female black widow.
My father still has stacks of bricks, boards and cement blocks around the yard. Everything is a work in progress. My mother wasn’t afraid of anything, and often caught the spiders in a canning jar. She would take them to my aunt’s “country store” to show them to friends and neighbors who came by. She enjoyed her reputation of not being afraid of spiders and snakes and passed that fearlessness on to me.
I grew up loving to study nature. Both of my parents enjoyed educating friends, relatives and their daughter ( me) about the names of plants, insects, and animals along with their habitats. We always had a menagerie of specimens in and around our house, observing them as they progressed through their life cycles.
I am always surprised by how little most people know about the different species of plants and animals they encounter on a regular basis. I have shown many elderly neighbors a black widow that I have caught in a jar and been surprised when they told me they had never seen one before.
Male black widows are not often seen. They only appear near the females’ web around mating time and do not have the large round marble shaped abdomen which is the trademark of the female. The thin abdomen of the male is marked with more color than that of the female. They often have white, yellow and red markings along their abdomens. Females store sperm and can produce more than one egg sack from one mating. Newly hatched black widows look alike, it is only with their shedding of the exoskeletons that the sex becomes apparent. Young females often have several red markings on their abdomen, even on the upper side in addition to the hour glass shaped red marking on their lower abdomen. An older female typically has only the red hour glass shape on her lower abdomen.
I only live about a mile from where I grew up, so many of the creatures I encounter now are the same ones I grew up with. Many years ago, a neighbor who was an avid gardener, brought me some tomato plants he had started and noted the small, multicolored spider on one of the containers. Knowing that I studied arachnids, he asked me what it was. He was surprised when I told him it was a male black widow. After gardening his entire life, he had noted only the large black females with the hour glass shaded red marking on her underside.
Since female black widows hand up side down in their webs, they are easy to spot and identify if you look carefully under rocks, flowerpots or creaks in walls. I have seen them within patches of strawberries, gourds or even on the head of a fallen sunflower. If you have read my recent blog on black widows, you will note that I have found them many times on the gravestones, or the flower containers mounted on the stones in cemeteries.
Ironically, I have found them only on the graves of my mom and my son, Finding that rather disturbing, I would look around at all the graves within the area, never spotting another black widow. I began to think of it as some sort of message from my loved ones. Who, but me, who studies arachnids, would think to look for them there, recognize their webs on site or even know for sure what kind of spider it was? I imagine it is quite common to find the spiders in cemeteries, however, I have never seen them on another grave.
Though black widows ordinarily nest near the ground, my children once discovered one in a toy box sitting on a patio table. They are most likely to be found among rocks, in plant growth along walls, inside pipes and in piles of fallen leaves. When I have taught classes on poisonous spiders, I have always emphasized that you should never put your hands where you cant see what you are touching.
Black widows feed on insects. When I see crickets in leaves that have dried and accumulated in the corners of steps or in garden debris, I always look for black widows and often find them. Crickets hide under rocks and debris in winter as well as summer and seem to be a favorite of the black widow. Black widows do not move around much and can survive a long time, several weeks or even months on one meal.
My children were taught early about the wild creatures around us and most of them identified a black widow in the wild at three or four years of age. I would be working nearby and one of them would shout to me, ” Mom, a black widow!” They were right every time. In fact, it was through their young eyes, that I learned a lot about the various habitats that black widows can be found in. I would have to list “life experience” as my main source of information. My other sources were the Golden Guide series, which covers most plants and animals in small, easy to read books, and the more sophisticated Audubon Society Field Guides.
The male black widow does not have venom and the female will bite only when threatened. They are not aggressive and ordinarily try to crawl away if their nest is disturbed. The egg sack is woven of a brown papery material with a tear drop shape and is suspended within the web. There can be several egg sacks located in at one time. I have seen as many as five egg sacks in the nest of one large female!
The young spiders hatch before emerging, but soon disperse. They are carnivorous if the opportunity avails itself. It is not true that the female always eats the male after mating. If she is hungry and he isn’t careful, it can happen. The female can live up to three years while the male ordinarily lives only one year. This may have lead to that myth. I have seen males and females live through the winter and into the next spring together in a set of cement block steps.
The venom of the black widow is a neurotoxin, in other words, it affects the nervous system. Though bites to adults are rarely fatal, the can cause shortness of breath, redness, swelling and cramping. It is important to get an injection of antivenin as soon as possible. The black widow often hides in shoes left on a porch or in a barn or shed. Many bites occur when someone puts on a shoe without realizing that a black widow had made it into a home. This happened to a good friend of mine when she changed shoes in her barn before cleaning her horse stable.
As with any poisonous creature or plant, caution, a keen eye and respect for the possibilities are our best defense. To know the world we live in is the best way to pass each part of it on to the next generation.
Please refer to my photo and article about Black Widow Spiders at the wordpress.com site listed below.