Black widow spiders are friendly

5 December 2013 by Christopher Buddle, posted in Natural History, Outreach, Spiders

The poor maligned black widow spider. This autumn there has been a lot of stories about widow spiders catching a free ride into homes across the USA and Canada. Since widow spiders are 'medically important', they sometimes cause people to worry about about food safety.

Here on Expiscor, I'm going to try to put your mind at ease. I touched base with Catherine Scott, a graduate student (in British Columbia) who works with black widow spiders. Catherine recently started blogging about spiders, and she recently tweeted an amazing photo for (scientists hijacking) #ManicureMonday. That's the photo that got me thinking... perhaps Catherine can help us better understand the personalities of black widow spiders.

A friendly black widow spider! (photo by S. McCann)

Here's a Q & A with Catherine:

1) Can you tell me a little bit about your current research?

I study courtship behaviour and sexual communication in western black widows (Latrodectus hesperus). I am especially interested in male ‘web reduction’ behaviour. Often, during courtship, a male will destroy part of the female’s web by biting the silk threads, bundling them up into a ball, and then wrapping it with his own silk. Part of my research is aimed at finding out why and under what circumstances males engage in this unusual behaviour.

2) What attracted you to working with spiders, and more specifically, black widows?

I used to be afraid of spiders, and didn’t really know much about them. As an undergraduate I jumped at the opportunity to work in a lab helping a grad student with research on ‘spider sexual communication’ because it just sounded so fascinating! Who knew that spiders communicate? (I didn’t, but soon learned that they certainly do, using vibratory, chemical, and tactile signals.) As soon as I met the black widows and started watching their elaborate courtship behaviour up close, I was hooked. Also, they are beautiful!

Credit: S. McCann. A beautiful Black widow spider!

3) In your field study areas, how common are western black widow spiders?

Western black widows are extremely abundant at Island View Beach (on southern Vancouver Island), where I do my fieldwork. If you turn over any piece of driftwood on the dunes, chances are there will be at least one, if not several, widows underneath. Their capture webs extend out from under the logs, but during the day the spiders hide out in their retreats, so most people never realize they are there.

4) Despite being guilty of anthropomorphizing, can you shed light on the 'personalities' of the black widow spiders you work with?  Have you ever been bitten by one?

Black widows are shy! If you touch one on her web, she’ll either run away, or shoot some sticky silk at you, which is defensive behaviour. They are definitely not aggressive towards humans, so of course I have never been bitten! I think pretty much the only reason a widow would bite a person is if it was being crushed against a body part.

5) So, you are clearly not living in fear of black widow spiders, yet these spiders stir up a lot of emotion, fear and anxiety among the general public. Why do you think this is the case, despite the low risk of being harmed by spiders?

I think the main reason is that a lot of emphasis is put on the fact that black widows are venomous. Headlines and stories about them almost invariably describe them as ‘dangerous’ or ‘deadly’, when in fact bites are extremely rare, and fatalities even more so. The one thing that pretty much everyone has heard about widows is that they have potentially lethal venom, rather than any number of other not-so-scary (and really cool!) facts.

Credit: Mike Hrabar. Catherine Scott doing some Arachnid-outreach.

6) As Arachnologists, what can we do to help dispel myths about spiders and spider bites? 

I hope that this blog post is one thing! Definitely, we should be communicating what we know about the biology of spiders in whatever form is available. It’s important to show and tell people that spiders are not aggressive and that they almost never bite people, because usually they are busy doing all kinds of other amazing and useful things.

7) Any last comments or thoughts about black widow spiders?

If you live somewhere where there are black widows (in Canada, BC and southern Ontario are two such places) and can go out and find some to observe, I highly recommend it. Spending time watching them is the best way I know of to overcome fear and gain an appreciation for these marvellous creatures. This is of course true of any other spiders as well!

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So, black widow spiders are friendly. Also, don't pre-judge, be curious, be observant and share. Good words to live by.

In sum, I want to give  big "THANKS" to Catherine for taking time to answer these questions. I don't deny that you need to be cautious around black widow spiders, but if you use common sense, and are open to observing these lovely animals, I think you will find they are remarkable arachnids.

Follow Catherine's blog here!

Check out more of Sean's incredible photos here!

Here's a final black widow photograph, courtesy of the amazing Alex Wild!

 

Credit: A. Wild. Beautiful and friendly.


7 Responses to “Black widow spiders are friendly”

  1. Bugwitch Reply | Permalink

    I know full well that spiders get a bad wrap. There are very agressive species out there (wandering spiders, etc) and generally those that are sit/wait aren't going to be an issue. Part of the problem is also with misdiagnosis of spider "bites" by doctors or other people who don't really know what a spider bite looks like. (I deal with a lot of Ekbom/DP cases and get this quite often).

    All that being said, I'm perfectly happy never touching or even seeing another black widow. Sorry. But I do plan on buying a tarantula. As many other entomologists can attest, that extra pair of legs can make all the difference.

    • Christopher Buddle Reply | Permalink

      Thanks for the comment! You are most correct - there are certainly some species that are more aggressive, and this post is certainly specific to the species Catherine works with. Yes, an extra pair of legs really make a difference for a lot of people, entomologists included.

  2. Jatukam Reply | Permalink

    hi, in answer to the spider destroying parts of the female web.... this is done to be able to use the web to wap the tranced female while in her mating position on her back. The male wraps her in the web so that her has time to escape after he is finished his part. If he was inexperienced, she will most likely break her bonds and get to him before he escapes and leaves her web. If he has experience he may take longer and wrap her more securely in her bonds, giving him more time to make his getaway....sometimes he is too slow and is also caught. The female goes through some sort of mating trance vibrating her/the web and the male then wraps her in the bonds while she is in this state and on her back( It is all about control and focus, and males should observe this and not upset their mate). Spiders are cool and there is supposedly a spider god for the earth. I have come accross many spiders and other critters while living in the thai - lao forest/jungle on many trips. Of course I never kill any creatures in the forest (or anytime) when sharing their home with them.

    • Catherine Scott (@Cataranea) Reply | Permalink

      Interesting! I have never seen a male use the female's web to wrap her. You might be interested in my blog post on the 'bridal veil' (http://wp.me/p47Cs4-1P). There's a video of a western black widow male wrapping a female with silk. Some researchers have suggested that the male's silk does not physically bind the female, but may have pheromones on it which keep her in her 'trance'.

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