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6 Facts About the Mostly Harmless Spider Terrorizing London

6 Facts About the Mostly Harmless Spider Terrorizing London

There is an eight-legged fiend that, if UK reports are to be believed, is currently ‘terrorizing’ the UK, and in particular London: the nefarious false widow.

Brits, fearing that one bite from this little brute could kill, have been swatting spiders left and right. Reports of people being bitten have been popping up in the news with dire warnings that the south of England is under siege by Britain’s “most venomous spider.”

However, this spider killing spree has elicited plaintive cries of “Stop!” from those in the know. They contend that many of the spiders being swatted are entirely innocent and aren’t even the species in question. Moreover, while it is true the false widow spider is venomous, its bite is only about as dangerous as the average bee sting: that is, it only poses a significant health risk to those who might be allergic to the venom.

Greg Hitchock, of the Kent Wildlife Trust and member of the British Arachnological Society for more than 14 years, told the Richmond and Twickenham Times that this false widow witchhunt is a scare story that is harming innocent spiders for no good reason:

The expert also said that false widows – a relative of the deadly black widow -  are not “deadly” – in fact, he said, no one in the UK has ever died from a spider bite, let alone one by a false widow.

[...]

Mr Hitchcock added: “Because of the press coverage, people are going out and looking for them and they will find these spiders.  It does spiral out of control.

[...]

“They are no more dangerous than eating a peanut. But quite often alarming headlines are used to draw people in.”

So, in the cause of redeeming the poor false widow and allaying fears of fangs in the night, here are 6 interesting facts about this gorgeous creepy crawly:

 

Image credit: ClifB.

1. The False Widow’s Bite is Highly Unlikely to Put Your Life in Danger

Yes, I am repeating myself but in this case it is necessary.

The Natural History Museum (NHM) relates that both the male and female false widow are capable of biting humans, but they are only likely to do so when threatened, for instance by someone trying to capture them. As a group they are not aggressive toward humans.

Should a person be bitten by a false widow, there is likely to be a degree of pain that, according to the NHM, can radiate around the area of the bite. Bite victims can likely expect a degree of swelling around the affected area, too.

In this instance, the bite can usually be treated like a wasp sting and over the counter antihistamines will do the trick. Symptoms can be expected to persist for a couple of days.

If symptoms are worse than any noted above, for instance signs of a fever, this may be a sign of an adverse reaction to the venom and medical attention should be sought.

Recommendations are that a trip to the doctor or the local emergency room may be called for in order to ascertain the nature of the bite and perhaps provide pain relief, but unless symptoms appear immediately dangerous — for instance, signs of going into shock which, again, is highly unlikely — there is no need to call out the emergency services.

It is also worth reiterating that there are no known fatalities from a spider bite in the UK, much less from a false widow.

 

Image credit: Somesortofterror.

2. What Does a False Widow Look Like?

We have to be careful here to distinguish between the spider in question, the Steatoda nobilis, and the other spiders in the false widow family.

Steatoda nobilis belongs to the same family as the notorious black widow and does have a passing resemblance to its deadly cousin, though again they are in no way as toxic as the black widow.

The false widow in question can be recognized by its glossy tawny body, its bulbous abdomen, its pale markings and an almost creamy color belt around its front. The female false widow’s body usually measures around 15mm. The male is smaller at 7-10mm and usually even less aggressive than the female.

Steatoda nobilis might also be suspected by their characteristic “tangle webs.”

 

3. The False Widow is Not New to Britain

The false widow is not a new species to Britain, and in fact it has been in residence for over a century. It likely arrived in the UK from the Canary Islands and was first recorded in Torquay, in Devon, in 1879.

While the false widow might be found in most areas of England, the genus is most commonly found along the stretch of the south coast of England, primarily from Devon to Dorset and Sussex. In recent years more and more sightings have been made in Greater London and also in areas of northern England.

The false widow can also be found throughout mainland Europe, Madeira, the Canary Islands and across Africa.

Britain’s Steatoda nobilis population is believed to be regularly refreshed by arrivals of foreign false widows in shipments of bananas.

 

Image credit: Brenda Avery.

 

4. Climate Change is Probably Beefing Up False Widow Numbers

Scientists think that climate change may be contributing to the false widow’s increased population size and range of distribution, with warmer winters meaning less food supply restrictions and more amenable temperatures.

This may also be helping to extend the Steatoda nobilis‘ mating cycle. According to the Encyclopedia of Life, mature male spiders are largely found in summer and autumn (they live for only one year), while mature females are found throughout the year. The spiders lay egg sacks from spring through to autumn. With more favorable temperatures in the winter they may find room to keep up the baby making.

 

5. Steatoda nobilis Likes to Go Ballooning

The NHM reports that like many spiders, juvenile Steatoda nobilis are capable of getting around by employing silk threads to create a ballooning effect, being carried on the wind for some quite impressive distances.

Like many arachnid and insect species, Steatoda nobilis is thought to have increased its range of distribution by hitching a ride in goods delivery vans, rail carriages and other vehicles.

Despite the fact that Steatoda nobilis is an invasive specie,s it is not considered a dangerous competitor to other native species.

 

Image credit: Joaquim F. P..

6. The False Widow is a Night Owl Homebody

Steatoda nobilis is most likely to be found around, though not necessarily in, the home, according to the Spider and Harvestman Recording Scheme. These spiders have a particular love for conservatories, garages and sheds, and are most active at night.

In general they are not known to roam far from their distinctive tubular like webs, and so for these reasons are highly unlikely to ever be a problem.

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Main image credit: ClifB.

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203 comments

+ add your own
6:46AM PDT on Jun 6, 2014

not a fan of spiders and do live in the South East of England but would never kill one :) thanks for sharing :)

5:39PM PST on Dec 10, 2013

Spiders are useful because they eat insects. I just want the spiders to stay outside and out of sight.

5:32PM PST on Dec 10, 2013

I don't care how interesting this spider is, I don't want it near me, thank you very much!

4:38PM PST on Nov 16, 2013

If they leave me alone I leave them alone - shivers!

7:45AM PST on Nov 14, 2013

I kill any that are within 20 feet of my house. I am TERRIFIED of spiders. these pics are making me itch

4:03PM PDT on Oct 18, 2013

I hate any kind of spider. I try to escape from them. It would be great if the spiders and black widow spiders false black widow marry again, because then they would probably be less aggressive and dangerous.

3:47PM PDT on Oct 15, 2013

I must pat it a compliment. It's an ugly looking spider. Pretty cool design on its back though. Looks kind a like jewelry.

1:40PM PDT on Oct 15, 2013

This I used to say all the time when i was a child I still say it now I don`t like Spiders but I trust these 2 things that help me deal with the fear 1) If you want live and thrive let a spider run alive 2) pray to the King of Spiders the Tarantula God , ask for protection from all spiders and promise to never intentionally hurt a spider and to apologise if you do , i know it seems mad but these both work i`ve nearly conquered my fear and spiders run away from me when in the same vicinity leave em alone they`ll leave you alone

6:55AM PDT on Oct 15, 2013

Noted

6:33AM PDT on Oct 15, 2013

Thanks.

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