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1992 - Dedication of Santa Clarita's first Metrolink station (Santa Clarita Station) [brochure]

Let's Go Outside | Commentary by Evelyne Vandersande
| Thursday, Aug 1, 2013

evelynevandersande_mugWhat if I told you there’s a good chance there is a creature in your house that is more dangerous than 15 rattlesnakes?

The venom from the black widow is that potent. It’s 15 times stronger than rattlesnake venom.

But don’t be too alarmed. Fatalities are rare. Those most at risk are young children, the elderly, and people with immune deficiencies – but whoever you are, it is best to get medical attention if you get bitten, just in case.

At first, you might not even know you have been bitten by a black widow. The bite is not particularly painful; it’s like a pinprick. After 30 to 40 minutes, the area of the bite will swell and become painful. You might have nausea and chills.

blackwidow1 You should wash the bite with soap and water, apply an ice pack, try to elevate the area to keep the venom from spreading, and go to the doctor. You will be treated with medications to relieve the pain and relax the muscles, and sometimes antivenom is administered.

It can help if you kill the black widow and bring it as evidence. Just don’t squash it with too much vengeance, so the doctor will be able to identify the body. It might be easier said than done.

Where might you encounter a black widow? They like wood piles, rock piles, and dark, quiet corners of your garage. If you do not use your hiking boots or garden gloves often, and you store them in the garage, shake them first, before you put them on.  If you store quilts or blankets in a box in your garage, same thing: Shake them out before bringing them inside.

My garage is a place where many things pile up, and I have had “black widow encounters” many times but have never been bitten.  If you are cleaning behind furniture, just be careful.

Black widows are not aggressive spiders. They like to hide in dark places. The male black widow is even more reclusive and is hardly seen by humans.

I was not sure how the black widow injects the venom, so I did some research. Most spiders use the same technique for killing and feeding. Biting a human does not serve any purpose to them because they cannot feed on us; they are only trying to protect themselves from being killed.

The spider’s weapon is its chelicerae: a pair of jointed jaws in front of the mouth. Each jaw has two important parts: the basal segment, and the sharp fang that is retracted inside.

When the spider catches it prey, it pushes the fang into the animal’s body. The fangs work like a hypodermic needle, with a hole on the top and a hollow duct inside. The duct leads to the venom gland.The venom is pushed through the fang into the prey to paralyze or kill it.

blackwidow3Most spiders do not eat their prey whole. The prey’s exoskeleton remains intact but the inside of the insect becomes liquefied so the spider can suck the juice into its own stomach.

Please try not to think about that late at night, when you are trying to go to sleep.

What does a black widow look like? They are not insects, because they have eight legs. They are arachnids. They have a skeleton outside of their body, and a segmented body. They are shiny black, with a red hourglass shape on their round abdomen, and they are about 1.5 inches long. The male is about the half the size of the female.

“Black widow” is a catchy name. Why is that? This name was given to them because it was thought that the female devoured the male after sex. Some experiments were done, and it does not seem to happen this way always. Sometimes the male eats the female, if they are an older or smaller female.

When the male fertilizes the female, he inserts his sperm-coated palps into the female, and this part often breaks off and is left behind in the female body (more nightmares coming your way).

But in nature, nothing happens without a good reason. The female is going to make many eggs, and it is better if you are well fed to facilitate this. Who is nearby to provide a quick source of nutrients but the male who just fertilized you? It might be one of the reasons the female makes a quick lunch of the male.

blackwidow2The female can store the sperm for a while, so she needs to mate only one time, and she fertilizes the eggs only when she puts them in the egg sac. She produces about four to nine sacs. Each sac contains hundreds of eggs, and each sac is protected by a white cocoon and takes from two weeks to a month to hatch.

That is a lot of spiderlings. How can they all be fed? They can’t. The female black widow will eat most of them. Fewer than a dozen will survive.

Black widows spin large webs to catch their prey. They have bristles on their hind legs that they use to wrap their prey with silk once it has been trapped in the web. They eat flies, mosquitoes, grasshoppers, beetles and more.

I was interested to learn that the tip of their legs are coated with an oily substance so they can walk on their own web without getting stuck to it. This is neat to know. It explains so much.

Black widows are food for birds, and they eat insects, so they play an important role in our environment. Just respect them from a distance, and pay attention when you reach into little dark corners. They do not want to bite you, but they have to protect themselves.

You may have learned more intriguing little details about their lives than you ever wanted to know.


Evelyne Vandersande has been a docent at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center for 27 years. She lives in Newhall.

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1 Comment

  1. helen says:

    Great article! When my kids were small, used to find them on the underside of their sandbox and inside the roof of things like an outdoor playhouse, wading pool and general play area. Checking kids outdoor toys periodically is a good idea.

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