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The Truth About the Venom of Black Widow Spiders

Arachnophobia: Almost everyone has heard the term, knows what it means and many have even seen the movie of the same name. Fear of spiders is one of the more common phobias. One of the most feared spiders is the black widow. Is the fear deserved? The answer may be surprising to some people.

Spider bites

Many people are disgusted by the eating habits of spiders in general. All spiders have glands that produce powerful venoms mixed with enzymes that break down cellular material into a liquid, which they can then consume. This gives them a source of protein-rich food that helps them survive.

The problem with spider bites on humans is two-fold. Some people are more affected by the venom than others, just as with bees, so for sensitive individuals, the reaction to a bite can be more severe for some individuals than for others. Also, the digestive enzymes cause necrosis or death of tissue. This is true of all spiders, whether they are deemed harmless or deadly, and a person can be allergic to virtually any spider.

To use an example, if a common garden spider bites an average healthy person, that person often feels irritation or pain and the bite site may become red and swollen for a time. This is due to the venoms and enzymes. In fact, the irritation and pain may be absent if a person is resistant to the venom, so they may note the reddening spot, but not even realize they’ve been bitten by a spider. Indeed, it is safe to say that most people have been or will be bitten many times by spiders without ever knowing it.

Black widow venom

In most cases, as surprising as it may seem and contrary to popular belief, a black widow bite seldom causes death, although black widows are commonly thought of as the most venomous spider in North America. That is assuming that the person that gets the bite is healthy and not highly allergic to the venom. A majority of deaths can be attributed to allergic reactions to the venom.

However, the amount of enzymes are high for the black widow, so the necrosis can be serious and quite painful. As with the brown recluse spider, if the bite isn’t cleaned and treated, extreme damage can occur. Worse, the damage can allow other illnesses and diseases, such as gangrene, to set in. In other words, a person could certainly die, but not from the bite, rather from secondary infections.

There are literally thousands of spider bites that occur every year in the US alone, some painful, some not. But even though quite a few of these may be from black widows and brown recluses, the number of people who die each year from the bites is small. Most of those who do die from the bites are very young, aged, allergic or die from the secondary diseases. This actually makes spiders far safer than bees, since bee stings often kill up to hundreds of people a year or more.

Slow to bite

Spiders are indeed predators, just like members of the cat family are. A common misconception is based on the thought that they are fast to bite a human. They are not, and the amount of venom injected is usually small. The venom used in a bite is for the purpose of defense and for killing prey. There isn’t an endless supply of it. A spider that is quick to bite is very often just as likely to die of starvation. Provoked or endangered, though, a spider will indeed bite. This may sound over-simplified, but really it isn’t. The key, then, is not to provoke or endanger them, as basic as that might sound.

For over four years, our family had a female black widow that had its web at the outside corner of our 55-gallon fish tank. It is possible and likely that there were successive generations that always built their webs in that one location, however, we aren’t sure of that point. It is hard to tell one female black widow from another.

In any event, during that whole time, never did the spider leave the area of its’ web. In that same amount of time, the number of stray flies, moths, mosquitoes, gnats, and even bees that made their way into the house to be devoured after being caught in that web was so great that the number can’t even be estimated. Our daughter, who has a fear of spiders, even caught flies and dropped them into the web. She never got a bite from the spider since she wasn’t threatening it.

We currently have a black widow that has a web between the panes of our kitchen window. I hesitate to remove it because she is already killing flies, gnats, moths, and wasps, though there aren’t many left with the approach of winter. She also poses very little threat, where she is, and most people would never know that she was there.(Incidentally, male black widows are much smaller than the females and are fairly harmless.)

Many people may not agree, however black widows are and can be fascinating and beautiful creatures. Like any other member of the animal kingdom, the more people know about them, the less likely it is that those people will be hurt by them. Since there are huge numbers of black widows and other spiders in the world, it is at least worth the effort to study and understand them before resorting to cold panic or a crushing blow at the very sight of a spider. Let’s face it; they do serve a useful purpose.


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Written by Rex Trulove

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