Dear Readers, was there ever a creature more maligned than the poor old False Widow spider? If the newspapers were to be believed, they are ravaging folk all over the country, taking chunks out of small children and wrestling dachshunds to the ground. Well, I must be as brave as that woman in Game of Thrones with the dragons, as I have three visible in my kitchen at the moment, one on the ceiling and two in the corners of the sash windows outside. A single bite can be enough to make you lose a limb, apparently, and back in 2013 four schools in East London were closed while they dealt with an ‘infestation’ of False Widows. To be frank, I suspect the children were in much more danger from the pesticides used than the spiders themselves. If you hear the sound of distant harrumphing, that’s probably me.
So, to get to the nitty-gritty – do these spiders bite? If cornered, yes, and the female bite is said to be worse than the males. Is it painful? Yes, and there might be local swelling. A few very unlucky people might go on to have that bite become infected, and some people might also have an allergic reaction. Is that a reason for killing every spider that you see? Absolutely not. Make sure that children know not to pick up small creatures that are just going about their business, and chances are everyone will be fine.
If you can bring yourself to look closely at the spider above, you’ll see that the eyes are lit up like little headlights – spiders have a ‘tapetum lucidum’, a membrane behind the eyeball that reflects the light. I have to say that I find that rather cute, but I can see why others might struggle.
This spider is a chap – you can see by those two things that look like jaws but are actually what are known as pedipalps, and are used to transfer sperm to the female. Also, the males tend to be a bit more slim-line than the females, who look like Maltesers with legs attached.He should have no shortage of possible mates, because the ones outside look pretty much like ladies to me.
Now, I was just about to have my windows cleaned, but I fear I might have to wait for a bit. I have been known to block up the spider’s lair with a piece of polystyrene in an attempt to preserve them during the process, but as most window cleaners use power jets these days I wouldn’t want to risk it with these lovelies. The Noble False Widow builds a little tubular retreat, which is why old-fashioned sash windows are so popular: they also build a pretty unimpressive web (at least when compared to the lovely ones in my garden) but the silk used is extremely strong. In spite of those shining eyes, False Widows are very short-sighted (a condition with which I can sympathise) and they mainly respond to vibration. I should say that the poor little soul on the ceiling did flinch when I took a flash photograph of him though, so they definitely don’t like sudden bright light.
That short-sightedness might also account for all the stories of spider bites as well, though I do wonder how come people are coming into contact with a creature that mostly lives in cracks and holes. It’s not likely to be lurking in your washing or snuggling up in the duvet. But like all creatures, it should be respected just in case.
False Widows are not native to the UK – they come originally from the Canary Islands and Madeira, of all places, and they will no doubt be delighted that our climate is warming up. It’s believed that they arrived in 1879, and one was noticed by the Reverend Hamlet Clark of Torquay (and what a fine name that is). Presumably the spider arrived in a shipment of something or other (window frames possibly) and from there it has gone on to become one of our commoner spiders.
We do have our own native species of False Widow (Steadota grossa), but as you can only tell the difference between this and the spider in my kitchen by harpooning one and dissecting its genitalia, I’m going to pass.
So, I shall watch my little community of spiders with some interest over the weeks and months to come. The males, sadly, only live for a year, but the females are good for three years if no one sits on them or sprays them with pesticide. During that time they will cheerfully munch their way through any errant flies, clothes moths, gnats or midges that venture indoors: indeed, my chap with his ramshackle web on the ceiling has already caught half a dozen small invertebrates. And things will get very exciting if the male actually gets on the same side of the window as one of the females, as the ladies can be very grumpy (though not normally murderous). I shall keep you all posted.
Photo One By Alvesgaspar – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2888258
Photo Two By Ryan Kaldari – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30397907