Black widow: is Virginia’s only native venomous spider lurking beneath your bed?

‘Once you see the first one you start seeing them everywhere’

The fear in the voice of a loved one shouting from another room is unmistakable: “Honey, come here quick!”

Before the sentence is even completed the first responder has a good idea of what awaits their speedy arrival: A spider. Of the creepy variety.

“Is this a black widow?”

Photo by Chuck Evans, Wikimedia Commons
A female black widow spider, with the telltale bright red or orange hourglass shape on her underside, guards her egg sac.

In Rappahannock County, it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that the black spider peering out from under a bed or scurrying into a basement box is of the genus Latrodectus. A black widow. The only venomous spider native to Virginia.

(Contrary to popular belief, brown recluse spiders are not only rare in these Blue Ridge foothills — they don’t like the climate — they aren’t indigenous to the state).

Black widows, in fact, are plentiful in Virginia.

Not to worry — so long as the black widow in question is a male. Males are not only smaller than females, they’re virtually harmless. In fact, they don’t even bite. Which might explain why their mates enjoy eating them.

On the other hand, if it’s a female black widow that’s lurking behind the bed sheet — guarding her nest that is tucked, perhaps, between the bed slats — then by all means jump up on a chair and start screaming.

“Only the female black widow spider will bite,” confirms our friends at the Blue Ridge Poison Center in Charlottesville, “and only if she feels that she or her egg sac are under attack.” (Getting close enough to a black widow to determine if she is guarding an egg sack is not recommended).

That said, nobody should ever be criticized for cowering on a sofa or other elevated surface after encountering a black widow. After all, before a black widow bites “she will usually try to escape first.”

Which means if the terrified person is standing between a black widow and the spider’s freedom then it is quite possible the widow will scurry in that direction as fast as her eight legs will carry her. And spiders can be fast.

Another excuse for standing on a chair surrounds the fact that the venom of a black widow is extremely potent —15 times as potent as a rattlesnake. More potent even than a cobra. Fortunately, the black widow is smaller than these snakes, so less venom is injected into the victim.

Still, being bitten by a black widow is no walk in the park. Although deaths from black widow bites are rare in healthy adults, they do cause serious health conditions: vomiting, difficulty breathing, slurred speech, severe muscle pain, sweating, chest and abdominal pain, cramping, swollen hands and feet, and not surprisingly (given all of the above) high anxiety.

“Symptoms usually appear within 30 minutes of the bite,” Dr. Nathan Charlton, a physician/toxicologist at the poison center, tells the Rappahannock News. He describes the normal poisoning process this way: “cramping around the site of the bite,” followed by pain “moving up the arm or the leg,” and finally “full body cramping and muscle spasms.

“It is an extremely painful situation — the blood pressure goes up, the heart rate goes up,” the doctor states. “There can be severe pain.”

“Very small children and the elderly are most at risk for serious health problems,” according to the center, which is a branch of the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine. “Some victims describe the bite as a sharp pain, like a bee sting. Many victims do not feel the spider bite them at all.”

So where inside the home is a black widow most comfortable? Mainly dark, undisturbed places, such as behind desks or other furniture. Other common lurking places are attics, basements, crawlspaces and under sinks (black widows enjoy moist areas).

Which brings us outdoors. There are black widows “everywhere outside,” says Kristen Wenger, the Blue Ridge Poison Center’s public health educator. She rattles off hiding places like rock walls, barns, sheds, woodpiles, underneath porches, and meter boxes.

“I had one in my mulch pile just last week,” Wenger tells this newspaper.

But many black widows prefer being indoors, gaining entry into our homes through open doors and windows. Others are unwittingly carried in, especially when the weather cools.

“In fall, they may seek the warmth of indoors or may be accidentally carried inside with firewood,” the center warns (more reason to wear long sleeved shirts and gloves). And how do we know it’s a black widow staring back from the hearth?

Female black widows are shiny and black all over, with a bright red or orange hourglass shape on their underside. According to the poison center, “They can be up to 1.5 inches long and spin a messy, irregular web. Males are smaller, less brightly colored.”

“We just found one yesterday,” reveals Dr. Charlton. “Or my kids did. They put it in a jar. I was going to bring it in for show-and-tell [for students] but I forgot it.” (The doctor, who admits to being more afraid of snakes than spiders, says the black widow was collected “in the woods,” not from inside his home).

Wenger says she actually had a female black widow living in a Mason jar on her desk at the poison center.

“She died,” she says. “I had leaves and branches in the jar, and she built a web, and I fed her crickets. I would take her to health fairs, and [educational] speaking engagements.”

“They live all around my house,” Wenger adds. “Once you know what they look like, once you see the first one you start seeing them everywhere.”

Dr. Charlton agrees: “They’re all over the place.”

The Blue Ridge Poison Center on average is alerted to some 30 black widow bites each year that require treatment, which ranks below bee and wasp stings and snakebites.

If bitten by a black widow, victims are advised to wash the site with soap and water and promptly seek medical attention..

Another important point to remember: If a black widow is found and safely removed from the home, follow up inspections are highly recommended, especially in the absence of a professional exterminator.

After all, during a typical summer a black widow produces anywhere from four to nine camouflaged egg sacs, each containing anywhere from 100 to 400 eggs.

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About John McCaslin 83 Articles
John McCaslin is the editor of the Rappahannock News. Email him at editor@rappnews.com.

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