In the last few years, we have been hearing more and more scare stories in our newspapers about spider attacks: “Woman left with paralysed arm after spider bite”, “Woman in false spider bite hell”, “Climate change blamed for plague of 10 million killer spiders in the UK” – these are among many stories which have hit our headlines in the last year and all these stories have one thing in common: the false widow spider.
So what is it about this species that has got the British media is such a spin? Here, Lawrence Bee of the British Arachnological Society tells me the truth behind the headlines:
Good morning Lawrence. What is the objective of the British Arachnological Society and what is your role within it?
I am in charge of press and publicity here. As a society, we are a group of people interested in British spiders and their conservation. Our aim is to promote spiders and raise their profile.
And what is it about spiders that interest you so much?
There are 670 species of spiders in the UK which fall into 34 families, so whilst the group isn’t as wide as some other invertebrates, they are incredibly varied making them an exciting and nice species to work with.
Why are spiders so important to our ecosystem?
Spiders are incredibly useful to have around. They eat insects and other pests, retaining the natural balance in the house and garden. Without them, we would be overrun with various insects. They also appear to naturally control their own populations, so they will never be a problem.
So onto the False Widow spider, where does it get its name from, is it because it eats its partner?
The False Widow (Steatoda genus) is in the same family as the famous Black Widow and this is how it earned its name. The female doesn’t actually eat the male, in fact, there are only a few spiders which do this and it is more uncommon than you would think. Even the Black Widow isn’t really thought to engage in this behaviour, despite the name. Often, if it does happen, it is thought to be to do with females caring for their young and providing nutrition. Males have methods of avoiding being eaten anyway, such as providing flies to the female to distract her whilst making a swift exit.
What is it about the False Widow Spider that is causing so much controversy?
It is most likely due to its name and the links to the Black Widow. A story about a false widow has arisen at some point; the press have gotten hold of it and have, unhelpfully, raised the profile in a negative way. These spiders do bite and they do have venom. Actually, all spiders have venom in their bite, they need it to kill their prey, but the False Widow has more potent venom than other species, but it is only slightly stronger. It can be likened to a bee or wasp sting and like a sting, it can become a problem if it gets infected. When someone gets bitten, their instinct can be to scratch, which can lead to an infection and this can cause complications. Other than that, they are not dangerous at all.
What would you say to people who are reading these stories and feeling frightened?
False Widow Spiders have been in the UK for over 100 years. It is thought they arrived into Torquay in the 1870’s. We have been living alongside them for all this time with no problems and they are now regarded as a British species. Spiders don’t go after people; they will only bite if they feel threatened. They are not aggressive animals. I have caught various False Widows from my garden to use as an educational tool and they have always been comfortable being handled, they have never shown any aggression. No spider in the UK has ever caused a fatality. Obviously there are some people who have arachnophobia, a condition which can be cured through therapy, but if people are just unsure then I would recommend they are brave and observe spiders. Then they will realise, there is more to them, they’re fascinating and not dangerous.
What is the society doing to change the media’s perception?
It’s been very hard to put the truth across to the British press , but we are starting to get the message out there and an increasing number of people have been contacting us to get more accurate information. There is further information on the British Arachnological Website which can answer any more questions you might have: http://wiki.britishspiders.org.uk/index.php5?title=False_Widow_Spiders
For more information on spiders in general, to get involved in the excellent work the society do, help out with recording or to head to one of their events, please visit the British Arachnological Society’s website: http://wiki.britishspiders.org.uk/index.php?title=Main_Page
FALSE WIDOW FACTS:
– There are 3 different species of false widow in the UK: Steatoda bipunctata, Steatoda grossa and Steatoda nobilis
– They are distinctive due to their large, round bodies.
– False Widows tend to live further South in the UK, but are slowly spreading north as the temperature increases
– You are likely to find false widow spiders in buildings such as houses, sheds and garages, but they can be found in gardens too.
– Females are larger than males, with a body size of 8-15mm and a leg length of 20-32mm. Males bodies generally fall between 7 and 10mm and have a leg length og 16-22mm.
– Females tend to have a longer lifespan than males, but the species on average lives about 1-2 years
– The false widow will eat practically any small insect or invertebrate that it can!
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