Monday, 14 October 2013

Guest Post: The False Scourge of the False Widow

Unless you’ve been hiding inoffensively in a dark corner (much like our chosen subject) you cannot have failed to notice the recent mounting hysteria surrounding a certain type of spider. Pictures of horrific injuries and tales of ‘vicious’ attacks by False Widow spiders have been dominating the local tabloids with every Tom, Dick, and Harry apparently having a brush with death at the hands of these largely harmless arachnids. Now this may come as some surprise to you, but very little of this hyperbole is based upon truth. The media are fuelling and feeding off the public’s fear, which in turn is based upon ignorance. So, I am going to set the record straight in an attempt to support the beleaguered False Widow. 

The Invasion
Firstly, the False Widow is nothing new. These spiders have been in the UK longer than you, regardless of how old you are. Believed to have come into the country on goods imported from the Canary Islands, the first documented sightings date from around 1879 and they have been slowly spreading throughout the south of England, living in fairly close proximity to us since then. It is hypothesized that recent changes in climate have prompted the False Widow’s accelerated expansion into most areas of the UK, although it is still confined mainly to the south. 

The Spider
The reports of the False Widow that have been circulating have been focussing upon Steatoda nobilis or the Noble Widow. However, this is only one of an entire family of spiders, many of which are present in the UK.  The genus Steatoda is a relative of Latrodectus, which contains L.mactans or the Black Widow. What many people don’t realise is that the Black Widow has also made its way over to the UK, albeit in vastly reduced numbers. And it’s the FALSE Widow that people are concerned about! Steatoda has a few species that are present in the UK and all of them are capable of inflicting a bite. But then a Garden Spider (Araneus diadematus) is also capable of biting and that bite is extremely benign. (I should know, I have been bitten by one as a child – and yes it was totally my fault, I picked the spider up) 

The Bite
Now the bite itself. Steatoda, and Latrodectus (and indeed most arachnids) have neurotoxic venom, which can cause pain, swelling, nausea and, in rare cases, even cramps and a fever. It doesn’t cause the skin to rot and fall off, nor does it result in significant muscle loss. What CAN cause that is secondary staph infection - even MRSA - or potentially a very severe allergic reaction to the venom. However this reaction would only occur in an EXTREMELY small percentage of people. 

The most you should expect from a False Widow bite would be some swelling, some pain and possibly generally feeling unwell, and much of that may be psychosomatic  - no worse than a nasty bee or wasp sting. If bitten, clean and dress the bite. If you start feeling ill go to A&E for treatment; it’s unlikely to amount to any more than administering pain medication and antihistamines. This said, the effect is likely to be more profound for those in poor health, the very old, or the very young so caution should still be exercised in those cases.

The Coverage
So that’s the spider’s history and the bite itself covered, let’s talk about the reports and the errors within. Aside from the fact that the spider actually pictured varies from Tegenaria gigantea (the large Common House spider you often see crawling about – usually a male in search of a mate) to the Laceweb spider Amaurobius similis (both utterly harmless), in these articles the spiders are described as killers, deadly, poisonous, vicious, and flesh eating.  Let’s handle these one at a time. 

  • Killers: these spiders have killed NO-ONE. Peanuts and wasps have caused more deaths than S.nobilis. Then again, so have elephants and stepladders.
  • Deadly: admittedly most papers do normally specify that a bite can be lethal only in the case of the most extreme allergic reaction.  This being the case, why keep spouting about how ‘deadly’ they are? Unless ,of course, you’re in Ireland, where deadly has entirely different connotations, it is a grossly unfair adjective to use - unless you are also going to start referring to peanuts, wasps, bees, ants, strawberries, coffee, or anything else to which you might suffer an allergic reaction to in the same manner.
  • Poisonous: poison refers to a toxin ingested or absorbed through the skin; venom is injected by an animal by a bite or sting. A small distinction, but an important one - how can you trust a report if they don’t even get the basics right? A False Widow probably wouldn’t taste nice but it won’t harm you by eating it, so they are not poisonous.
  • Vicious: Steadota, and for that matter most spiders, are NOT vicious. They are shy, retiring creatures that want to be left alone and undisturbed and will only react if they are provoked or threatened. Most False Widow bites occur because the spider has ended up in clothing and was disturbed as the ‘victim’ dressed. That said, shirts and trousers are not the chosen habitat of the false widow; they prefer dark corners and will often be found in a shed or garage. It is only with the arrival of the colder weather that these arachnids start to encroach upon our homes. So they aren’t vicious or malicious unlike some of the pieces of journalistic fiction that have been written about them.
  • Flesh Eating: despite the sensationalist headlines like ‘Spider Tried To Eat My Leg!’ and ‘Millions Of Flesh Eating Spiders Invade Britain!’ the lower limb of the average human is FAR too large for even the largest spider in the world to consume. S.nobilis would much prefer to feed upon flies or other small insects. These spiders are only around 2cm in size! Hardly the terror they have been portrayed as.

And you’re SCARED of this?! Look at the way it viciously attacks anything in its path!
Image copyright: Richard @

So hopefully this has gone someway to defuse the hysteria surrounding these unfairly maligned creatures. The truth is that these spiders are not out to get you, they have been around for over 100 years and just want to be left alone. They have no desire to attack ‘like out of a horror film’ and will not eat your flesh. They can bite and it can be a painful one but apart from very, very rare occurrences it will be no worse than a severe bee sting. Spiders perform a vital role in ecology; they control the populations of the small disease-carrying bugs that otherwise would plague us in the summer months and should be seen as useful creatures rather than something to be feared. 

The upshot of these horrendous articles is that people are killing every spider they come across, regardless of species and, although our eight-legged friends are probably numerous enough to not be wiped out by our misguided indiscriminate slaughter, ecosystems can be a fragile thing and a natural equilibrium can easily be disrupted. Don’t kill them; if you are concerned then remove them with a jar and a piece of card - they won’t spring at you with fangs bared - and put them outside.

Not every spider you see is a False Widow. They are small with noticeably longer front legs (a trait of Steatoda/Latrodectus) and round bulbous dark abdomens which in the case of Nobilis have a dull cream pattern on them. The press are feeding off people’s fears and the information they are spouting is both inaccurate and unhelpful. Treat any animal with respect and it will have no reason to react in a negative manner. Hopefully the ridiculous furore surrounding False Widows will die down soon and we can return to the pedestrian levels of spider hatred and intolerance these misunderstood yet wonderful creatures have to endure.

Allen Ward is an experienced keeper and breeder of arachnids, sharing his home with more than 300 spiders and tarantulas from all over the world - many of which have medically significant venom. He also has a large collection of various invertebrates and reptiles. The only times he has ever been bitten by spiders was when he was a child and was in the habit of just picking them up in the wild for a better look. He is still in possession of all of his limbs. He is available to advise on all relevant stories until the False Widow drama has died down – please contact the Elwell Press for details.


  1. Hi I have come across this article and I know it says u will help until the spider furore dies down but please I'm in dire help
    I have read reports in the mirror about a woman who has lost her finger due to a spider apparently doctors told her if she waited any longer the venom would have got to heart and killed her she said she could see the venom travelling through her veins as they were turning black and that she had 14 operations before doctors had to remove her finger leaving her unable to work again as she is a hairdresser the same paper reports giant hobo spiders attacking a family in Bristol actually running at the family and veering up into attack stance when cornered and finally the gardener in Barry who moved a pot and five black spiders ran at him one sinking it's fangs in before he had to pull it off please help me I have young children and I feel I'm on verge of a nervous breakdown I am going around outside of house every night and killing spiders as I'm terrified they may attack me or my kids while we sleep

  2. Hi Marc,

    Allen Ward here, i had a look at that report too and it is clear that this unfortunate woman case was caused by Necrotising Fasciitis, a rather nasty bacterial infection that causes flesh to rot and die. Whether or not this is caused by a spider bite is unknown as it was never seen and there are a number of things that could have caused 2 small puncture woulds. I find it unlikely to be Steatoda at any event as the thousands that i have encountered (without harm) tend to be on fences or the sides of buildings and around the outside of windows. I would consider the odds of stumbling upon Steatoda in a field to be low. As far as ANY spider attacking you all i can tell you is i have NEVER been attacked by a UK species. We are so large to them that the only reaction from them in to run. And seeing as i routinely go out, study and record hundreds of spiders most nights of the week, one would think that if i were to experience an attack it would have happened by now. They are not interested in us in the slightest and harbour no ill thought to them whatsoever.

  3. Hi Marc,

    If it makes you feel any better, I'll let you into a little secret: I've had a Steatoda of some description (possibly a False Widow) eight feet from my bed for the last six weeks or so. He's slung a wonky web in between a bookcase and a mirror, and during the day he hides out inside an ornament. Allen tells me he's looking for a mate, and I'm sort of sad for him that he won't find one. If he comes low enough for me to catch, I'll put him outside - he's just out of reach at the moment.

    The thing is, he's been there for six weeks, and I've slept comfortably in that room for all of that time. He hasn't come looking for me in the night, he hasn't run at me when I go near his corner, and he hides when he sees me moving around. I had a pair of Russian hamsters once that were more aggressive and engaging. I also had a False Widow on my kitchen floor a few months back and, despite how they look in their web, they really can't manage their legs when they're on a flat surface: this one spent its whole time falling over its own feet and curling up into a ball. It couldn't have charged anyone if it wanted to; Japanese Knotweed grows faster than these things can walk. I accidentally brushed it over with the hem of my skirt, and it balled up for so long that I was able to confirm the type, call someone to have a look, and get it put outside before it changed its mind.

  4. Thanks for the 2 comments to the both of you so I guess it really is the papers making things sound worse to try and sell stories and frighten people like me.... I wish u both all the very best and thanks for the help

  5. Hi ladies and gents I wonder If u would be so kind as to lend a experienced bit of knowledge I've seen reports of the deadly red back spider now invading UK I always thought they couldn't survive our climate is this changed or is it the papers spouting rubbish again