On the West coast, it’s spider season. We have fanciful arachnids of all types. Last year, as I renovated a midcentury house in California, I became all too familiar with black widows. And while we don’t have them in Washington, I wanted to write about these seemling scary, but very misunderstood genus Latrodectus. 

A member of the Theridiidae family ( which contains 32 species). They are a medium sized spider and are found in the United States, southern Canada, and Mexico. This includes North American, Black Widow(which I’m talking about), Southern Black Widow and Western Black Widow. In addition to these in North America are also the Red Widow (common in Florida) and the Brown Widow are more widely found throughout the country. 

First off, it’s important to know that black widow spiders become most active when the temperature hits 70 degrees or higher, which means that they are starting to become more active in many areas as the temperatures rise for spring. 

Female black widows are shiny, black spiders with long legs. The southern black widow has the distinctive red, yellow, or orange shape on its underside that looks similar to an hourglass, although it may be shaped a bit differently. The northern black widow has red spots in a row down the upper abdomen and two cross-shaped bars on the undersurface. The markings may also be white or yellow and the body of the spider may be brown and/or have red legs. 

Male black widow spiders may be black, or they may be more grey or brown colored. They sometimes have a series of red dots on their abdomen, but don’t sport the same red hourglass shape as the females. They are also usually smaller in size than female black widow spiders. Male black widows either don’t bite, or their mouthparts are not strong or large enough to inject venom because they do not cause the same reaction as a female black widow bite. 

They Aren’t All Black Widows

There is one type of spiders that are frequently mistaken for black widow spiders. The genus ‘Steatoda’ are known as false black widow spiders and are similar in shape to black widows. They have the same bulbous abdomens, but most of them are brownish in color and don’t have the typical black widow markings. Although they are much less harmful to humans, the female false black widows can deliver a painful bite. False black widow spiders are most active from March to November and are often found indoors, unlike black widow spiders. They, like black widow spiders, construct an irregularly shaped web made of sticky, silken fibers. 

Where Black Widows Are Found

Black widows typically create irregular, low-lying webs around swimming pools, garages, woodpiles, and other outdoor areas. They often avoid areas where humans are more active and are most active at night. Most bites occur between the months of April and October, but tend to only bite when their webs are disturbed. 

Symptoms of a Black Widow Bite

The protein venom produced by a black widow spider is a neurotoxic protein that impacts the nervous system of the victim. Many people are only slightly affected by the venom, while others have a severe response. The first symptoms usually occur within 30 to 60 minutes after the bite and the first symptom is localized pain and swelling. More severe symptoms may include abdominal pain, weakness, muscle cramps, nausea and vomiting, chest pain, and dizziness, and fainting. Elderly people and children are the most likely to have a severe response, but people rarely die from a black widow bite. 

Treatment for a Black Widow Bite

Pain relief may require the use of antivenom and narcotics that must be prescribed by a physician. If the victim is experiencing pain that impacts their entire body and not just localized pain, or is having whole-body symptoms, emergency treatment should be sought immediately. Treatments at home for black widow bites are limited but may include cold or warm compresses and over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen. 

So when it comes to black widows, you should remain cautious, but please know, a bite isn’t going to kill you.