I know I’ve said it plenty of times on this blog, but I’ll say it again, mainly because every time I post on a spider I get shivers up my spine and risk having nightmares: I am terrified of spiders. I have been as long as I can remember, and for me one spider stands above all the rest as being the most horrifying. Simply put, black widow spiders are the spiders I am most afraid of. There are two reasons for this: 1) black widows live where I grew up, so encountering one was a very real possibility, and 2) to me, black widows are the scariest looking spider. They are fairly large, jet black and shiny, with great thick black legs. See, hairy spiders, while still terrifying, are slightly less threatening because hair is cute. But black widows don’t have any hair, they are just creepy and awful. But this blog tries not to discriminate against any animals, so today I’m going to talk about the worst spider ever, the black widow.

The term black widow usually refers to three North American species of spider, the western, southern and northern black widows. Southern black widows live in the southeastern United Sates, northern widows live in the northeast US, and western black widows are found in the western US. Northern and Western black widows can be found in Canada, although it is very rare to see southern black widows in Canada. Where I grew up, in Vancouver, most likely I would have encountered western black widows.

A black widow spider with the characteristic hourglass marking. You readers were lucky to get pictures in this post, just searching for them made my skin crawl.
A black widow spider with the characteristic hourglass marking. You readers were lucky to get pictures in this post, just searching for them made my skin crawl.

Black widows are well known for being fairly large, black and shiny, with distinctive red markings. The females are about one and half inches long, which is pretty big for an arachnophobe. The most commonly known marking is an hourglass shape on the underside of the abdomen, but other markings do occur. The northern black widow is notably different from the other two species, in that the two triangle markings on its body do not touch to make an hourglass. Markings can also be yellow or white, so just because you don’t see a bright red hourglass, it doesn’t mean the spider isn’t a black widow.

Females are very much bigger than males, who are small and not venomous like female widows. In fact, male black widows are so small and wimpy that they have to tread very carefully around their female counterparts. If they don’t, they risk becoming a tasty meal for the female. When males are ready to mate, they build a web and coat it in their sperm, to let the female know he’s feeling good that day. He then approaches her carefully, making sure she knows he’s not food. After mating, the male has to make a quick escape, or the female will gobble him up. Mate cannibalism in black widows is very rare in the wild, but it does happen. I must say, it doesn’t sound like very much fun being a male black widow.

A comparison of a male and female black widow. In case you couldn't figure it out, the male is on the left.
A comparison of a male and female black widow. In case you couldn’t figure it out, the male is on the left.

Black widows tend to eat whatever insects they can find, but also eat other spiders (and of course, sometimes their mates). The characteristic web of a black widow is messy without any sort of methodical construction. The web can be strong enough to catch mice, which is a pretty ridiculously strong web. Trust me, I work with mice and know how strong they can be! Black widows prefer to build their webs in dark and damp spots, such as in garages, in woodpiles or in barns.

Although venomous, most black widow bites are not fatal. When fatalities do occur, they are usually a young child, elderly person or an immunocompromised person. The venom of black widows is not as dangerous as other venomous spiders, but black widows have an extremely wide range, so more deaths worldwide are caused by black widows than any other genus of spider. So just be careful, when digging through your garage. I think everyone should treat these spiders with respect, and caution. I’ve always been afraid of them, but I admire them in some ways too. Hopefully now you do as well!

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