Log Cabin Chronicles

Brian's Excellent Adventure With Black Widow Spiders



STANSTEAD, QUEBEC | Brian McIntyre's latest car was "loaded." It came with everything -- including half a dozen deadly Black Widow spiders

Like all his family, Brian has been a lover of classic cars for as long as he can remember, and a trader for probably 30 years. But the Ford Fairlane he bought this spring was the first vehicle ever to bring him a near-death experience -- well, almost

Since their newest old car arrived this summer the McIntyres have been feeling a little edgy. Their backyard garage has been invaded by a family of spiders -- not just any kind, but the potentially deadly Black Widow

Digital Image © 1999 Perry Beaton

Black Widow spiders don't normally live in Quebec. These apparently hitchhiked here from California, by way of Ontario

McIntyre bought his four-door 1955 Fairlane from auto trader Lyall Trenholme, of Shakespeare, a village a few miles outside Stratford, Ontario. Trenholme had bought the car last winter from another trader in California

Neither buyer paid extra for the spider surprise. McIntyre says finding them was an unpleasant surprise

"I went out in the garage to start working on the car the other day; I opened up the hood and there was this funny-looking spider crawling around inside. I knew it wasn't anything I'd seen around here, so I didn't get to close right away."

"Then I spotted another one, and another after that. I figured we had something we had better deal with."

Although grandchild Willow does, wife Jane and daughters Tanya and Susan definitely don't like spiders. After a brief family council McIntyre donned gloves, caught the three spiders and put them in jam jars. But there were more to come.

"Since then I've been squashing them. I guess there have been seven or eight all together."

And there may be more to come, says Dr. David Lewis, a McGill University entomologist.

The car apparently stood idle in a yard in California for 13 or 14 years. "The inside of an old car makes a perfect nesting place for a black widow," Lewis said in an interview this week. "It's quiet and has lots of dark nooks and crannies, and it sounds like it wasn't disturbed for a long time. A female probably deposited an egg mass somewhere in there."

After about 20 days, somewhere between 25 and 300 eggs (some scientists say up to 900) would hatch at about the same time. "Then they would all go out and look for food."

How should the McIntyres deal with their unwelcome visitors? They're already on the right track. "Stepping on them is rather a good thing to do," says Lewis

In the long run, he says, the arachnid invaders will die out on their own. They don't live indoors because there aren't enough insects to feed them. Outdoors, they can't take the winter cold. "That's why we have so few poisonous creatures around here."

Though they can't survive in most of Canada, there are a few exceptions, says Paul Jeannotte of the Quebec Wildlife and Parks Service. Black widows are part of the landscape in warm pockets of southern Alberta, Saskatchewan, and B.C., and the Carolinian eco-zone of southernmost Ontario -- including the village of Shakespeare, which was at least a temporary home for the McIntyres' spiders

Lorraine Savoie of the Montreal Insectarium says the widespread fear of spiders need not apply in Quebec. Only one local species -- a small green spider -- attacks humans, she says, "and it only bites like a mosquito." As for the fearsome black widow, says entomologist Savoie, "its bite can be mortal but not usually." Most at risk are babies, the elderly, and people in poor health

According to the web site of the U.S. National Aquarium in Baltimore, only the female bites, and even she would really rather not:

"Bites in humans only occur from the larger females. A widow weaves its tangled web in quiet and protected areas under boards or rocks and in burrows or tree cavities. When threatened, it retreats to a far corner of the web, then curls up its legs and plays dead.

Its powerful venom is used first to paralyze and kill prey, and only in defense against people. In fact, spiders are powerful allies in our fight against pests -- one spider eats 100 times its weight in insects and other bugs every year!"

Unless you're hanging around an old car from the south that hasn't been cleaned out, chances are you'll never have a black widow problem like the McIntyres'. But what should they do with the ones they've already got?

"Don't bother them and they won't bite," says spiderperson Savoie

"Don't mess with their web. That's where they hang out." As for the rest of us, "if you see a spider and it's shiny black, watch out."

Most people don't like spiders. Myself, I don't mind. I've been riding around all week with three black widows in the back of my truck, hoping to find them a new home where they won't get in trouble. The folks at the Insectarium would like to take them but may not have the budget. I hope they do, and I hope they're quick about it. One of the three has already died

A quick internet search this week -- "black widow spider" -- turned up dozens of sites. Here are some interesting spider facts from the websites of the states of Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida, the U.S. National Aquarium, Seaworld - Busch Gardens, Professional Pest Control Products, Inc., and Jim Cornish, Grade Five Teacher, Gander Academy, Gander, Newfoundland

    Black Widow Spider (veuve noire): order Araneae, family Theridiidae, species Latrodectus mactans SIZE: About 1 1/2 inches (38mm) long, 1/4 inch (6.4mm) in diameter COLOR: Usually shiny black DESCRIPTION: The female is usually black with a red spot or hourglass- shaped mark on its round abdomen. The male usually has light streaks on its abdomen

    Habitat: Black widow spiders are common around wood piles, and are frequently encountered when homeowners carry firewood into the house

    Also found under eaves, in boxes, outdoor toilets, meter boxes, and other unbothered places

    Life Cycle: Egg sacs are brown, papery, about 1/2 inch long and oval

    They hold from 25 to 900 or more eggs, which have an incubation period of 20 days. Growth requires two to three months, with older females dying in autumn after egg laying

    Type of Damage: The black widow is not aggressive. It will, however, bite instinctively when touched or pressed

    Control: Be very careful when working around areas where black widow spiders may be established. Take proper precautions-wear gloves and pay attention to where you are working. Black widow bites are sharp and painful, and the victim should go to the doctor immediately for treatment. To control the black widow, carefully remove all materials where they might hide. They can be cleaned out of an area simply by knocking down the webs, spiders, and round tan egg sacs with a stick and crushing them underfoot

    What if a black widow spider bites me? Initial sensation may be painful, with little local reaction. Later, pain, cramping and rigidity may appear in the shoulders, back, chest or abdomen. Other manifestations include nausea, vomiting, headache, anxiety and hypertension.

    To treat: Call a Poison Center. Clean the site well with soap and water. Apply a cool compress over the bite location and keep the affected limb elevated to about heart level. Aspirin or Tylenol may be used to relieve minor symptoms. Treatment in a medical facility may be necessary for children less than 5 years old or for adults with severe symptoms

    The condition is self-limiting and in most cases symptoms disappear in two or three days. Calcium gluconate is used intravenously to relieve and relax muscle spasms produced by black widow venom

    Interesting Facts: - The female eats the male after mating. She hangs belly upward and rarely leaves the web

    The infamous black widow spider is just one of 30,000+ recognized members of the carnivorous spider order that catches insects with webs or jaws. Its venom is 15 times more potent than an equal weight of rattlesnake venom but its 1.7 mm (.07 in.) fangs inject a much smaller amount. Arachnids not only eat but are eaten by many insects. Some gather and store live, paralyzed spiders within their nests for hungry offspring. For this reason, the black widow, like most other spiders, retreats to a far corner of the web when threatened. It then curls up its legs and plays dead. All widows weave their their tangled webs in quiet and protected areas under boards or rocks and in burrows or tree cavities

    The black widow's range is from Massachusetts to Florida and west to California, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. Although they can be found in almost every state (and some portions of Canada), this spider is most common in the Southern locales of the United States

    The female black widow spider rarely leaves her web. The web she constructs is an irregular, tangled, criss-cross web of rather coarse silk. The core of the web is almost funnel shaped, woven into a silken tunnel in which the female spider spends the majority of her daylight hours. This web is altered and rebuilt in a regular basis and is capable of capturing rather large insects. The female wraps any captured prey with her silk, repeatedly turning her victim with her legs as she applies more silk. After her victim is covered in silk, the spider kills her prey by injecting her venom

    The prey might be eaten immediately or reserved for a later feeding. After the prey is fed upon and the body fluids are sucked from the victim, the carcass is cut loose and allowed to drop to the ground. The female black widow is most often found hanging upside down in her web, where she spends most of her daytime hours. She stays close to her egg mass, defensively biting anything that disturbs her or her egg sac

    After laying her eggs, the female black widow is hungry and more likely to bite a human. The female black widow stores sperm, producing more egg sacs without mating. Some females live more than three years

    Of all spiders, the Black Widow is the most feared. The female's venom is especially poisonous to people. Despite its reputation, this spider often attempts to escape rather than bite, unless it is guarding an egg mass or if it is cornered and pressed. The male black widow will not bite you

    During the period shortly following mating and laying of eggs, the female black widow can be a little cranky and hungry. After this period (if he lives through it!) the male lives quite comfortably, eating prey captured by the female. The development of his venom sacs stops and they become inactive as the male matures, thus making him less of a potential problem than his female counterpart

    The widow spiders, genus Latrodectus, are among the most recognized spiders on earth; they are the largest of the cobweb weavers, family Theridiidae, and all species are poisonous

    The black widow survive mainly by their sense of touch. They have no ears, and their eight eyes are of limited value. Breath by means of book lungs, a series of leaf-like plates in abdomen cavity. Air is drawn into chamber and expelled by muscular action


Tanya, Willow, Susan, Brian and Jane McIntyre watch while Spike plays dead for the camera.

Charlie Bury is a freelance writer based in Birchton, Quebec.

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