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How Deadly Are Black Widows?

GPT Discover the enigmatic world of black widow spiders: iconic creatures known for their distinctive markings and misunderstood nature. Learn about their habitats, diet, and unique mating rituals.

By Jake Parks
Feb 13, 2024 4:00 PM
Black Widow spider stinging
(Credit: MediaProduction/Shutterstock)


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In the diverse world of arachnids, black widow spiders, scientifically categorized in the genus Latrodectus, stand out for their distinct appearance and the notorious potency of their venom.

But you could argue that the iconic black widow gets a bit of a bad rap.

What Is a Black Widow Spider?

(Credit: Mark Kostich/Shutterstock)

Black widow spiders, known scientifically as Latrodectus, are instantly recognizable by their glossy black bodies and the iconic red hourglass marking on their abdomens (at least the females are). And they are big fans of warm climates. 

Black Widow Habitat: Where Do Black Widow Spiders Live?

More than 30 species of black widow spiders can be found spread across the globe, including throughout North America, South America, southern Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia.

North America is home to three main species of black widow spider: The western black widow (Latrodectus hesperus) enjoys the Pacific coast and arid deserts; the northern black widow (Latrodectus variolus) lives in the northern U.S. and southern Canada; and the southern black widow (Latrodectus mactans) thrives in the Sun Belt.

Black Widow Size: How Big Are Black Widows?

It's a common misconception that black widows are large. In reality, females—which are significantly larger than their male counterparts—barely reach 1.5 inches (38 millimeters) in length. Male black widows are only around 0.2 inches (5 mm) long, lighter in color, and often go unnoticed.

Black Widow Diet: What Does a Black Widow Eat?

Black widows are not picky eaters. Their diet mainly consists of a variety of insects. Once they catch prey in their web, they make quick work of it. Black widows use their potent venom to immobilize their prey before wrapping it in silk and employing digestive enzymes to prepare their meal.

Black Widow Lifespan: How Long Do Black Widows Live?

When it comes to longevity, black widows are somewhat of an anomaly in the spider world. Female black widows can live up to about three years—a remarkable feat for spiders. Meanwhile, male black widows have a life expectancy of just a month or so.

Read More: Meet 5 of the Biggest Spiders in the World

Where Are Black Widows Found?

(Credit: KAdams66/Shutterstock)

Contrary to popular belief, black widow spiders aren't roaming your backyard looking for trouble. They're quite the homebodies, preferring quiet, undisturbed spaces close to the ground. Black widow habitats range from small animal burrows and construction nooks to wood piles and low shrubs. However, don't be surprised if you find one in your basement or tucked away behind furniture.

Do Black Widows Make Webs?

The homes of black widow spiders reflect their practical nature; black widows spin irregular, mesh-like webs, not the artistic, symmetrical ones associated with orb-weavers. These webs are like sanctuaries to black widows, and they are typically found in plants, piles of stones or wood, or in quiet corners of buildings.

Read More: 5 Fascinating Uses of Spider Silk

How Do Black Widows Mate?

(Credit: lighTTrace Studio/Shutterstock)

Reproduction for black widows is a delicate and dangerous process. Males prepare for mating by spinning a special small web and placing a drop of sperm on it. The male then collects that sperm into his pedipalps so it can take it to a female. The actual mating is a cautious affair, involving the male inserting his pedipalps into the female’s reproductive openings to deliver the sperm. Often, the female will eat the male during sex – hence the name “black widow.”

Female black widows are prolific egg-layers, creating several egg sacs each summer with hundreds of eggs each. However, the harsh realities of nature mean that only a few spiderlings survive their first molt.

Read More: Why Females Sometimes Eat Their Mates After Sex

How Deadly Are Black Widows?

(Credit: MediaProduction/Shutterstock)

Here's a surprising fact: Black widow venom is 15 times stronger than rattlesnake venom. However, black widows are not the dangerous critters they're often portrayed as.

Can a Black Widow Spider Kill You?

Black widow bites are rare and typically only occur when the spider feels threatened and is defending itself. And while black widow bites can cause muscle aches, nausea, and even temporary paralysis, fatalities are extremely rare. For example, between 2008 and 2015, an average of only six people died from black widow bites in the U.S. per year.

What Should You Do When You Find a Black Widow Spider?

Encountering a black widow spider isn't necessarily cause for alarm. These spiders play a critical role in controlling pest populations. But if you find one in your home or an area frequented by people, you might want to consider calling a pest control expert. And remember, if you think you may have been bitten by a black widow, it’s always best to immediately get examined by a medical professional.

What Spider Looks Like a Black Widow?

It's easy to mistake spiders of the genus Steatoda, or false widow spiders, for black widows. They share some physical similarities but differ in markings and the severity of their bite. Understanding these differences is key to appreciating each species' unique role in our ecosystem.

Black widow spiders, while often misunderstood, are fascinating creatures that deserve our respect and understanding. The more we learn about these notorious critters, the more we realize that black widows are not fearsome beasts but rather a vital part of the delicate balance of nature.

Read More: Why Are We Afraid of Bugs?

Frequently Asked Questions About Black Widow Spiders

What Do Male Black Widows Look Like?

Male black widow spiders are smaller and less vivid in color compared to females, often exhibiting gray, brown, or reddish hues without the iconic red hourglass marking found on females. They have longer legs relative to their body size and may have red dots or no distinctive markings at all.

What Does a Black Widow Spider Bite Look Like?

A black widow spider bite may initially appear as a minor swelling with two tiny fang marks, developing into severe symptoms like muscle cramps, nausea, and even systemic effects known as latrodectism. This condition involves diffuse muscle rigidity, cramping, and pain spreading from the bite location​​​​.

How to Get Rid of Black Widows?

To manage and eliminate black widows, it's essential to regularly clean and remove clutter from your house. Vacuuming or sweeping can remove spiders, webs, and egg sacs effectively. Exterior modifications, such as moving debris away from the house and sealing entry points, can prevent spiders from entering. For more stubborn infestations, using insecticides or professional pest control services may be necessary.

Do Black Widows Eat Their Mates?

While it can happen, the phenomenon of female black widows eating their mates is much less common than believed. Males use various strategies to avoid being eaten. By sensing when a female is hungry, a male can avoid her, or can vibrate its webs to signal its presence as a mate rather than prey​​​​.

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