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Black Widow - female, belly Black Widow - male, top

Beware the Black Widow Spider

By By Heather Smith Thomas of Salmon, Idaho

The bite of a black widow spider can be poisonous to humans and animals. These spiders often live in dark corners of a barn, shed or tack room and may bite you or a pet if they are alarmed or disturbed, such as when you move any unused object where the spiders have been nesting. They may take up housekeeping behind a bale of hay or straw, among stored tools or tack, or even behind a grain can sitting unused for a few days.

Three species of black widow are found in the U.S. The spiderís egg sac, suspended in the web, is light gray, tan or creamy yellow, papery in texture and about one-third to one-half inch in diameter, containing 250-750 eggs, which hatch in 14 to 30 days. Newly hatched spiders are very small, orange and white or pale red or brown in color, with light and dark striping on legs and abdomen. Egg sacs and baby spiders are poisonous if eaten. Hay infested with spider nests should not be fed to livestock.

The adult female of the most common species is glossy black and about one to one and a half inches long (though some are smaller), with the characteristic crimson hourglass marking on the underside of the body. Sometimes there are two small spots, instead of an hourglass. Male spiders are smaller (about one-fourth the size of the female) and brownish or black, and in addition to the hourglass markings often have several white lengthwise stripes or four pairs of reddish stripes on the sides of the abdomen. Males are rarely seen, for they are often killed and eaten by the females after mating.

Black widows spin a large irregularly shaped web with funnel shaped center, and the strands are very strong compared with those spun by other spiders; the black widowís web is not easily broken. The female likes to spin her web in a dry, out-of-the- way place like small corners or hidden nooks in woodpiles, sheds and barns.

When working in an area where there may be black widows and nests, a good precaution is to wear gloves and a long-sleeved shirt. Even though the spiders generally try to flee when disturbed, a female may try to protect her egg sacs and will bite you if you accidentally disturb her nest.

The spiderís venom is quite poisonous, but such a tiny amount is injected in the bite that a black widow bite is rarely fatal. Only 5 percent of humans bitten die of the bites. The chances of a person dying from the bite of a black widow are 20 times less than dying from the sting of a bee, wasp, hornet or yellow jacket, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

As with bee stings, individual people vary in reaction to a spider bite. Some are more sensitive to the poison than others. Black widow bites are rarely fatal to a healthy human adult, but can be more dangerous for a small child, cat or dog. The smaller the body, the more reaction there is likely to be since there is less body tissue to absorb and eliminate the poison, and more change for serious effects. The bite of the black widow produces a small, localized red and swollen area, and is felt almost immediately by the victim. The pain increases for up to 48 hours, sometimes accompanied by rigidity in abdominal muscles, and fever.

Symptoms can be mild or severe, ranging from mild local swelling and irritation, to severe illness. The spiderís poison acts on the nerve endings, and can create increasing paralysis and more and more pain, spreading from the bite location to other parts of the body, especially the abdomen. Weakness and muscle spasms may develop, in severe cases the abdominal muscles become quite rigid. Other symptoms may include nausea, restlessness, difficulty in breathing and talking. Some individuals may go into shock.

If a person is bitten by a black widow, a doctor should be consulted. He may want to give the victim an antiserum. If possible, the spider should be caught and positively identified; take it with you, in a jar, to the doctor. Cold packs on the bite can relieve pain and help slow down the spread of the poison wrap an ice cube in a wet cloth and hold it on the bite, or use a frozen cold pack wrapped in a wet cloth or towel. Even a package of frozen vegetables will work well as a cold pack.

If you discover a bite on your body (or on your child) and you are not sure what caused it, check to see if there is just one tiny red mark or two. Fleas, bees, lice or mosquitoes leave only one tiny puncture mark, whereas spider leave two one from each fang.

The house spider (light brown spider with long hairy legs a spider that is about the same size as a black widow but a much more extensive wanderer and faster traveler) bites more aggressively, and the bite is not as initially painful as that of a black widow. But it may develop a small, hard spot within 30 minutes. This spot soon expands into a reddened area 2 to 6 inches in diameter, and it my blister and ooze after a day or two, then form a scab. The bite of the house spider is usually not as serious as that of a black widow, and many people have no symptoms at all.

The black widow is not aggressive and rarely bites without provocation usually when it is caught between a person and clothing or bedding, or when inadvertently grabbed with an object you are picking up in the shed or barn (or bringing in wood from the woodpile), or when a femaleís nest is disturbed. Most black widows donít bite unless squeezed or bumped.

The immature spiders canít hurt you because their fangs are too small to puncture the skin. But as they grow, they can bite through the skin of human or animal. If a black widow is crawling on you or your child or pet, brush it off rather than trying to crush it; squashing the spider may push the fangs into the skin.

Check your sheds and barn corners periodically for spider nests and clear out webs and egg sacs whenever you discover them. This can help keep the spider population reduced. And a little forethought and precaution when working around a spider habitat can avoid bites.

Excerpt from "The Small Farmerís Journal" Summer, Vol. 21, No. 3

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