Black Widow Spiders

Not all adult female black widows exhibit the red hourglass on their abdomen—some may have a pair of red spots or have no marking at all, but any markings that are present are bright red. Adult male black widows are a quarter the size of the female, and are usually gray or brown rather than black and red; while they may sometimes have an hourglass marking on their abdomen, it is usually yellow or white, not red. The bite of a male black widow is not considered dangerous to humans; it is the bite of the adult female black widow from her much larger venom sacs that has given this spider its dangerous reputation. While there is great variation in specifics by species and by gender, any spider exhibiting a red hourglass on the abdomen and having a shiny black body is an adult female black widow.

Spiders of the genus Steatoda (also of the Theridiidae family) are often mistaken for widow spiders, and are known as “false widow spiders”; they are significantly less harmful to humans.

In common with other members of the Theridiidae family, the widow spiders construct a web of irregular, tangled, sticky silken fibers. The spider very frequently hangs upside down near the center of its web and waits for insects to blunder in and get stuck. Then, before the insect can extricate itself, the spider rushes over to bite it and wrap it in silk. If the spider perceives a threat, it will quickly let itself down to the ground on a safety line of silk. As other web-weavers, these spiders have very poor eyesight and depend on vibrations reaching them through their webs to find trapped prey or warn them of larger threats. While there are some more aggressive species, most are not; many injuries to humans are due to defensive bites delivered when a spider gets unintentionally squeezed or pinched. Some bites are thought to result from a spider mistaking a finger thrust into its web for its normal prey or in cases where a female is protecting an egg sac, but ordinarily intrusion by any large creature will cause these spiders to flee.

Species

See also: List of Theridiidae species#Latrodectus

The southern black widow, as well as the closely related western and northern species which were previously considered the same species, has a prominent red hourglass figure on the underside of its abdomen. Many of the other widow spiders have red patterns on a glossy black or dark background, which serve as a warning. Spiders which are found in multiple regions are listed in their predominant native habitat.

Widow spiders can be found on every continent of the world except Antarctica. In North America, the black widows commonly known as southern (Latrodectus mactans), western (Latrodectus hesperus), and northern (Latrodectus variolus) can be found in the United States, as can the “gray” or “brown widow spiders” (Latrodectus geometricus) and the “red widow spiders” (Latrodectus bishopi) (Preston-Malfham, 1998). The single species occurring in Australia is commonly called the redback (Latrodectus hasselti). African species of this genus are sometimes known as button spiders.

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