Reflections in Nature: Black widow bites to protect eggs

Recently, I received a letter from Lenora “Lenny” Stackhouse, who lives in Williamsport. She wrote about a spider incident that occurred to her when she was a very young child living in McNett Township, Tioga County.

Lenora’s grandmother had sent her to the cellar for a jar of peaches and, as she reached for a jar, something bit her on the arm. Before Lenora reached the top of the cellar steps, she felt ill.

Lenora wrote in the letter that her arm became swollen, and her mother put a hot bread-and-milk poultice on the spider bite.

Spiders, which are arachnids, live in a wide variety of habitats, ranging from meadows, woods, gardens and homes. There are about 3,000 species of spiders in the United States.

A few of the many common spiders found in Pennsylvania are: marbled orb spider, grass spider and American house spider. Although spiders rarely bite and most species found are harmless, some people are allergic to a spider’s bite.

The two toxic spiders found in the U.S. are the black widow spider and the brown recluse. The brown recluse spider, which is found mostly in our southern states, is not normally found in Pennsylvania because our winters are too cold. However, a brown recluse could be transported into the state by accident, and isolated occurrences have been reported.

The Mediterranean recluse, which is a close relative of the brown recluse, has become established in the steam tunnels at Penn State University and in other locations in the northeast. These spiders are not known to have bitten any Penn State employees. Their bites do not produce the severe reactions associated with the brown recluse spiders.

Most of us know about the poisonous black widow spider, which is found in Pennsylvania. In the U.S., there are probably five species of this particular spider, including the southern black widow, northern black widow, western black widow, brown widow and the red widow.

We do know that the southern black widow is found in Pennsylvania, and some believe that the northern black widow also is present. Occasionally, the brown and red widow spiders are discovered on potted plants transported from southern Florida.

A female black widow is likely to deliver more venom than the male spider. The female black widow is a long-legged, shiny, coal-black spider, with either an orange, red or yellow shape on its underside (the female has the well-known reddish hourglass or other shape marking on the underside of her abdomen).

A female black widow is about 1.5 inches long, but could be smaller. Black widow spiders are frequently found in low-lying webs, in garages, barbecue grills, wood piles and near swimming pools.

Most bites occur between the months of April and October in rural and suburban areas. Black widow spiders tend to bite defensively when their webs are disturbed. Bites to babies and children can be more serious than bites to adults.

The male black widows often are killed and eaten by the females shortly after mating; hence, the origin of the name “black widow.”

A female can live for a year or more and produce up to nine egg cases (cocoons), with each containing 200 to 800 eggs. Although eggs hatch in about eight days, the young spiders remain in the egg case for about nine more days, molting once during that time. The spiders then disperse, traveling on thin silken threads through a process known as ballooning.

During the summer months, the female stands guard over the eggs and it is at this time the majority of widow bites occur.

At first, the bite of a female black widow is relatively painless, with pain felt about one to two hours later. Occasionally, the patient experiences a tingling along either the nerve routes or down the spine.

There is almost no swelling at the site of the bite; however, the site will typically exhibit two red fang marks and could be surrounded by a rash.

Within one to three hours, body symptoms that develop can include any of the following: nausea, chills, slight fever, rise in blood pressure, retention of urine, burning sensation of the skin, fatigue, motor disturbance, breathing difficulty, constipation and muscle aches (particularly in the abdomen). These symptoms usually disappear after four days.

Death does not normally occur except in the elderly or very young.

The spider that bit Lenora was never found and because of her young age, at the time, the reaction could have come from almost any species of spider.

Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences, the latest being ”Every Day Was Game Day.” Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.