The black widow – found in every U.S. state except for Alaska – is North America’s most venomous spider. Four species of widow spiders live in the United States. They thrive in hot climates, retreating to cool, dark spaces beneath woodpiles and within garages and basements when they need a break from soaring temperatures.
Male black widows are much smaller than their female counterparts, and this species is known for their bloodthirsty courtship. After mating, male spiders frequently become the female’s meal, a behavior that earns the black spider the ‘widow’ title. But some lucky males retreat quickly after mating, escaping an untimely death.
The notorious female black widow is identifiable by a characteristic red hourglass on a shiny black abdomen, which serves as a warning of toxicity to potential predators. She has a bulbous, shiny body – just a bit bigger than a paperclip – with bristles on her hind legs.
Black widows weave together large, messy webs that are strong enough to trap a mouse. But they feed mostly on insects – like grasshoppers, beetles, flies and mosquitoes – injecting snared prey with neurotoxic venom that tenderizes and dissolves the insect tissue into a soupy liquid. Then, the black widow spider inserts her straw-like fangs into her quarry, sucking the resulting fluid dry.
Watch the black widow spider in action in this National Geographic clip below:
Black widow spiders are feared because of their venom, which is said to be fifteen times stronger than a rattlesnake’s. A black widow’s bite feels like a pinprick, and human victims may not even realize they’ve been bitten. At first, the bite wound may slightly swell, highlighting faint red marks. But the next 48 hours can be complete agony as the toxin causes severe muscle cramping and spasms, chills, nausea, convulsions and paralysis. Breathing may become more difficult.
It’s important to remember that black widow spiders are a shy, non-aggressive creature, biting humans only in self-defense. Most healthy individuals suffer no serious damage after a black widow bite, but children, the unwell and elderly are at risk for severe complications (and possibly even death). If you spot a black widow, observe and admire it from a distance, calling professional help if you need assistance with home removal.
If you think you’ve been bitten by a black widow spider, the Mayo Clinic suggests thoroughly cleaning the site of the spider bite with soap and water. Should the bite be on a limb, wrap a fitted bandage above the bite and elevate your leg or arm to slow the venom’s spread through the body. Then, apply a cool compress to the affected skin, and seek medical attention for treatment of the black widow’s bite.