What It's Like To Get Bitten By A Black Widow
An Encounter With a Black Widow: Jackson Landers, a contributor to The Times, recounts his run in with a black widow spider.
An experimental antivenin drug was about to be injected into my bloodstream, and while I waited for the needle to go in, I reflected that if anyone in the world was the right person to be bitten by a black widow spider, I was that guy.
As a professional outdoorsman, I spend a lot of time around things that can bite, claw, stab or otherwise attack me. I have been lucky with snakes and reckless with bears. I have had some close calls with lionfish. It figures that the thing to finally nail me would be living on my own front porch.
The black widow’s graceful form and red hourglass marking have made it America’s most recognizable spider. The Eastern species, Latrodectus mactans, is common from Florida to New York and as far west as Texas.
But despite their fearsome reputation, black widows are surprisingly shy and retiring. Over the course of your life, you have probably walked past hundreds of black widows without even realizing it. Each one packs enough venom to lay out a heavyweight boxer for days, yet globally only a few people each year are killed by widow bites.
Widow webs are easy to identify, messy and close to the ground. I spotted the first one knitted against the steps of my front porch, in Albemarle County, Va. A little black ballerina was balanced in the back of it. I regretted killing her, but she was too close to an area where my children play. I blasted her with wasp spray, and she dropped out of her web.
I hunted for more to photograph and eliminate. The perimeter of my house turned out to harbor a village of black widow webs. I racked up as many as a dozen little black-and-red trophies a day. Fascinated by our proximity, I sought to learn more about these deadly neighbors.
The black widow is unfairly named. Female spiders rarely kill the male after mating, and possibly only in captivity. The male looks very different from the mature female; he is smaller and brownish. (The hourglass marking is quite variable in both sexes.) Both sexes carry the same venom, but the females have more of it and their fangs can inject it deeper.
One winter day, I carried inside a basket my children had left on the front lawn. I noticed a withered-looking black widow clinging to its side, still alive but stiff and slow with the cold. I dropped her into a Mason jar, and for three months, she lived on my desk on a diet of moths.
I learned a lot about black widows just by observing her. They are awkward outside their webs. They are poor climbers compared with other spiders, unable to scale the side of a jar. I was surprised that my pet widow never used her venom first. When confronted by prey that was too large or aggressive, she backed off rather than bite.
One warm spring afternoon, I decided to go fishing for dinner. On the same front porch where I had removed so many black widows, I kept a pair of water shoes and some fishing tackle. I put the shoes and the tackle in my car and drove eight miles to my favored hole.
I donned the shoes before walking to the edge of the water. Within about a dozen steps, I felt a stinging sensation on the second toe of my left foot, as if there had been a thorn inside the shoe. Then the pain increased to about that of a wasp’s sting. I sat on a rock and removed the shoe. The squashed remains of a spider were smeared across the insole. I realized instantly what must have happened: a black widow from the porch had made its home in my shoe.
For a long moment, I stared at my throbbing toe and wondered what to do.
Some people are more affected by the venom than others. Most healthy adults experience a lot of pain and recover on their own. But others become incapacitated, and some die. Which group would I fall into? Or had I been bitten by something else entirely? Why make a big deal out of nothing?
I decided to wait and find out before getting behind the wheel. I dipped my foot into the cool water and decided I might as well pass the time by fishing...
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