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Black Widow Identification | Where Do Black Widows Live?

Updated on April 2, 2014

What Do Black Widows Look Like? Where Do Black Widow Spiders Live?

Black widow spiders, scientific name Latrodectus mactans, are among the most venomous of all arachnids. I have been working with insects and spiders for almost 20 years, and I get a lot of questions about black widow spiders. What do black widows look like? Where do black widows live? Is the bite of the black widow spider fatal? These all excellent questions, and with this lens I hope to answer at least some of your questions about these much-feared poisonous spiders.

Black widows are large spiders that spin tangled webs in sheltered places, both in nature and in your house. They are also among the most poisonous insects in North America, and their bite can be fatal in some cases. If you found a spider and you suspect it may be a black widow, this lens will help you identify your specimen. Black widows are relatively rare, and most of us will never see one, but if you do you want to know exactly what you're dealing with! If you ever wondered what it's like to get bitten by a black widow, or the safest way to pick one up (it's not with your fingers), then read on...

What Does a Black Widow Look Like?

Black Widow Identification -- The Red Hourglass

This is the distinctive sign of the black widow -- a bright red hourglass marking on the animal's ventral side (the "bottom" or underneath). It's your surest guide to Black Widow identification -- no other spider has it. In the natural world, bright red, orange, or yellow markings are universally used to signify protection by venom or caustic chemicals in the insect's haemolymph, or blood. This, in effect, tells everyone: "stay away from me, or you'll be sorry." But the classic hourglass shape is only one morph that spiders in the Black Widow's genus display. Here are a couple of other variations that still serve the purpose of warning away predators -- including you.

By Steve Ryan [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Close-Up of a Female Black Widow - Note the robust body, long black legs, and red hourglass

If you ever get this close to a black widow, you'll see the true beauty of the species.

Handling a Live Black Widow

Watch as this person lets a huge female black widow crawl all over his hand...

What Does a Black Widow Look Like? - Dorsal and Ventral Markings

Where Do Black Widows Live?

Black widows typically live in your garage or your basement. They prefer dark, sheltered corners where they can spin their tangled webs and wait for the moths and other insects that make up their diet. Black widows do not want you messing with them -- in fact, they view any interaction with you as a threat to their very existence. This is why the spiders will bite you -- it's the only means of self-defense that they have.

Black widows live where you typically don't go, so you'll only encounter them when you're cleaning out a garage, or reaching into a dark corner of a basement. So be careful! Make sure you can see where you're putting your hand, and chances are pretty slim that a black widow will get her fangs into your flesh...

Black Widow Identification -- The Web

The black widow spins a characteristic tangled web in a dark corner. She waits for insects to come along and wander into the web, upon which she grabs her prey, bites it, and sucks the digested insides of the insect out with her hollow fangs. The web is one way to identify back widows, but lots of other spiders spin similar webs, so don't tump to conclusions. Wait to actually see the red hourglass-on-shiny black of an actual black widow spider.

Black Widow Biology -- What Makes a Spider a Spider?

Black Widow identification begins with a question: What defines a spider? Spiders are a kind of Arthropod, a huge group of animals that includes water-dwelling organisms like crabs and shrimp as well as all insects, including butterflies and moths. Spiders form a subset called "arachnids." They are separated from the closely related insects by several feature: spiders have eight legs instead of six, two body sections instead of 3, most spin webs with a special organ called a "spinneret" located at the tip of the abdomen, and ALL spiders are venomous. The venom of most spiders is only effective against the small invertebrates that they feed on, but a few have poison that can hurt vertebrates like humans. The black widow is one of a very few spiders with venom capable of seriously hurting humans.

By James Gathany (http://phil.cdc.gov/phil/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Parts of the Spider

1 Fang (chelicera)

2 Venom gland

3 Brain

4 Pumping stomach

5 Forward aorta branch

6 Digestive cecum

7 Heart

8 Midgut

9 Malphigian tubules

10 Cloacal chamber

11 Rear aorta

12 Spinneret

13 Silk gland

14 Trachea

15 Ovary (female)

16 Book lung

17 Nerve cord

18 Legs

19 Pedipalp

By Philcha (File:Araneae_anatomic_numbers.svg) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Black Widow Identification -- Some Black Widow Spiders Have Different Markings! - (And some are quite beautiful)

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Latrodectus_tredecimguttatus_female.jpg

Northern Black Widow Variation

(another photo courtesy wikimedia commons)

Another Beautiful Black Widow Variation

Black Widow Identification: The Male - It's a Tough Job, But...

The male Black Widow, as with many other spiders, is much smaller and less conspicuous than the female. His only real reason to exist is to impregnate the female, and once that's accomplished he becomes just another meal. While this may seem cruel -- and is the source of the Black Widow's common name -- it is actually a perfectly rational survival mechanism developed through millions of years of evolution. After all, when food is survival, and the male is no longer needed, the solution is obvious...

By Davefoc (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Black Widow Eating

Like most web-spinning spiders, the Black Widow waits for prey to blunder into its sticky web, and then rushes out to bite and subdue its meal. The venom paralyzes, then liquifies, the insect, and the spider wraps the meal in silk to further control and preserve it. This spider has killed a small insect, and is siphoning out the liquified insides with its straw-like fangs.

Image: public domain spider-eating-something

Spiders, Centipedes, Silverfish...

A Good Guide to the Bugs in Your House

THIS BLOG is an excellent site for information about the creepy-crawlies hanging out in your basement.

Black Widow Egg Sac

In this photo, a female Black Widow tends to its egg sac. Hundreds of minuscule eggs are protected within this tough sphere of silk, and when they hatch the tiny spiderlings will scatter to find dark corners of their own. Some spider species carry the tiny spiderlings on their back as a form of protection.

Black Widow Identification -- The Spiders' Fangs

The fangs of the Black Widow, and all spiders, are believed by some researchers to be a highly evolved pair of legs that long ago became adapted to subduing prey. They are essentially hollow tubes that act like hypodermic needles to inject poison. The poison need to be powerful and fast acting, since the less the prey struggles in the web, the less damage the spider will have to repair. The toxin also often acts as a liquifying agent, turning the prey's insides into a kind of soup that the spider then sucks up through the same fangs that were used to inject the venom.

Black Widow Identification -- Female With Prey

Some spiders are capable of subduing even those insects with poison defenses of their own. This large female has captured not one but two wasps capable of inflicting a powerful sting to any predator, but the spider has avoided the stinger and inflicted its own fatal bite. Soon these wasps will be a meal for the spider.

By John (Own work (Own photo)) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Spectacular Spiders -- Have You Seen this Book? - Introduce a Child to An Unseen World

This is one of the coolest children's books going. Give your child an up-close view of a natural world you never knew existed -- and watch as they touch a spider web to see how it feels, and see a spider hanging from a string.

The Spectacular Spider Book (Beautiful Bug)
The Spectacular Spider Book (Beautiful Bug)

The Spectacular Spider book introduces children to the world of spiders!

This unique reference guide offers children a hands-on experience up close and personal with a spider. This book explores the life cycle, habitat, and includes interesting features of spiders. Children can touch the flocking on a spider to see how it feels, or see a spider hang on a string from its web. The Spectacular Spider book also includes a fascinating facts page with interesting information about spiders, a glossary, and an index.

 

Envenomation by the Black Widow

Black Widow bites are rare, since the animal spends most of its time in its web, unlike the Brown Recluse, which roams at night in search of prey and could wind up under your sheets (a truly unpleasant thought). To be bitten by the Black Widow, you basically need to come to the spider, since it probably won't come to you: this means putting your hand in a dark corner of the basement or garage, or even in a tree stump -- I once found an enormous female who had built a nest in a dead tree, about head level. Once bitten, your prognosis is not good. Fatalities are rare, but you are likely in for several days of the effects of the spider's neurotoxic venom.

This work is in the public domain under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code.

By Mikael Häggström [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Two Little Marks...

That's usually all you can see from a black widow bite. The fangs just puncture the surface, but it's enough to deliver the venom. Hard to believe that a little bite like this can actually kill you, but it can.

http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/picture-of-black-widow-spider-bites

Another Dangerous Spider -- The Brown Recluse

This is not a black widow -- This is a brown recluse. The brown recluse is the only other spider in North America that poses a serious bite risk to humans. Read all about the brown recluse HERE.

"I Was Bitten By a Black Widow Spider"

Excerpt from a First-Person Account of Black Widow Envenomation

I Got Bitten By a Black Widow Spider

...I grabbed a pair of old shoes from the garage, and hastily threw them on over my bare feet, and continued my charge around the house to build momentum to get out the door. About a minute later, I realized that there was some wiggling in the toes of my right shoe, and just as I was about to take my shoe off, I felt a bite on my 2nd toe - not painful, but a bit annoying...

(later...)

The medical literature suggests that recovery happens within 3 to 5 days. Nights 3 and 4 and 5 were complete disasters for me. For some completely unknown reason, I was sweating profusely at night. As in, literally soaking through my sheets and changing my sheets 3 times on one night and twice the next...

Read the whole story here.

By Angela Rothermann (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Symptoms of the Black Widow Bite

Local pain

muscle cramps

abdominal pain

weakness and tremor

nausea and vomiting

fainting

chest pain

respiratory difficulties

What's In the Black Widow's Venom?

Black Widow venom is complex, and contains a number of compounds that further the evolutionary goal of subduing prey and protecting the animal from predators. The most specific ingredients to the genus Latrodectus are a number of toxins called, appropriately, latrotoxins. Latrotoxins are very large molecules with dozens of different atoms, and the way they work is still not well understood. Black Widow venom contains at least 7 different latrotoxins: most of which specifically effect invertebrates, or insects, which form the bulk of the spider's diet. There is one, however, called alpha-latrotoxin, which targets vertebrates -- including humans. This powerful poison is specific to the genus Latrodectus and is the reason the spider is so toxic to humans.

What Do You Say?

Can We Co-Exist With Black Widow Spiders?

No -- Wipe Them Out

No -- Wipe Them Out

Submit a Comment

  • lewisgirl 3 years ago

    I don't like spiders and with children, especially no.

  • pumpum 4 years ago

    I don't like spiders. So, no!!

  • LynetteBell 4 years ago from Christchurch, New Zealand

    Get rid of them!

  • Ellen Gregory 5 years ago from Connecticut, USA

    Not in my house. I wouldn't feel comfortable with a them nesting on our near my house. If they stay out in the woods fine.

Yes -- Live and Let Live

Submit a Comment

  • Barbara Radisavljevic 3 years ago from Templeton, CA

    I do coexist with them. The one that lived under my China cabinet was flushed out by a flood and I killed it. I think one also lives in my unused piano and I know they live at the back of some of the bedroom bookcases. When they emerge, I vacuum them up if they don't escape. I suspect they are also in my husband's closet on the bottom in the shoes and boots he never wears but insists on keeping there. Fortunately, the violin spider doesn't consider our area habitat yet. If I find the widows in the house, I eliminate them. I destroyed the nest of the black widow in the worm bin, but I let her go in the grass. I suppose she'll be back.

  • darciefrench lm 4 years ago

    I recall a story about a sage who meditated on a couch for years, totally oblivious to the black widow spiders living underneath it until one day something rolled under the couch and he only noticed the spiders when he went to retrieve it. Seems it's a matter of respect for life.

  • KandDMarketing 4 years ago

    They do far more good as pest control than they ever do damage. Leave 'em be.

  • tfsherman lm 4 years ago

    Do we have a choice? Of course!

  • KathyBatesel 5 years ago

    Yes and no. If they're at my house, I'll kill them. I've been bitten by them on 2 separate occasions and while the bites were not terrible for me, they were certainly memorable. But I also think spiders of every type serve an amazing purpose for our world, so as long as they're not inside or near my doors and windows, I'll leave 'em alone.

  • Joan Haines 5 years ago

    Yes.

Safe and Effective Handling of the Black Widow and Other Spiders

This highly effective bug vacuum is the answer to picking up and disposing of poisonous insects and spiders like the black widow. Safely suck up the bug with the attenuated suction, then shake it out far away from your house. Black widows don't travel very far, so you can be relatively sure the animal won't find its way back into your house.

Safely Suck Up and Dispose of Black Widow Spiders

Where Do Black Widow Spiders Live in My House?

Controlling Black Widow Spiders in Your House

* Keep beds away from the walls

* Don't store boxes or any items under your bed

* Keep dust ruffles or bed skirts from touching the floor

* Don't store shoes on the floor or any clothes, towels or other linens (always shake out shoes and clothes before using)

* Store sports equipment like rollerskates, gardening clothes, gloves, ski boots in plastic bags that are tightly sealed with no holes.

* Vacuum under furniture, closets, under heaters, around all baseboards and other areas of the house to eliminate habitat.

* Keep screens on windows and fix or replace screens with holes or that don't fit snuggly.

* Seal doors with weather stripping and door sweeps

* Seal cracks, access holes for electrical conduits or plumbing

* Remove spider webs and egg sags when found

The Black Widow in Literature

The Black Widow Comic Book...

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Seen Any Black Widows Lately? Leave a Comment!

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    • Joan Haines profile image

      Joan Haines 5 years ago

      When I was nine, our house was overrun with black widows. True story.

    • Joan Haines profile image

      Joan Haines 5 years ago

      "Squid Angel blessed."

    • iWriteaLot profile image

      iWriteaLot 5 years ago

      What a creepy lens! But very informative. To think that a bit that tiny could do so much damage. But it's good to know that they only bite if you go after them. *shivers*! Blessed.... at a distance! LOL

    • LiteraryMind profile image

      Ellen Gregory 5 years ago from Connecticut, USA

      I saw one about 7 years ago crawling on the side of my house near the bulk head door. I killed it. I was afraid it might multiply and get into my crawl space.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I haven't and hope to keep it that way. What an amazingly informative lens. Well done.

    • KathyBatesel profile image

      KathyBatesel 5 years ago

      As a kid, I used to go on weekly widow hunts with Raid. My house literally had dozens of them around our hose faucets, in my father's workbench areas and our storage unit every time I did! As I got older and didn't play outside as much, I stopped. In high school, I awoke with a weird little pimple-like nodule on my thigh. I popped it, but by my second class of the day it had gotten huge - larger than a coffee cup saucer and HOT to touch. The school nurse said it was probably a black widow bite, which aren't all that rare in Arizona. When I got home, I went to find where it might have come from inside my house, and I discovered several webs and adolescent spiders on the sides of our sofa. I believe that was an adolescent bite, though some sources say the young are harmless.

      Some years later, I was sitting on a pipe ell at my school and was bit on the foot. This time, I saw the spider. Again, lots of swelling and hot to the touch, but those are the only symptoms I got either time.

    • profile image

      JoshK47 5 years ago

      Positively wonderfully presented information here - thankfully, I've not seen any around here! Blessed by a SquidAngel!

    • junecampbell profile image

      June Campbell 5 years ago from North Vancouver, BC, Canada

      I have never seen one. I am happy to leave it that way.

    • gottaloveit2 profile image

      gottaloveit2 5 years ago

      I hate spiders, period! And, with a house that's 160 years old, I can't get away from them. Spider spray is my best friend.

    • UKGhostwriter profile image

      UKGhostwriter 4 years ago

      Never seen a live one ..even a tiny money spider can cause havoc in my family

    • tfsherman lm profile image

      tfsherman lm 4 years ago

      Gorgeous web! I'm very fond of spiders -- not black widows though.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      I live in Marietta Ga and my back yard seems to be infested with black widows. We saw 2 yesterday. We had a dumpster of dirt delivered about a month age and my kids played in it till it became some compacted. As we were picking up small rocks for an art project my son flipped over a med size rock and there it was. I tried to kill it with a shoe, but when I missed it began running and got away. He then flipped over a small rock and there was another one, Now my back yard is considered a danger zone. Should I put sticky pads all over the yard or is there a spray/power or something that will make them get, go or die. I know they are good for bug control, but I have babies walking around my back yard.- HELP!! fyi-normal, I'm not scared of them because they are not aggressive, its the quantity that concerns me.

    • profile image

      sherioz 4 years ago

      Luckily I've never met a dangerous spider in person. These are gorgeous spiders and I hope I never see them off the printed page or computer screen. Blessed.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Found one in my baggie of grapes this morning.....that was a delightful start to my Monday morning!!!

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Oh, these are scary insects, glad we don't have any around, well...except for some people's pets. :)

    • profile image

      anonymous 3 years ago

      I saw one in my home last week and I'm terrified, I hate spiders or any kind of bugs, and I'm super scared right now

      The spider is in this spot of my house that I can't reach, what can I do?

    • BarbRad profile image

      Barbara Radisavljevic 3 years ago from Templeton, CA

      I followed an image I thought might be an American House spider here from Google, and it turned out to be your male black widow. I'm quite sure it's not the one hanging over my shower and in the corners of the ceilings all over the house. I believe they are umbrella spiders, but I can't find this as a scientific or even common name when I search for them online. Anyway, that's how I wound up here. Excellent lens.

    • profile image

      RANADEEP 3 years ago

      I think it is scary though,but it will not bite unless it feels insecure!!A very good lense in this topic!!

    • promisem profile image

      Scott Bateman 17 months ago

      The headline for this article caught my attention because I have heard several times that black widows have been spotted in my neighborhood.

      I haven't found one yet, but I'm concerned because I spend a lot of time in our basement and backyard.

      Your article will make me more observant going forward. I also have to say that it is exceptionally thorough, visual and informative. Nicely done.

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