The Wily Black Widow Spider

A recent article from New Scientist features research claiming that the notorious (and highly venomous) black widow spider can discern the nutritional value of various kinds of insects she catches in her mighty and complex web system. I don’t know about that aspect of the busy arachnid’s intelligence but I can definitely speak to their relative smarts and retentive abilities in other areas.

Having lived in South, Central and North California, my encounters with black widow spiders have been more than frequent over the years—they are everywhere, and basically come with the territory as far as human dwellings are concerned. In arid places like Palm Desert, CA, almost every possible nook, cranny, decorative item, and poolside boulder housed a devious tangle of web with a single female spider hiding out of sight during the day while waiting for hapless meals to “happen” by and become ensnared. At night, it was fun to head outside with a flashlight once in awhile to see hundreds of ravenous—and often quite large—black widows having emerged from the “hidey hole” portions of their webs to sprawl prominently in the center of those death traps, blending creepily with the darkness. Moths, cicadas, and any other flying insects were caught by the hundreds on any given evening; not a single one of them stood a chance once enmeshed in the widow’s stronger-than-steel silken death-snare.

I only had to point the flashlight up toward a black widow web near one of the poolside columns and winged creatures would invariably begin to swoop toward the beaming ray … SNAGGED! And any black widow worth her salt wasted not a second in immobilizing her prey with shockingly thick and plentiful silken strands, back legs wheeling expertly as even large insects spun toward their doom. Once bundled, the widow would close-in for a quick nip on a leg-joint or antenna and the sad bug was already on the road to digestion and death.

I never summoned the assistance of pest control experts when it came to the widows: a broom was good enough to sweep them away if there was a backyard area I wanted to keep particularly toxin-free. Otherwise, I let these little murderesses have dominion … outside. They did a stunning job of keeping the pesky insect populations under firm control.

Right now, as winter sets in with a vengeance, I have at least one black widow apparently trying to hibernate up in the crack where the roof of the garage meets the rest of the house. Her web is probably the largest I have ever encountered, at least two feet wide at the top and over nine feet high, extending all the way down to the driveway cement in that corner, where she built a “downstairs” parlor in which to feast on guests.

She laid three eggs sacs over the summer but I allowed her to keep not a single one of them; any egg sacs visible near the structure of the house have never been permitted. There are too many ways that spiderlings can squeeze their way into both home and garage after spilling out of the dime-sized eggs sacs by the hundreds in late Summer. I would use an old set of barbecue tongs to snatch the egg sacs from My Lady’s web and she did not like that at all, biting aggressively a few times at the offending metal as it pinched her bag o’ babies away forever. That’s a creepy reaction to experience.

But, as the researchers at New Scientist indicated in their article, Black Widows have surprisingly solid memories. Mrs. W laid two more sacs at the tail end of Summer this year and, because I had already stolen her lower-hanging fruit, she kept her new ones up close and tight near the rather inaccessible area where she hides. I couldn’t reach them without a ladder. She may be smart, but I knew that there was little chance of anything hatching from her subsequent nurseries: after the first set of egg sacs are produced, additional ones are typically sterile.

Guard them all you like, Lady … and good luck surviving the winter’s tender mercies.

BELOW: A photo of my “outdoor roommate”—and her baby-carriage—at the peak of Summer.

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