Category Archives: Steatoda (false widows)

Spiders in the Land of Little Rain

What a long, spiderless season it’s been.

Winter was creepy-weird: 90 degrees in January, brutally dry, sun beaming down on dead annuals, leafless trees, comatose landscaping. The East and Midwest were buried in blizzard after blizzard, so we had no right to complain, but in the West each rainless day was another drip in a sort of waterless water torture.

And then spring lurched into summer with no preamble, except for the plants that (seemingly) miraculously sprang back to life to offer the mask of a normal California year. Since then it’s been months of broken rhythm and mocking sunshine.

Every living thing is still off. Plants bloomed too early or too late. The comforting reserves of water we use to beat back the desert—and it’s all desert, pretty much—no longer wait behind hose or faucet. On a recent road trip passing through the hazy-hot Salinas Valley, the hills were not golden. They were gray.

What you learn from skilled news reporters: historically, droughts in California have been known to last for long years, sometimes decades. Though not since modern recordkeeping began, which is why we’re all so gobsmacked by the seriousness of it. But in archaeological records, sure, plenty of evidence of drought wiping the shine off the Golden State. A state now so foolishly full of grass, golf courses, recreational lakes, orchards, and other thirsty things.

You also learn that ocean temperatures thousands of miles away, far off in the Pacific, are shuffling the cards you’ll be holding in fall, when the rains might or might not return. The view from my dead lawn is too small, in both time and distance, to take it in.

What it means for spiders is that I’ve seen very few. Insects, too, other than bees and mosquitoes. The county is fogging for West Nile virus vectors, which means the mosquitoes will diminish as well—something I’d normally applaud, but this year we all seem acutely aware of how missing bugs mean fewer birds, fewer green and growing things, fewer signs of life.

You get a better sense of who the survivors are. The cellar spiders, they never seem to go away; perhaps they’re generalist enough and skinny enough to survive on whatever blunders along. In our micro-ecosystem they probably benefit from the earthworm bin, which breeds tiny flies, and the mealworm boxes (kept for the geckos), where the flour moths roam. Flying fodder eventually comes their way.

And the widows: they’re stationed along the fence posts and in the downspouts just as they always have been. Maybe a tad smaller, but the summer is young and there’s still time to grow round. I go out at night and assess them by flashlight. Drought is nothing to them. Widows like it hot and dry; the females keep cool in their all-black outfits by the simple trick of being nocturnal. The small, loitering males await their moment.

Otherwise the spider places seem oddly empty. I haven’t spotted even a young orb weaver yet, much less one of the large females knitting her radial web. The wolf spiders you find by following their eye shine: where are they? Almost absent from the lush leaf litter where they usually live. Lumbering Zoropsis, the big Mediterranean hitchhiker, also has been lying low.

I met a tiny bronze jumping spider last week, let it hop around a few minutes, then freed it and wished it luck.

The_Land_of_Little_Rain_title_pageThe most notable absence in our domain is of false widows (Steatoda grossa). We’ve always had lots of them hanging around the flowerpots and crevices. This year I’m concluding they could be a sort of indicator species in our microclimate, a signal of what being less wet, less buggy, might mean. They’re pert, glossy spiders that have never caused us a bit of harm, and I would miss them. But they’re a worldwide species and could easily take a California habitat retreat in stride. More easily than we could.

We have short memories here. It’s part of our charm—that disappointment never chases you too far. There’s always going to be summer, and always going to be the rains. Or so we think. Me, I’m going to take down my old copy of a tiny book called The Land of Little Rain. Mary Austin tramped around desert California—lands people admire and fear, lands that change (if at all) only over thousands of years. She found it beautiful, and aloof, and surpassingly skillful at teaching humans their place. It might be time to build longer memories.



Fruit Ninjas: Spiders in the Bananas

Aren’t you glad it wasn’t a dragonfruit?

This is about bananas and “banana spiders,” a slippery concept. I vowed not to make any wordplay on the words “bunch,” “go(ing) bananas,” or “appeal,” because those are hideous journalistic clichés. You’ll thank me.

I did slip in that “slippery,” but I had to, honest.

A mum's worst nightmare, only with spiders. (Scary banana sculpture by Suu, a Japanese artist. You should see his Ben Bernanke!)

A mum’s worst nightmare–just add spiders. (Scary banana sculpture by Suu, a Japanese artist. You should see his or her Ben Bernanke!)

What’s fun about chasing down the latest spider scares is discovering that any such story has happened before—usually many times. Better, the story changes. There are certain structures to any “I was scared by a spider” story, like the one where you crash your car, or the one where you need an explanation for a scary sore, or the one where your man proves he’s not a coward. But in general the trends or the public mood allow you to fill in many of the nouns and verbs and places, like some kind of arachnophobic Mad Libs book.

Like this:

(Location) homemaker (proper name) was terrified to discover this week that the healthy (fruit or vegetable) she’d brought home from the supermarket and was about to serve her (numeral) offspring was infested by the world’s most deadly (usually harmless arachnid).

(Proper name) was washing the (foodstuff) when she found the (synonym for dead, mangled, or stunned) spider in a bowl and (word for emitted loud, high-pitched sound). She summoned her (male relative) to strenuously (verb) the beast and phoned the local (unprepared exterminator), who confirmed the (adjective)-eating creature’s identity and insisted on (violent verb with “-ing”) her home.

A spokesman for the supermarket chain expressed sympathy for (name)’s traumatic experience and offered her a free (trivial item meant to forestall a lawsuit).

Today’s story is out of Britain, where they’re already prepared to burn with flame any creature with eight legs, on the theory that it must be one of those cottage-invading, mum-murdering, flesh-eating, snapper-stabbing false widows (Steatoda nobilis). That particular cobweb spider readily turns invisible and assumes disguises wherein it looks like other, equally harmless spiders. It’s quite a trick! I wish I could see it.

(I take back some of what I’ve said about British arachnophobics. I can tell from some of the Facebook warriors and other online commenters that many British people are disgusted and embarrassed by the current spider hysteria. Then there are the good people at the British Arachnological Society, whose site is second to none on getting the spider facts straight.)

Spiders are NOT part of this healthy breakfast.

Spiders are NOT part of this healthy breakfast.

(It’s also come to my attention that I may have maligned Weetabix. I sincerely regret any hurt feelings I might have caused.)

But bananas now: in the current variation on Horror in the Fruit Bowl, a London mum was shocked to see baby spiders hatching from the peel of a banana. Spiderlings were emerging from a “white spot” (photos show an egg sac) that she first thought was mold. Trigger-happy reporters promptly plastered websites with stock photos of Phoneutria, a New World wandering spider with a bad bite. Apparently the woman and her plucky pest-control company leaped to the conclusion that the baby spiders were Phoneutria, and from there it devolved into a story about 1. How much the supermarket was going to pay to calm everybody down, and 2. Just how much napalm it would take to wipe out every form of life in the customer’s house, children excepted.

The little ankle-biters (but probably not).

The little ankle-biters (but probably not).

One problem. These were baby spiders. They look pretty much alike. Even an expert can’t tell a baby Phoneutria from a baby Cupiennius, which is a much more likely fruit stowaway, at least to North America, according to this expert report. And Cupiennius is harmless. Big and scary, but harmless.  (Anyway, “A baby spider doesn’t have big enough jaws to bite you,” British entomologist Steven Falk told ABC News.)

Also big, fast, and scary looking are huntsman spiders. They hitchhike in bananas, too, and show up in fruit bowls. And are also harmless except to the arachnophobic, which, to be fair, is lots of folks.

Regardless of species, the spiderlings wouldn’t get far on foot. Nor are they likely to survive away from their home climate. All mum needed to do was vacuum them up. Once in the Dirt Devil bag, they won’t be breeding or murdering or doing anything else.

It's the mustache! Really. Those red jaws belong to Cupiennius chiapanensis (photo from American Entomologist), who gets confused with Phoneutria, another red-'stached spider with a bad reputation. But all they have in common is that banana.

It’s the mustache! Really. Those red jaws belong to Cupiennius chiapanensis (photo from American Entomologist), who gets confused with Phoneutria, another red-‘stached spider with a bad reputation. But all they have in common is the banana.

Not long ago, if a spider showed up invited in a UK fruit bowl it was often given the benefit of the doubt, i.e., not assumed to be the world’s deadliest anything. You can see it in older stories like this, this, this (with the wonderful headline “Where Is Mummy Spider?”) and this. It still bothered the fruit-buying public to find them, but nobody worried it was the start of Arachnoworld War III. They went ahead with tea and biscuits.

But the “false widow” meme seems to have escalated every spider encounter by a jittery public. The postman won’t deliver your mail because a fat, harmless orb weaver is dangling across his path. Someone’s bunny dies (as they do), and because a spider is in the neighborhood, it must be to blame. Spiders are described as leaping and chasing, which they just don’t do. A false widow couldn’t outrun a baby carriage with three missing wheels.

The supermarket chain dug a little deeper into the London story and now leans toward the theory that the spiderlings were harmless Cheiracanthium babies, according to ABC. The so-called yellow sac spider lives all over the world—occasionally it bites, but it never kills. (In my house we call it the “glow in the dark spider” because of its pallor.) But in the end, according to ABC, the store paid the scared shoppers a bunch of money.



Spiders Over the White Cliffs of Dover

Whither the widows?

First, false widows—now gay spiders. And watch out for those hobos. What is this soap opera called arachnology?

A ridiculous reality show is still playing out in the south of Britain. An insignificant spider, Steatoda nobilis, is being blamed for everything the tabloids can throw at it. I thought the story had peaked a few weeks ago, with the report that one of these Invisible Spiders (because that’s what they really are; nobody ever sees himself getting bitten) had caused a guy’s leg “to explode.” But no—the nonsense can pile up higher still.

Killer spiders, tabloid coverNow the giddiness has caused a school to close. (No worries, Brits, I’m sure all the Singaporean school children who didn’t stay home that day will eat your kids’ lunches for them, academically speaking.) There are whole platoons, brigades, of “mums” who talk about sparing their downy children from the beasties that come creeping, crawling, and snapping their way. TV hosts show helpful maps with neon arrows pointing in all directions—the spider on the march. The usual minor athlete (yes! this is another recurring theme in spider lore, the Jock with a Rash) has to sit out a crucial match because an Invisible Spider spoiled his cricket swing or his soccer moves.

I can’t gild this lily—it  stands alone. Even the calm people at the British Arachnological Society, who have been doing great work trying to drag old Blighty back toward reality, seem resigned to the fact that although they’ll get quoted here and there, they’ll make not a dent in the national arachnofoolia. It just has to play itself out.

S. nobilis has been in Britian since the 1870s. Yes, really. It looks like three other insignificant relatives, all of them prettily weaving silk doilies around Grandmum’s vegetable patch since Churchill was a lad. One day your cottage garden is a veritable Narnia of humble little animals, the next, thanks to tabloid hunger, it’s a den of deadly invaders swarming young Nigel.

So what to do? Fun as it is to see those shabby scriveners go at it, this could happen anywhere. There’s plenty of nonsense about spiders bubbling away Stateside. Not just the brown recluse fears, which a la Britain become active every time some American sprouts an ugly sore. The murky accusation against the hobo spider (Eratigena agrestis, its new name) is just as alive as ever, despite dogged research that shows, bit by unreported bit, that the hobo has almost certainly been misjudged. Its bite is probably harmless. If you can even find one. Or identify it.

How many strikes do you get again? That’s three. Hobo spider, you’re benched.

There’s an information avalanche about spiders online, so we already know that weeping skin wounds are far more likely to be staph or some other rotten microorganism or insect than a spider bite. That’s the scary part—we already know.

Now we’re getting into the realm of why people want to believe nonsense, and why facts don’t drive it out.

Here’s a great book by Kathryn Schulz. She could also have titled it “A Breath of Fresh Error.”

Kathryn Schulz doesn't talk about spiders, per se. I think. I could be wrong. "Yes," she says. "That's the idea."

Kathryn Schulz doesn’t write about spiders. I think. I could be wrong. “Yes,” she says encouragingly. “That’s the idea.”

I started off resisting the author’s mission, which is to point out that everyone is wrong a whole lot but that’s not necessarily bad. Nooooooo! I want to be right all the time, or at least be able to lean back on a nice haystack of facts and studies and enjoy gazing down at the bullshit.


She’s right. Beliefs guide our selection of, and adherence to, what we’re pleased to call facts. Most of the time. I think the scientific method is much more marvelous and error-correcting than she apparently does–if it’s correctly applied, self-policed, and wielded with humility. Like this hobo spider study, which disproved the venom myth from three different directions without scolding anybody who felt otherwise.

But facts fight a constant headwind of uncertainty. The culture you were born into. What your family taught you. What you feel forced to defend (“Call me an idiot because I think Invisible Spiders got my baby? Now I believe it twice as hard!”). And all the little tripwires that trigger us into seeing patterns where they aren’t, ignoring patterns we don’t want to see, trusting our lying senses, and sealing our evidence behind high walls of Just Because.

Now I’m gonna look into those gay spiders.




Stiff upper lips missing in action

It’s official: the last Briton capable of stepping outdoors has now surrendered to spider hysteria and barricaded himself inside his thatched cottage with a lifetime supply of Weetabix and oolong. This just in:

Postman refuses to deliver letter because of a ‘massive’ spider web blocking path to front door

Postmen often have to keep an eye out for aggressive dogs while trying to make their deliveries.

But rather than a hound, it was a large spider that stopped letters being delivered to the home of Stuart Robertson-Reed.

Instead of a cheque the business analyst was waiting for, he found a note written by a scared postman which read: “No access – massive spider web in front gate.”

Stuart Robertson-Reed contemplates his doom! (Daily Mirror)

Stuart Robertson-Reed contemplates his doom! (Daily Mirror)

The story goes on in hilarious (and, thankfully, skeptical) detail about the “massive” beast whose web the postman feared to touch. The spider in question, the timid orb weaver pictured here, was described as the size of a 10p coin–just about an inch in diameter.

Actually, I think the wailing and breast-beating over Steatoda nobilis, the insignificant yet somehow “deadly” spider that’s triggered so much blithering such as this, is peaking. Even the tabloids can’t keep up the silliness much longer.

Nothing in all the coverage I’ve seen of the false-widow panic has changed my mind about what’s happening. S. nobilis, an imported species, has lived on the Sceptered Isle for more than a hundred years. Nobody has ever died from its bite–in fact, I’m still hunting for irrefutable evidence of any bites at all. There was the guy with the hoodie, who had a dozen stinging welts on his back and says he found a spider in his jacket. He made the news because he passed out cold when he saw the spider, not because the venom had liquefied him. Painkillers was all he needed. But I never found a second-day story with a confirmed identification of the spider. Even if it was S. nobilis, how much more trivial can a story be: “man bitten by bug”? I had a hundred worse experiences with ants when I was a kid, and a smaller but still memorable number with wasps, hornets, and bees. I got chomped by lizards, snakes, rodents, and mosquitoes. The tabloids never came calling.

The rest of the S. nobilis victims “never felt a thing” or were assaulted–as if by space aliens–while they slept. Amazing how many Invisible Spiders they can fit on that green and pleasant land.

No, what’s happening here is folklore in the making. A decade from now, after the Internet has immortalized all our foibles and silly beliefs, we’ll all have a gruff chortle with the good people of Britain about the Year of the Rampaging False Widows. There will never be an end to the modern equivalent of the tarantella hysteria, of course. That hard-wired threat detector that keeps us pattern-seeking apes alive will never be silenced–nor, I guess, should it be. But it will be some other bug’s turn to be the witch of the moment.

Ten pence for your thoughts? Let's be a little more lion and little less lamb, folks.

Ten pence for your thoughts? Let’s be a little more lion and a little less lamb, folks.


<3 Bugs, h8 Spiders

Warning: big old spider picture BOO!

Rick Vetter, the quotable spider guy who keeps tabs on the brown widows (spreading) and brown recluses (nonexistent) of Southern California, has a fun article in American Entomologist. The topic sounds as if it was born from a lifetime of forehead-slapping: why are there spider-hating entomologists? An entomologist studies insects, and I know spiders aren’t insects. Still, you’d think professional courtesy at the very least would cause entomologists not to indulge in any of the hyperventilating, car-wrecking, weapons-fetching behavior you see on the Internet when some schmo encounters a spider.

Like the lady in this picture at right. Ooo, sour face.

Shelly Albrow's 15 minutes of fame: she saw a harmless spider. It was ON THE FLOOR.

Shelly Albrow’s 15 minutes of fame: she saw a harmless spider. It was ON THE FLOOR. #ohthehumanity

The British press rose to the occasion in gaudiest fashion by relaying her encounter with the Beast of Orpington (I made that up), “a deadly spider.” You know the drill. Somebody freaks out about Steatoda nobilis, an insignificant spider that’s somehow been dubbed Britain’s Most Venomous. But cor and blimey, just look at this photo and consult with Dr. Internet: if this is a Steatoda nobilis, I’m Tobey Maguire. And I’m not.

The Beast of Orpington.

The Beast of Orpington.

This (left) is a picture Ms. Albrow took of the monster, a harmless grass spider most likely, but let’s frighten a few more Brits and call it maybe a wolf spider! (owOOOoooooooo)

Anyway, Vetter found a number of entomologist colleagues who admit to fear and loathing of spiders. One hates spiders but works with maggots for a living and thinks they’re adorable:

This respondent is fully aware of the paradox of this spider-hating, maggot-friendly situation, but concluded an e-mail with “maggots don’t sneak up on you and jump in your hair.”

Often there was a Childhood Incident (tell me about having a family of brothers, I know). Vetter writes, “One entomologist mentioned that while her dislike of spiders is minor, her brother is highly arachnophobic, which ‘comes in handy sometimes.’ “ Several mentioned running into those big orb webs that go up overnight, in which the poor, hardworking arachnid has settled in with a few meager breakfast bugs and somebody face-blunders right into her work. One scientist had a bad dream about being snared by a human-sized spider.

One guy had a Cheiracanthium run all over his face and into his nostrils while he was driving. OK, he gets a pass.

Vetter admits the numbers aren’t representative. Nor is the Fear of Spiders Questionnaire (an actual psychological tool) well-tailored to his research:

When I (or other arachnologists with no spider fear) take the questionnaire, our score is 14 as opposed to the expected score of zero because we give the highest “totally agree” response to two statements (“Currently, I am sometimes on the lookout for spiders,” “I now think a lot about spiders”), but for completely opposite reasons than those of an arachnophobe. Personally, I probably think about spiders every waking hour of the day.

Me, too!

All academic articles should be written this way. First, a pretty chart showing just what the respondents have against spiders. Oingo Boingo (“Insects,” from “Nothing to Fear,” 1982) was right: it’s because they have too many legs! Also they scuttle. And surprise you.

Ugly, but not filthy. Silent, but not deadly. Feared most for "the way they move." I'm never going to dance again.

Ugly, but not filthy. Silent, but not deadly. Feared most for “the way they move.” I’m never going to dance again.

Then there’s an amazing chart showing how the respondents rank a whole zoo of animals on a like-dislike scale. Spiders and ticks bring up the rear:

No, I don't know what an earwing is either. Cuter than an eel, at any rate.

No, I don’t know what an earwing is either. Cuter than an eel, at any rate.

It’s a fun read. Bonus points for finding the words “jeebies” and “willies.”

I want to learn more about arachnophobia. There’s been a lot of research, but it’s still mysterious. Why are lots of people in certain countries afraid of spiders, but not as many in other places? Why would evolution select for arachnophobia, if it did, when spiders barely matter as threats to life and health? Why aren’t people terrified of mosquitoes and flies, which really are little mass-murdering bastids? And again—I think spiders are quite attractive, but even if you didn’t, why would you like maggots better?


A Buncha Baby Spiders

No, you don’t get a “trigger warning”

Here’s a peek inside the nursery of a local Steatoda grossa mom, who has wisely walked away from this clutch of little ankle-biters. No, not terribly maternal — but she does usually stick around with the egg sac for a while, even if she doesn’t go in for college savings accounts or after-school enrichment. The only reason she’s not in view here is that I let her go after a few days’ captivity. This is another of my clumsy attempts to take macro photographs (I hope to take a class this summer and really figure out what I’m doing.)

When the silk's astray, the spiderlings will play.

When the silk’s astray, the spiderlings will play.

Steatoda grossa, as I’ve written about before, is a common garden species around these parts and well-traveled elsewhere. She’s related to the black widow and looks similar enough that you might have hopped around in a panic if you upended an old flowerpot or pair of garden gloves and sent her scurrying out. Well … “scurrying” is pushing it. She’s slow and awkward on foot, graceful only on the web. And she’ll be trying like hell to make for the nearest crevice or hole. If you catch her out in the open and she decides all is lost, she’ll crumple up and look dead, a technique that works for much bigger creatures, up to a point … let’s call that the “possum on the yellow line” point. Let her be and she’ll slowly unfold and skitter off. (Skittering, scurrying … what’s your favorite spider verb?)

The proud parent. Dim lighting means she can easily pass for a widow, right?

The proud parent. Dim lighting means she can easily pass for a widow, right?

There’s a very specific place in my domain where Steatoda likes to hang out, and I find it interesting. We have a mealworm ranch in the basement. They started out as gecko fodder, then they were for the songbirds, and now my entrepreneurial boy — Steve Jobs 2.0 — is launching a mealworm business and is hounding a local pet store to take us on as a supplier. Locally sourced food is all the rage, do we not know? He’s designed the containers, come up with a name, and launched on Facebook. I never realized mealworms, technically larvae of darkling beetles (Tenebrio molitor), were both so universally delicious and so astoundingly fertile. Or maybe we’re just good at invertebrates . . .

Anyway, though the larva is all Chez Panisse to everybody, the adult form, the beetle, is not. Clumsy little black bugs, easily overturned, spared an early death because of being so darkling … or something. Neither gecko nor bird will deign to try them. But Steatoda, as it turns out, does love the beetles. Every time we tidy up the mealworm ranch or change containers there’s a cobwebby superstructure in and around the boxes, occupied with lots of fat glossy spiders and the leftovers of recent meals. It was scary the first time, since it appeared we were breeding black widows and even our placid neighbors would have arisen with flaming torches if they’d known that. But a closer inspection showed them to be Steatoda, who is more accustomed to misidentification than the average arachnid, and who does not bother us.

Still, I like to gather up these false widows and put them outside, where there are old pots and leaf litter aplenty. The brood pictured above were placed in the corner of a raised planter bed to fend for themselves. I expect to see them again.


Meet the spider: Steatoda grossa

Spider-Man, I made you!

It’s almost summer, and that means superheroes. A torrent of them, a plague of them! Not unlike the grim spider army that homeowners report to their local newscasters whenever they see something brown that skitters. This time there’s a big hairy blockbuster movie among the big hairy intruders: “The Amazing Spider-Man.” I’m not a comic book fan, so all this talk about a “reboot” leaves me cold (spiders, the real kind, shiver when you say “boot.”). It opens July 3, so I might as well let my online searches overflow with Andrew Garfield this, Emma Stone that, not to mention “Turn off the Dark” (the Broadway show), until the wires go back to their usual chatter about Invisible Spiders that stalk the unwary sleeper.

Still, I must take note of one rumored change in the Spider-Man backstory. You might recall that one character prominent in the Tobey Maguire version of the “Spider-Man” franchise was a spider. It bit Tobey and made him what he is. Apparently the spider was radioactive, which is one of those fun, wacky 1950s conceits that don’t really scan today … radioactivity leading in fact to death, not superpowers. At the start of that first film, which I saw in pursuit of a Big Dumb Summer Movie, the spider landed on Peter Parker and nipped him. The bite was just Method acting, but the spider was real. It was even wearing spider makeup and carrying a tiny Equity card. The actor was, however, false: a false black widow, or Steatoda grossa.

Fanboy rumor says this year’s Peter Parker gets endowed not by a radioactive spider bite but by something from a lab … genetic tinkering or some such. And I bet they don’t even use a live spider this time, computer graphics having progressed so far. Dang. One more out-of-work actor, and in this economy. Guess it’s back to the back lot for Steatoda grossa, which is probably where the spider wrangler for the 2002 movie found her in the first place.

This common species occupies the margin between medically significant spiders and the innocent, ain’t-hurt-nobody garden varieties. Steatoda grossa practically defines garden variety. The places she likes to live are all over the typical yard (basement, too). She hides under the terra cotta saucer, in the space between shed and fence, in a sawdusty nook by the car, perhaps in the finger of your garden glove—pretty much anywhere you might expect to see a black widow (Latrodectus), except she isn’t one. False widows seem to favor damper places than the true widow, such as the crawlspace under my house where moisture from the clothes drier lingers. Real widows, like Marilyn, like it hot. When I catch Steatoda she usually plays dead, which makes me feel bad, so I let her go, then she ever-so-slowly unshrivels and stumbles away.

Without her makeup on, but still ready for her closeup. (Univ. of Wisconsin, Dept. of Entomology)

Her coloration is variable but the ones I see most often are glossy dark brown with a pale dot or two on her dimpled abdomen. She (or her male counterpart) might be marbled like halvah. If you look close you see she has oddly glittering eyes, gleaming with Hollywood ambition. The posterior median ones, I think. They sparkle like flecks of glass in the flashlight beam—and not just from the front, like the usual spider eyeshine. (You don’t know about eyeshine?! One of the wonders of spider watching. More on that later, if I can get decent pictures.)

It’s funny how many people think any old brown spider is a recluse, but I can’t blame people for thinking Steatoda is a black widow; they are relatives, after all, in the big happy Theridiid family, and favor the same look and the same turf.

In Britain they go all barmy over a cousin called Steatoda nobilis, a mildly medically significant non-native creature that’s got everyone’s rugby shorts in a bunch. “The most venomous spider in Britain!” Oi, you’d think it was the Blitz. And most of the tabloid cases quote Wallace or Gromit saying, you guessed it, “Never saw the little bugger who bit me,” and even the visible buggers are usually identified by the nearest Cockney chimneysweep and not by anyone who’d actually know. Still, there are a few confirmed Steatoda bites here and there. This isn’t one of them (hint: Steatoda nobilis, like Peter Parker, lacks the power of invisibility).

Fun fact! Scarlett Johansson is neither black, nor a widow. She is actually a divorcee.

After Steatoda grossa had her big moment in “Spider-Man,” lots of people were surprised to learn that the spider wasn’t computer-generated. An insect wrangler had supplied the false black widow and dolled her up in red and blue to make her look sinister. Although Steatoda has the right figure for the part (sleek, glossy, tapering, and can I mention Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow here? No? Aw), she can’t do radioactive without having some work done. National Geographic ran a fun story about the bug boss who cast Steatoda for her big part.

You can induce Steatoda grossa to bite you, not that I have, using the technique of rolling over on her or trapping her in clothing. I’ve never found any indications that the bite is worse than a bee sting. This is the usual pain yardstick that’s meant to reassure people but kinda doesn’t, given how much we all enjoy being stung by bees. Reported symptoms include “blistering” and “malaise.” Once in a blue moon a bite creates significant medical problems, and at least one study has shown that antivenin developed for bites of the redback spider (Australia’s native widow) works for Steatoda as well. But you takes your chances: people have fatal anaphylactic reactions to antivenin, too.

The false widow is neither hero nor villain in her contacts with the human world, falling into the category of small animals that should be acknowledged but not feared. As with most spiders it’s quite obvious what kind of business she’s about: not stalking people (although do shake those garden gloves) or pursuing evildoers, but rather pursuing bugs for dinner, spinning her sloppy yet effective web, lying low, making more of her kind.

She doesn’t have any superpowers, and I do wonder why her bite made Peter Parker shoot silk out of his … wrists. Is the moviegoing public not ready for an anatomically correct Spider-Man? Bet Howard Stern could have fun with that.

Some relatives of the false black widow do have special talents beyond scaring British people. They can live together without killing each other. These are among the social spiders—like social butterflies, I guess, but with fangs and venom. Life in the spider colony is sure lively, what with prey-capture cooperation, shared egg-sitting, and occasional mass emigration. How they work it out is a mystery, though the uncommonness of this arrangement suggests to some scientists that pallin’ around with your fellow cannibals might not be the best idea for spiders in the long run.

As for long runs, let us prepare for a summer of super spiders and bats and men in black, leading perhaps to new impressions in the Hollywood Walk of Fame, though if there’s a spider there in the concrete you can guarantee it was stepped on. Fame is the ultimate false mistress, poor Steatoda grossa.