When I noticed her she was hanging in her web just inches from my face. Her quarter-sized body was shiny black, like a newly painted car, and she had a distinct red triangle on her bulbous abdomen about the size of the papery egg sack she guarded. Her tight body and thin stiff legs were poised as if to strike.
My brother’s voice echoed in my head: “Black widow spiders are venomous with fangs so big and sharp that they can pierce even the thickest clothing,” he’d often warned me, mostly before I headed into some dark, foreboding space. And once I had entered, he might call in added details: “Their poison will liquefy you from the inside so it can suck up your fluids.”
The myth of these deadly predatory spiders was not limited to my brother’s taunting but was also pervasive in our St. Helena schoolkid lore.
“Why do you think they’re called black widows?” Todd asked one day while we ate a snack in a barn behind my home on Hudson Street.
We were sitting on a pile of old boards munching carrot sticks as we tried to avoid the heat of the summer midday. The old windows were covered in layers of what seemed decades worth of spider webs that were heavy with dust and unlucky bugs.
“The female eats the males after they mate,” I said, repeating what I’d learned from my mother. I didn’t exactly understand the details of the word “mating,” but I imagined it must be related to some sort of serious disagreement.
“Why do they do that?” Todd asked.
“I guess because he pissed her off,” I said, taking the opportunity to use a phrase I’d heard the older kids use a few days earlier.
Todd nodded slowly and then took a nibble of his carrot.
“Well, I sure don’t want to piss them off,” he said, obviously happy to repeat the phrase.
The barn remained cool inside, even on those hot days, and it smelled like dried hay and motor oil. I leaned back on the woodpile, my finger absentmindedly bouncing gently on an old spider web, its thick strands feeling like long, taut strands of my mother’s hair.
Years later, when I was studying biology, my fascination with the black widow spiders remained. I learned that the female spiders can live up to three years, growing to 1.5 inches and occasionally perform sexual cannibalism, eating the much smaller males that live only a few months on average. Why the females do this remains poorly understood. One idea is that they do so to ensure that his genes are maintained only in her progeny. Others believe it is a method to ensure adequate nutrients. Another hypothesis that my buddy in grad school preferred was that the males had just misinterpreted the signals and things ended badly for the “dude,” as he called the deceased.
A solution that some of the more fortunate male spiders seem to have adopted is called, “mate binding” and refers to a precopulatory courtship behavior where the male massages the female abdomen to subdue her while simultaneously tying up her legs with his silk to reduce her aggressive behavior.
Whatever the reason, this strange behavior has evolved numerous times in arachnids (spiders), as well as several insect orders, including the famed female praying mantis that often bites off the male’s head during mating, which oddly causes the male’s mating movements to become even more vigorous.
But regardless of these organisms’ odd sexual proclivities, what I also learned was that black widow spiders are considered the most venomous spider in North America with their venom a reported 15 times stronger than a rattlesnake’s by volume. They can also be fierce when it comes to protecting their young and the bite, although rarely deadly, can cause nausea, profuse sweating, severe pain and paralysis of the diaphragm, which, in the worst cases can cause suffocation and death.
“What do you want to do today?” I asked Todd as we lingered on the woodpile.
“How about we go to the river?” he said.
We’d only been out of school for a couple of weeks but I’d already been to the river nearly every day, walking the dusty vineyard without shoes in an attempt to thicken my soles for summer adventures.
“I was just there yesterday,” I said, my finger plucking the web like a guitar string.
“How about we build a fort out of this wood then?” he said, patting one of the planks under him.
“Great idea,” I said and started to sit up.
That’s when I noticed the spider, inches away from my finger, its body glistening brightly in the dull light. I froze.
“Todd,” I whispered. “I think we have a problem.”
He followed my shifting eyes to the spider’s body, and then he lurched back, causing the woodpile to shift and disintegrate beneath us. What happened next is another story.
Originally published in the St. Helena Star, July 2017