I think many of you will be delighted to know that big spider season is ending soon. These big spiders which come into houses in autumn, are looking for mates. These unseen females are much stockier than their suitors, and generally stay in their webs, often hidden from pulic view. In order to let their boyfriends find them they release pheromones onto the air, and the males come running.
The males then live for a number of weeks or months in the webs with the females and leave before the young are born, or are killed and eaten for overstaying their welcomes. As a result, sensible males who leave early can grow to immense size and apparently live quite a few years. But by now most of the females have mats and will stop releasing pheromones and the males will go back to their regular lives, if they avoid the various predators that delight in eating them, especially Robins and Blackbirds, but Wrens too.
Ireland, like most of Europe has become home for species of spiders that can be venomous to human beings. Almost all spiders can potentially bite because all use venomous fangs to subdue prey, and sometimes defend themselves, but False Widows have a venom that has a bigger effect on people.
There are two species known in Ireland and both are believed to have originated in the Canary Islands and/or the nearby island of Madeira. However, these islands were stop-off points for trading ships travelling around the world in the Age of Discovery, from the 1480s onwards for ships rounding Africa or travelling to the Americans, so there is a small possibility they might actually have originated from elsewhere, but a this stage it’s highly likely we’ll never know for sure.
Steatoda grossa, the smaller one, was first recorded in southern Ireland (and southern England) in the 1870s. Here is was largely confined for over a century but gradually spread northwards. Much later, in the early 1990s the larger Steatoda nobilis appeared, and it has spread all over the east coast and into the midlands now, where it is a very common species. False Widows are so-called because there are many species and most are completely harmless to humans, but they look almost identical to the true Widow spiders, the Latrodectids, such as the Black Widows, Brown Widow, White Widow, Australian Red-back Spider and New Zealand Katipo. There are actually MANY species and several are found in Europe, but not naturally in the British Isles or Scandinavia.
The irony is that of all the False Widow Spiders the two that have arrived in Britain and Ireland ARE mildly venomous to humans. But they are NOT aggressive spiders in any sense, and mostly like to be outside, although they do get into sheds and houses which do not have regular cleaning routines.
The venom of False Widows and Black Widows is a type of acid, so I hypothesised that cures and treatments used successfully on other acidic toxins, such as bee stings or nettles should also work with some degree of success on False Widow venom. Recently a friend was bitten by a small Steatoda grossa. The sting was quite powerful, but I’m happy to announce that treatment of the bite with crushed Dock leaf worked brilliantly and with almost immediate effect.
Dock leaves can still be found outdoors in Ireland, but the frosts are starting to damage them. However, ordinary baking soda should also work to counteract the acid. HOWEVER, the Ph Balance in all human skin varies, so be careful as there are some people who could find their skin has a reaction to Baking Soda and to a lesser extent, Dock plants, although I’ve never encountered anyone with such problems. Paradoxically people who do have more acidic skin Ph will probably not suffer quite so much from acidic venom on their skin.
Always try treatments a little at a time, unless the pain is severe.
I plan to write more about False Widows soon, to help make identification easier, but there are few native Irish species like them. But do not be too worried because they are mainly outdoor spiders and the venom is not dangerous in its own right. The danger is that it could cause symptoms like other, more serious ailments. Mild muscle cramps in an area near the chest could cause someone with a heart problem, or their medic, to think they were in danger of cardiac arrest, so always record a bite or sting if you suffer one from any animal or plant no matter where in the world you happen to be when you suffer it.