Tag Archives: outdoors

False Widow Spiders

Unfortunately this week I have been a bit slow on the draw when it comes to posting, but here at last are photos of False Widows to help you identify them. It seems they have been in the south of the country in small numbers for over a century, but with the mild winters of the 1990s and 2000s they spread about the island of Ireland rapidly, aided greatly by the sheer amount of activity of  the Celtic Tiger.

A classic example of a female Steatoda nobilis, the larger of the two common False Widows found in the British Isles. She is very similar to the female Missing-sector Orb-weaver spider, but much larger.
A classic example of a female Steatoda nobilis, the larger of the two common False Widows found in the British Isles. She is very similar to the female Missing-sector Orb-weaver spider, but much larger.

Anyhow, the first thing you need to know is that they get their name because of their resemblance to the true widow spiders, the Lactrodectids, They are identical in size and shape and sometimes in colour, depending on the species.  And, most importantly, they are also venomous to humans, but much less so than the true widow spiders. However, if you have an allergy to their bite then it might as well be a true widow spider, and you immediately need medical help. How do you know if you are allergic? Simple, you will also be allergic to bee stings. The acid in bee stings is almost identical to the acid in the venom of these spiders, and to the acid in nettle stings. Crushed leaves of the Dock plant are very effective at treating all three stings if you are not allergic, as is a little baking soda dissolved in water, as these things are alkalis. If you are allergic or get any sort of large swelling after a bite, whatever the biter was, always seek medical help immediately. Don’t try to tough it out.

A dark female specimen of Steatoda nobilis.
A dark female specimen of Steatoda nobilis.

The female Steatoda nobilis can be very dark, as in the photo above,  but the slightly smaller Steatoda grossa can be as shiny and black as a black currant, and is much more easily confused with the infamous Black Widow. The usual patterns that distinguish the species can often only be seen under a strong light, such as from a flash bulb. False Widows spend almost their entire lives hanging upside down and are very slow-moving. If they are attacked they normally pull their legs in tight to their bodies like a tortoise and drop to the ground to wait until the danger has passed. They mostly get onto humans (a rare enough event) when they are accidentally carried away in items from sheds.

A male Steatoda nobilis trying to convince a female to mate having blocked her retreat into the hollow rung of an upturned ladder. He has very red legs and is as large as she is although his abdomen is much smaller. Pregnant females will have swollen and shiny abdomens about the size of a black currant or a little larger.
A male Steatoda nobilis trying to convince a female to mate having blocked her retreat into the hollow rung of an upturned ladder. He has very red legs and is as large as she is although his abdomen is much smaller. Pregnant females will have swollen and shiny abdomens about the size of a black currant or a little larger.

Unlike true widow spiders, the males of False Widows can be almost as big as the females, and well capable of bullying a female into mating. The true widows don’t stand for that behaviour, which is why they become widows so soon. But their males are much smaller than them. Right now, in Autumn the male Steatoda nobilis spiders are roving around still looking for females. They climb walls outside houses where the females usually wait quietly under the eaves. Some males do get eaten, but this year every male I’ve seen successfully mated and escaped to mate again. That’s probably why they grow as large as their females.

A magnificent example of a male Steatoda grossa False Widow, seen not now but in the spring, their time to wander round. they don't get very big though, but big enough if you don't like spiders.
A magnificent example of a male Steatoda grossa False Widow, seen not now but in the spring, their time to wander round. They don’t get very big though, but big enough if you don’t like spiders.

Although the female Steatoda grossa is very similar in habits to the larger S. nobilis, they much more readily enter houses, particularly sheds and quiet and cool attics. They arrive as tiny spiders and stay put only if they are not disturbed. The male S. grossa is completely different to the female. He seeks her out not in autumn, but in the springtime. Larger ones can resemble the long-legged running House Spiders that terrify people every autumn but they are not nearly so big and can be very brightly coloured. Above is a classic example of a male Steatoda grossa, which prefers running along the ground to climbing around upside down, until he finds a mate. He is clearly built for running.

Now, that mostly takes care of False Widows but I will be uploading a video soon which some people will probably find more useful as the behaviour of various spiders is more obvious.

A Natural Miscellany

The beautiful weather not only brings out the wildlife but it brings out the people who have a passion for it too. And I find these people almost as interesting as the wildlife. Today I met naturalist John Fields out on the East Coast Nature Reserve, armed with a big DSLR camera and a very big lens, all the better to get shots of the out of reach wildlife.

Wildlife photographer John Fields out in the wilds looking for some good shots today.
Wildlife photographer John Fields out in the wilds today looking for some good shots.

John told me about some of the wildlife he had seen in that very area, including otters. Like me he wasn’t just there for the birds, but for all of the nature on offer. A few moments after I was speaking to John I got a fleeting glimpse of a day-flying moth I have never previously managed to photograph, the Mother Shipton (Callistege mi). It’s not a great shot, but it is the first I’ve managed to get of this extremely nervous and wary creature, which looks like a small butterfly.

The Mother Shipton is one of those classic moth species, star of many, many wildlife books.
The Mother Shipton is one of those classic moth species, the star of many wildlife books.

But it has to be said the most impressive species on the bogs at the moment is the Yellow Flag, a spectacularly beautiful iris.

A sea of yellow, Yellow Flags.

A close-up of the beautiful Yellow Flag.
A close-up of the beautiful Yellow Flag.

There is so much going on out there at the moment it’s almost impossible to keep indoors for any length of time. Not willingly anyhow.

Christmas Gift Ideas: No.2

A terrific gift for boys, girls and men and women of all ages with an interest in the natural world are a pair of binoculars. Binoculars do come in a range of sizes, prices and qualities, ranging from as low as about €10/£8 and even less expensive in the USA, to extremely expensive models in the thousands of all these currencies.

How to choose the right pair: bigger is NOT better when choosing binoculars, and neither is expensive better either. For the naturalist and general outdoor enthusiast weight is always a consideration. A person planning to walk miles carrying binoculars will not want them heavy, and neither will someone planning to watch birds for several hours.
When buying binoculars you will be confronted with numbers, such as: 7×42, 8×30, 8×50, 10×25, 10×50, etc, etc. The first number refers to the strength of the binoculars, for example “10x” means the lenses will multiply your eyesight by 10 times. So, the better your eyesight is to start with, the better you will see things, since the binoculars multiply your eyesight strength.

The second number refers to the width of the front lenses (outer lenses) of the binoculars. In a 7×42 binoculars the front lenses (the “headlights”) are 42mm wide. In an 8×50 binoculars they are 50mm wide. The reason there are different sizes is because the wider the front lens the greater the amount of light that gets let in. This allows you to see more clearly at greater distances with a very powerful pair of binoculars, such as a 20x strength pair. And it allows you to see better on average in lower light conditions, but the difference can be negligible and other factors, such as lens quality can also have an affect.

A 10x26 strength pair of binoculars. The 10x refers to a multiplication of ten times your eyesight strength. The 26 refers to the width of the lenses at the front (which you can see clearly in the photo) which are 26mm wide.

For a gift, particularly for someone who doesn’t know exactly what they want their binoculars for, I would suggest a model with a strength of anywhere from 7x to 10x. I would also suggest that the width of the front lenses doesn’t matter, although a pair with 40mm lenses would be about as big as would be comfortable to hold.

You can get good quality binoculars for good prices: the German company Bresser are the biggest optics company in the world and make extremely good quality binoculars for low prices, even under €20 in many cases. I also have to say I am very impressed with the binoculars made by Tasco, an American company many of whose models are coated with rubber armour. Then you have the likes of Steiner of Germany, Olympus, Nikon, Canon, Zeiss, Leica, and Swarovski.

The UK Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) also have their own binoculars of superb quality and at relatively reasonable prices considering the high quality, all of which can be bought from their online shops and further afield. In Ireland these binoculars are available from the BirdWatch Ireland online store, and their official shop located in Kilcoole, here in Wicklow (a shop that can be difficult to find!).