8 ways the black widow spider is woefully misunderstood

Black widow
© KQED Science

Like, the ladies generally don’t eat their mates … even though the males do kind of seem like jerks.

Perhaps no other creature on the planet has lent its behavioral traits to a human archetype more so than the poor maligned black widow spider. As the symbol for femme fatales and serial husband killers alike, you’d think that the actual arachnid was a cold-blooded murderess, coolly plotting the demise of any happy-go-lucky he-spiders hapless enough to enter her web.

Known for their deadly bite (which, actually, is rarely deadly), the black widow is in fact not that scary at all. And about the few males that do get devoured? Let’s just say, the female black widow is the hero we all need; those guys asked for it. (Plus, there’s a reason the guys take one for the team.)

Black widowPublic Domain/Public Domain

I had my arachnid epiphany thanks to the nifty video below, a black widow exposé courtesy of the Deep Look series created by KQED San Francisco and presented by PBS Digital Studios. The ultra-HD (4K) is fabulous (unless you have arachnophobia, in which case, you should definitely not watch it), and sheds a kinder light on these sweet spiders with the bad rap. Watch it below, but first, some facts to set the record straight.

1. There are 31 species of black widow spiders, but most of them – including the western black widow, which lives in the United States – DO NOT eat their mates.

2. That said, the Australian redback and the brown widow, an invasive species in California, do engage in some sexual cannibalism. Hey, it happens. But even so, it’s not like the males don’t ask for it; they actually flip themselves into their mate’s mouths after copulation! The ultimate sacrifice to ensure good nutrition for their progeny.

3. The females spend the bulk of their time weaving the masterpieces of engineering they call home. You know what her paramour does upon arrival? He starts wrecking the place; systematically deconstructing it, strand by strand. You can see it in the video, it's annoying.

4. Why do the home-wrecking males act like such jerks? Because the female’s web is drenched with “mate with me” pheromones that the possessive dude wants to hide from other spider suitors – in a process known as web reduction, he gathers her web bits into a bundle and wraps it up with his own silk.

5. When the two begin to consummate the relationship, he wraps her in fine strands called the bridal veil, conveniently covering her smell receptors all the while. And although all of this curious behavior is easy to anthropomorphize, it's just the birds and the bees, so to speak, and the way these creatures have found works best for the longevity of their species. Who are we to judge?

6. Black widows are nocturnal – and while nighttime creatures seem more cynical to some, black widows are far more feared that they likely warrant.

7. While black widow bites are common and can be painful, only a fraction result in serious symptoms. According to the National Institutes of Health, "Death in a healthy person is very rare," due to a black widow bite.

8. And in fact, black widows aren’t aggressive at all; biting is their last defensive move and one they only perform when they are being seriously threatened. They are so shy, that they are more likely to run away and play dead. Who's the scary one? More likely the giant human foot coming down from the sky, not the vilified little spider who really just wants to be left alone.

See it all in action here:

For more facts and fun, visit KQED

8 ways the black widow spider is woefully misunderstood
Like, the ladies generally don’t eat their mates … even though the males do kind of seem like jerks.

Related Content on Treehugger.com