|Steatoda Nobilis (source: National History Museum)|
If, in the past few weeks, you have either read the Daily Mail or spoken to an arachnophobe, you probably have been exposed to the hysteria surrounding the latest foreign threat to our shores, the False Widow Spider.
The False Widow is not actually a species, but a genus which contains over 120 different species. The species causing the general hysteria is the Noble False Widow (Steatoda Nobilis), which is the only species in the genus which is known to have bitten humans in the UK. Since the end of August, 15 articles have been published on the Daily Mail’s website concerning the Noble False Widow, the majority of which contain graphic images of pus- filled blisters, and headlines like “I Nearly Lost My Leg After Close Relative of Black Widow Bit Me”. This scaremongering has altered public perception of a spider that is less dangerous than a bee.I have compiled a few ‘facts’ that the Daily Mail and Daily Star have reported on in their articles, and researched the truth behind them:
Mail Myth One: The False Widow’s bite is highly toxic, and potentially life threatening.
False: Nobody in UK has ever been killed by the bite of the False Widow, or complications arising from the bite. The False Widow’s bite is, in fact, only as toxic as the sting of a bee or wasp and is, as a whole, less dangerous than wasp and bee stings as these contain chemicals that many more people are allergic to. What the scaremongering articles (which attribute the near loss of limbs to the bite of the false widow spider) don’t mention is that these dire symptoms are actually a result of the wounds becoming infected after the bite victim scratched them.
Mail Myth Two: The False Widow only emerged in the UK recently.
False: The False Widow was first sighted in Britain in 1879, probably having stowed away in shipments of fruit from the Canary Islands, Spain.
Mail Myth Three: The False Widow gets its name because it is closely related to the deadly Black Widow
False: The False Widow is only distantly related to the Black Widow, as they are both members of the Theridiidae family of spiders, which is prevalent globally and contains over 2,000 different genera. The False Widow’s name actually comes from the fact that the markings on its abdomen are similar to those on the Black Widow.
Mail Myth Four: The False Widow can fly.
True: I know this sounds like the sub-plot of a bad sci-fi film, a spider that bites and flies, but, unfortunately for arachnophobes, this is true. The Noble False Widow uses strands of silk to ‘balloon’ across short distances (e.g. the inside of garage). The good news however is that they only do this at night, which is the time when they are predominately active.
The fact that this hysterical reporting still grips the readers of the UK’s second best-selling newspaper is worrying, but not as worrying as the fact that these newspapers seem to feel that, if there is a slow news day, they have to sensationalise something quite ordinary simply to sell papers.