This Week in History: Black widow spiders live in B.C., especially at Island View Beach


WATCH: There are almost 900 species of spiders in British Columbia, including the black widow.

Black widows are famous for their bite, with venom that is poisonous to people and their pets.  But it’s not an aggressive spider, so the chance of being bitten is very small.

Claudia Copley, an entomology collection manager at the Royal BC Museum, says black widow spiders are not interested in humans.

“In fact, they’re quite afraid of us. Their goal is to eat insects, and other arthropods, and not bite people.”

The Royal BC Museum has black widow spiders from many places in the province in its collection.

“Places you might expect,” says Copley, “Like Kamloops and Penticton and Osoyoos, but we even have them from Vancouver Island.

“There’s one place on Vancouver Island that has the densest population of black widow spiders that we know – the western black widow – and that’s Island View Beach.

“Sometimes under one piece of driftwood, you can find as many as ten individuals.”

A University of Toronto doctoral student, Catherine Scott, is working with a partner to study this population.

“They look under the logs, and they have samples set out, and they’re doing all kinds of behavioural research with them there. Catherine likes to call it ‘Eat Prey Love’ and ‘prey’ is spelt with an ‘e-y,” Copley said.

“When people think of black widows, they think ‘oh, that’s a spider I can recognize. They’re shiny black with a bright red hourglass.’ But the male doesn’t look anything like her, he’s a really stripey handsome little fellow, and young black widows look like the male,” Copley said.

And in our region, Copley explains that even the female black widow might not have the hourglass marking.

“It might be reduced to two red spots, or it might have no markings at all.”

Black widow spiders can live up to three years. Copley hopes if we see one, we leave it alone.

“There’s no reason to be scared of black widows. In fact, there’s a famous saying that ‘if you kill the predators of pests, then you inherit their work,'” Copley said. So if we don’t want spiders around, then we’ll have to kill all those animals that spiders eat, and that’s everything we don’t like, like wasps and flies and grasshoppers, and things like that.”

Learn more about Catherine Scott’s research here.

And while the chances of being bitten are extremely rare, it is advised that you seek medical attention.

According to Copley, the bite itself is not painful ? a minor pinprick – but because it is a neurotoxin, the effect of the venom can be.

Symptoms you might experience include:

· difficulty breathing, which is due to paralysis of the diaphragm
· nausea
· chills
· a severe increase in blood pressure
· a headache, which may be partially due to a change in blood pressure
· sweating
· weakness
· a fever

But Copley emphasizes again that the chance of being bitten is very small.

“I have never met someone who has been bitten by a black widow, not even the people who work with them for research and handle them all the time.”

Veronica CooperVeronica Cooper

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