Nature Notes: Widows and Recluses

I would check each blackish spider to see if it had a red spot on its abdomen
Praying mantises hatch from an egg case. Some people buy them to control insect pests in their gardens. Joseph Nesbit

When I was a boy growing up in Mattituck I poked around everywhere and at everything, collecting many of the things I found, be they animate or inanimate, or, as they say in Twenty Questions, “animal, vegetable, or mineral.” 

I knew what each was after seeing or collecting it more than once, but I could not identify many by name, and none by its technical of scientific name. That came much later.

I knew what a spider was and could separate many different kinds by their appearance. Having learned about black widow spiders from media accounts early on, I would check each blackish spider to see if it had a red spot on its abdomen. I checked hundreds of dark colored spiders as a child; not one had any red on it. It was not until I taught at a community college in Salem, Ore., that I saw my first bona fide black widow up close and, in fact, began raising them in jars in the laboratory I worked out of.

When I came back to Long Island in 1974 as a professional terrestrial and marine ecologist I continued to examine every spider I came in contact with — no black widows. Then in the 1990s Stuart Vorphal called me up to say he had a black widow for me. He had lived here all his life and it was the first one he ever saw here. I was surprised to see that the red spot on the abdomen was on its back, not on the bottom as with the West Coast black widows. 

After that, I received a black widow report, sometimes with photos, every two or three years. They all had the red spot on the back, not the bottom. Rusty Hines, a surveyor, sent me a picture of one he found in his driveway. Another surveyor once brought me a black widow with its web of eggs. I took it home.

My house in Noyac has been occupied by one or more black widows ever since. One lived between window sashes for several years before disappearing a couple of years ago. As the reader may have already guessed, the common name for these poisonous spiders in the genus Latrodectos, found throughout much of America and elsewhere, comes from the fact that the female, after insemination by the male, frequently kills him and dines on his innards. In fact, prospective males can tell if she has eaten another by a scent from the silk in her web, which causes many of them to back off.

The large praying mantis, which itself is common to these parts, could also be named a widow if it weren’t for the fact that her posture so resembles someone praying. She, too, is known to devour her male mate after copulation. Nothing goes to waste, neither in the black widow household nor the female praying mantis’s. While we go out of our way to avoid contact with black widows, we don’t mind Mrs. Mantis because she feeds on a lot of insects that eat our flowering plants. She is our Lone Ranger of sorts.

Sexual habits of organisms in nature vary widely. Originally, humans were known for their “missionary” form of sexual contact, but in the modern world there are now many, many variants. 

Infrahumans, as we sometime refer to them, are still single-minded when it comes to their reproduction. For them, sex is solely about reproduction, not necessarily about pleasure and ecstasy. In other mammals, females come into “heat” mostly once a year, sex occurs, and the rest has to do with prenatal and postnatal development. It may sound boring to many of use neo-moderns, but it still works to keep the population going.

Many, many insects only have sex and reproduce once in a lifetime. This is especially true of the crane flies, an insect that resembles a giant mosquito and is known by that name in several parts of the world. 

My daughter, Angela, in San Francisco recently emailed me about a large number of giant mosquitoes suddenly appearing there. Having just witnessed a local crane fly eruption, I wrote to tell her what they were. Crane flies are harmless to humans. They don’t bite and many don’t get to feed after pupation into adults. They exist for the singular act of mating and then laying eggs, after which they die. We might think, “Not much of a life,” but it does work. Witness the fact that there are about 15,000 different species of crane flies worldwide.

To get back to poisonous spiders and away from reproduction for the moment, a second poisonous spider, the brown recluse, Loxosceles reclusa, has become just as common as the black widow in this area. I was bitten by one on my left leg just below the knee in my room at home a week ago. I’ve been bitten or stung by so many arthropods — ticks, mosquitoes, gnats, green-eyed flies, hornets, bees — hundreds of times over a long lifetime, but never bitten by a spider until I encountered the brown recluse in my room. It was an unusual bite; it hurt more than it itched. It swelled upward and outward, and became hard and discolored at the same time. I treated it like a tick bite. I lanced it, drained it, and soaked it in ethyl alcohol. After two days it was nothing more than a tiny pustule and gave not a shred of pain.

Black widow bites, on the one hand, can make one sick, feverish, and achy, and they hurt like the dickens. The brown recluse bite, if not treated immediately, can grow in size and depth to the extent where a limb needs to be amputated. You may ask how I know it was a brown recluse bite. I know because I have the culprit, about three-quarters of an inch long, wrapped up in a snug silky web and still very much alive, fastened to the outside of the windowpane closest to my bed.

If you would like my brown recluse, I might part with it, but only if you first agree to take care of it.


Larry Penny can be reached via email at