I hunt black widow spiders. When I find one, I capture it. I have found them in discarded car wheels and under railroad ties. I have found them in house foundations and cellars, in automotive shops and toolsheds, against fences and in cinder block walls. As a boy I used to lift the iron lids that guarded underground water meters, and there in the darkness of the meter wells I would often see something round as a flensed human skull, glinting like chipped obsidian, scarred with a pair of crimson triangles that touched each other to form an hourglass: the widow as she looks in shadow. A quick stir with a stick would trap her for a few seconds in her own web, long enough for me to catch her in a jar.
When I walk the paved paths in a certain landscaped park in my hometown, a hot day will sometimes show me a sparkle that vanishes with any slight change of angle, and near it some windblown garbage will be lodged in the crags of a piece of granite or in the sandy dirt gathered by a prickly pear. A minute's investigation reveals that garbage, stone, cactus, and earth are all held together by an almost invisible web, at the corner of which the clawed tips of a black widow's sleek legs protrude from some crevice. To catch a widow in this situation, I have to find a live insect and toss it into her web. Only after she has come out to kill the insect and is lost in the business of biting and wrapping do I have a good chance of catching her; otherwise, she is too quick to retreat to her hiding place.
In the dry Oklahoma Panhandle, I found one under the threshold of my back door. It thrust its forelegs into the kitchen to threaten the pencil I prodded it with. Years later, when I lived in the humid Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, my wife and I had taken a new apartment, and a second before Tracy sat down on our new threshold I recognized those black lines, which might have been cracks in the cement, as a widow's legs: I yanked the spider out and captured it in a coffee can.
I have found widows on playground equipment, in a hospital, in the lair of a rattlesnake, and once on the bottom of the lawn chair I was sitting in as I looked at some widows I had captured elsewhere that day.
Sometimes I raise a generation or two in captivity. The egg sacs contain multitudes of pinpoint cannibals. Growing for several days on the residual energy of the egg yolk they consumed before hatching, they molt before ever eating. The mass of them appears as a dirty cloud at the center of the egg sac, gradually expanding into a visibly moving stain that fills the sac. They live in their private sphere for about five days before they venture out into the world through a single, perfectly round hole chewed by one precocious sister, and as they leave they trail fine silk that gleams with the sun, the group of them producing a glimmering tangle like a model of an electron cloud, the empty sac its nucleus. After a day in that tight formation, they drift away from each other.
They grow rapidly, the most successful eaters shucking a skin every few days. They begin as swirls of light brown and cream, then darken with each molt, resolving into brown with white spots. A white hourglass is soon clear on the belly. In the females, a pale orange hue dawns in the center of the hourglass with succeeding molts; the brown rapidly darkens. The orange deepens to red, like a sunset, and spreads outward to infect the entire hourglass. As adults their black is broken only by the crimson hourglass and, depending on the individual, perhaps a few other specks or stripes of red or a white dot. The male may retain his infant colors, or he may grow black and sport a psychedelic array of red, gold, and white marks.
I separate the siblings before they mature, usually when three or four remain from the original cannibal brood. It's not chance that causes these few to survive. From the beginning they were bigger, stronger, more aggressive than their sibs, and grew faster. Wild widows eat nothing for the first few days except each other; even in captivity, given plenty of small insects, the spiders prefer the taste of their sibs. The teeming masses of humbler spiderlings exist to feed the voracious few. Now I feed these few on bigger game, starting with houseflies and mosquitoes and progressing to larger insects such as crickets and bumblebees.
But I don't dare open the container until they have done their culling. Once, I let eleven egg sacs hatch out in a container about eighteen inches on a side, a tight wooden box with a sliding glass top. As I tried to move the box one day, I tripped. The lid slid off and I fell, hands first, into the mass of young widows. Most were still translucent cream-and-brown newborns. A few of the females were bigger and darker, but not yet black. Tangles of broken web clung to my forearms, and the spiderlings moved among my arm hairs like trickling water.
Most of them were surely too small in the jaw to puncture my skin, but they had their toxin. The poison is there from the beginning. In the old days of the American West, Gosiute warriors ground the eggs onto their arrowheads to make them deadly.
I walked out into the open air and raised my arms into the stiff wind. The widows answered the wind with new strands of web and drifted away, their bodies gold in the afternoon sun. In about ten minutes my arms carried nothing but old web and the husks of spiderlings eaten by their sibs.
I have never been bitten. The black widow has an ugly web. The orb weavers make those seemingly delicate nets that poets have traditionally used as symbols of imagination, order, and perfection. The sheet-web spiders weave crisp linens on grass and bushes. But the widow makes messy-looking tangles in the corners and bends of things and under logs and debris. Often the web is littered with leaves. Beneath it lie the husks of insect prey cut loose and dropped, their antennae stiff as gargoyle horns; on them and the surrounding ground are splashes of the spider's white urine, which looks like bird guano and smells of ammonia even at a distance of several feet. This fetid material draws scavengers--ants, crickets, roaches, and so on--which become tangled in vertical strands of silk reaching from the ground to the main body of the web. Sometimes these vertical strands break and recoil, hoisting the new prey as if on a bungee cord. The widow comes down and, with a bicycling of the hind pair of legs, throws gummy silk onto the victim.
When the prey is seriously tangled but still struggling, the widow cautiously descends and bites the creature, usually on a leg joint. This bite pumps neurotoxin into the victim, paralyzing it; it remains alive but immobile for what follows. As the creature's struggles diminish, the widow delivers a series of bites, injecting digestive fluids. Finally she will settle down to suck the liquefied innards out of the prey, changing position two or three times to get it all.
Before the eating begins, and sometimes before the slow venom quiets the victim, the widow usually moves the meal higher into the web. She attaches some line to the prey with a leg-bicycling toss, moves up the vertical web-strand that originally snagged the prey, crosses a diagonal strand upward into the cross-hatched main body of the web, and here secures the line. Then she hauls on the attached line to raise the prey so that its struggles cause it to touch other strands. She has effectively moved a load with block and tackle. The operation occurs in three dimensions--as opposed to the essentially two-dimensional operations of the familiar orb weavers.
You can't watch the widow in this activity very long without realizing that its web is not a mess at all, but an efficient machine. It allows complicated uses of leverage, and also, because of its complexity of connections, lets the spider feel a disturbance anywhere in the web--usually with enough accuracy to tell at a distance the difference between a raindrop or leaf and viable prey. The web is also constructed in a certain relationship to movements of air, so that flying insects are drawn into it. This fact partly explains why widow webs are so often found in the facedown side of discarded car wheels--the wheel is essentially a vault of still air that protects the web, but the central hole at the top allows airborne insects to fall in. A clumsy flying insect, such as a June beetle, is especially vulnerable to this trap.
A widow's silk is strong, even by the steel-surpassing standards of the spider family. I once saw a stand of grass that seemed peculiarly matted together. It was full of wind-borne milkweed seeds and specks of chaff. As I came closer, I saw half-a-dozen grasshoppers lying at odd angles in the grass, their legs bent at painful angles and their feet generally not touching any surface. They looked as if they had been stuck there with dots of glue. I understood that I must be looking at a spiderweb, but I still couldn't see it. Only after I had looked from several different angles did the scene resolve itself into a rational arrangement, like an M.C. Escher painting in reverse.
A couple of the grasshoppers were dead and dry. Three were struggling, their great hind legs rocking and straining against the web. Another was not moving. I stared at him in the shadows of the grass, and soon I discerned a widow perched on the "knee" of his hind leg like an enormously ripe black blister. She was perfectly still. After a second she relinquished her hold on this victim and climbed toward another.
The web was shivering with the struggles of the three remaining grasshoppers. The widow visited each of them, her combed hind legs hurling silk at them in almost invisibly fine strands. The largest hopper, about three inches not counting appendages, had a charcoal-gray body with red marks. It had almost kicked free. A bubble of brown fluid--"tobacco juice," my childhood friends and I used to call it--shimmered between its mandibles and then smeared messily along a strand of web. The widow circled this big one, made a halfhearted toss of silk, and returned to the less formidable hoppers. The big one made a sustained and strenuous flurry of kicks. The widow paused, apparently gripping the web with all her legs. The web did not relent, but the hopper's right hind leg wrenched loose, and he fell free.
The others did not escape. One of them also managed to tear off his own leg, but both leg and body remained snared. As I walked away, flights of grasshoppers burst from other clumps of grass at my approach, swinging whichever way the wind carried them. The ebb of such a flight must have provided the widow's windfall.
Widows adapt their webs to the opportunities of their neighborhoods. Some choose building sites according to indigenous smells. Webs turn up, for example, in piles of trash and rotting wood, the web holding together a camouflage of leaves, dirt, or bark. A few decades ago the widow was notorious for building its home in another odorous habitat--outdoor toilets. Until the 1970s the outhouse was the source of the majority of black widow bites in the United States. (The outhouse is still the likeliest place to get bitten in parts of Africa and Australia.) People were most often bitten on the genitals or buttocks, with men suffering more bites than women for the obvious anatomical reasons. The widow would make a web under the seat or across the hole of the toilet. The insect-attracting odors, combined with a design that funneled insects through a single entrance, provided ample prey, and the darkness of the setting pleased the widow's sensibilities.
When part of a human body intruded on the web, the widow would often treat it as prey and bite it. In other cases, the human intruder would crush the widow, provoking a defensive bite. My grandmother, who grew up in rural Oklahoma and lived in a dugout and in other houses without plumbing in her youth, told me that some people would habitually take a stick to the outhouse with them. Before conducting the business for which they had come, they would scrape under the seat and inside the hole with the stick, listening carefully for a sound like the crackling of paper in fire. This sound is unique to the widow's powerful web. Anybody with a little experience can tell a widow's work from another spider's by ear.
Man-made objects provide so many inviting angles and crevices for the widow that scientists consider it commensal to us, a generally harmless user of our inadvertent services.
Widows have colonized several islands by hitching rides in human vehicles. The South Atlantic island of Tristan da Cunha was considered free of widows until a botanical survey discovered some in 1968. The United States Coast and Geodetic Survey had brought satellite-tracking equipment to the island. The equipment had been used in Australia, which must be where red-back spiders climbed aboard. Red-back
is an Australian and Southeast Asian name for the black widow; the species found there has an extra red stripe like a bursting seam along its back. Widows can travel with large, aggressive animals armed with flyswatters because they have a talent for going unseen. They are so widespread, and are mentioned in the oral traditions of so many peoples, that they clearly did not wait for human help to conquer the world, but hitchhiked with us when they got the chance.
The widow is found in virtually every temperate or tropical place in the world, under such aliases as cherry spider, black wolf, twenty-four-hour spider, night stinger, shoe button spider, coal-black lady,
and many others. The name black widow
is only about a hundred years old in English, but similar names in Italian and Russian are much older. Twenty or thirty species of widow spiders exist, varying in color and other minor details. The United States has a red widow and a brownish-gray one, as well as three black species. But all of these species around the world have similar lifestyles, and all are dangerously toxic. Scientists group them in the genus Latrodectus,
a name that translates as something like "sneaky biter." The roots of that term go back to ancient Greece, where it was a name for vicious dogs.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Red Hourglass by Gordon Grice. . Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.