The Red Hourglass: Lives of the Predators - Gordon Grice (1999)
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 tool-sheds, 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.
Widows move around in their webs almost blind, yet they never make a misstep or get lost. In fact a widow knocked loose from its web does not seem confused; it will quickly climb back to its habitual resting place. Furthermore, widows never snare themselves, even though every strand of the web, except for the scaffolding, is a potential trap. A widow will spend a few minutes every day coating the clawed tips of its legs with the oil that lets it walk the sticky strands. It secretes the oil from its mouth, coating its legs like a cat cleaning its paws.
The human mind cannot grasp the complex functions of the web, but must infer them. The widow constructs it by instinct. A ganglion smaller than a pin-head—it’s too primitive to be called a brain—contains the blueprints, precognitive memories the widow unfolds out of itself into actuality. I have never dissected with enough precision or delicacy to get a good specimen of the black widow’s tiny ganglion, but I did glimpse one once. A widow was struggling to wrap a mantid when the insect’s forelegs, like scalpels mounted on lightning, sliced away the spider’s carapace and left exposed among the ooze of torn venom sacs a clear droplet of bloody primitive brain.
The cold was coming on. You could see it in the masses of black flies congregating on the wound I’d made by pruning an elm: the sap still ran with the heat, but the flies were slow enough to pick up with your fingers, slow with the premonition of a freezing still two days distant. Moths flocked at the marigolds in shivers of gray and brown; green bees crawled the flowers, their legs thickening with pollen; green and black grasshoppers the size of human fingers knocked against the fences; pale red ants swarmed the fading grass around their sandy hills, their motion frantic but much slower than during the summer mating flights. Everything was in the state it maintains for perhaps three days in the autumn, that state of reckless swarm and copulation and feeding slowed by the death already unfolding in the insects’ ephemeral bodies.
One day I came to see a black widow I’d been watching for a month or so. Her home was in a wooden gate. The web stretched across the front of it and into its interstices and crevices. Most of the silk was hidden between boards. I hadn’t seen the widow for a few days. She had probably mated and crawled into some tight space near the ground to winter; she would lay her eggs in the spring. I began to tear down the web, using a stick in case I was wrong about her departure, and the sound was like a staticky radio. As I dragged the stick through cracks in the gate, desiccated prey fell out on the sidewalk. I examined the webbed carcasses of beetles, gnats, lacewings, ants, and a male black widow. Then I knocked loose something unusual.
It was a paper nest. The brown-and-yellow wasps that build such nests are social. The queen wasp builds the first two or three cells—each a hexagonal cylinder hanging with the open end down—of chewed wood pulp and saliva, deposits eggs in them, and feeds the larvae that hatch with chewed-up insects and spiders. I once stole a nest of larvae. Their wormlike bodies were white, almost iridescent, and their heads were hard brown orbs with two dark nubs of undeveloped eyes and four fingerlike mouthparts waving hungrily. I fed them drops of milk-and-sugar from the tip of a sewing needle. They sucked it down hungrily and then waved their heads around, mouthing for more. Sometimes the drop would fall off prematurely and mantle their white “shoulders.” They would wrench their heads in big arcs, futilely attempting to get at the milk. They looked disturbingly like kittens do before their eyes open.
I kept them alive this way for almost two weeks. They should have been ready to pupate, but I had no way to stimulate the hormonal changes that would have brought them to that state. In the wild, the queen or older sibs would have fed them the secretions of their own bodies that would not only transform them into adults but determine their gender—male, female, or the sterile, pseudofemale form of the worker wasp.
As a first generation of workers enters the pupal stage, the queen seals the cells with a papery cap. The adult wasp’s shape emerges slowly during pupation. (Imagine a figure carved in wax slowly melting into a shapeless mass—but imagine it happening backwards.) The process can be observed by tearing open older nests in which several generations of wasps are at different stages of pupation. The ones nearly ready to wake are hard and their colors vague; they look like mummified adults folded into fetal position.
The first generation of workers emerges from pupation to take on the duties of guarding the nest, gathering food, and caring for younger sibs. The queen becomes a specialist in egg-laying and does little else.
A worker stings by shoving its specialized ovipositor into the enemy’s flesh. It injects an acidic toxin that kills most insect-sized enemies quickly. To a human, the sting feels like a burn from an inextinguishable match imbedded in the skin.
The wasps that live through the winter are a new generation of queens, reared through the larval stage before the cold hits and left to pupate. The workers and the old queen die off gradually, lingering in the gathering cold, moving in slow motion as parts of their bodies freeze, blacken, and wither. In the spring the new queens chew out of their cells to disperse and found new nests, or sometimes to stay in the same nest. There, one conniver gains dominance by secretly eating her sisters’ eggs. It’s like a Bette Davis movie in miniature.
The nest that fell out of the black widow’s web had died at the moment of awakening. That much was clear because a dozen adult queen wasps lay dead in sealed cells, while one was dead in mid-emergence. This one had chewed her way out of her cell. Her next step should have been to crawl into sunlight, spreading her wings to gather the energizing heat. But while the wasps lay dormant in the early spring, the black widow chose the gate for a web site. She had built her web across the wasp nest, anchoring many strands on its surface. In fact, she had covered the nest so tightly that most of the wasps couldn’t emerge. Several of them had chewed away the paper caps of their cells only to be held in by the strands of web. The widow must have detected the one wasp on the edge of the paper nest emerging. The wasp was webbed up, half out of the cell, but with her wings and stinger still trapped inside. The tough silk looped around her antennae like a lariat around a longhorn steer’s rack. The widow had probably killed her with a bite on the joint where the antenna bends—this is the widow’s favorite way to attack wasps, suggesting that she knows about the danger of the stinger. This wasp was structurally undamaged, but pale and hollow: when I held her to the light, the light passed through.
The rest of the wasps had died in their cells, either starved or eaten alive. It wasn’t the widow that had eaten them; it was some band of scavengers. Unlike their emergent compeer, these wasps had mostly been gnawed from the stinger down toward the head. Something had started from the base of the nest and eaten the paper, moving down into the cells. The unknown scavengers apparently made no distinction between paper and wasps, for some of the wasp bodies had been eaten—some of them only halfway. In a few cells the scavengers had reached the wasps’ heads, devoured them, and gnawed through the paper caps below. The tiny, round openings the scavengers made were easy to distinguish from the sheared holes made by a wasp’s mandibles.
Some of the scavengers had crawled out onto the lower surface of the wasp nest—a bad move, as it turned out. The widow had killed a good number of them. Unlike the wasp’s, these creatures’ exoskeletons did not remain intact once their moisture had been siphoned out. Their remains were scattered fragments of chitin I couldn’t readily identify.
I called an entomologist for help. He mentioned parasitic wasps that devour larger wasps as they hibernate. These clearly were not the culprits here, because my vandals had been just as interested in paper as in protein. The entomologist also suggested a few scavenging varieties of beetles and caterpillars. Some tiny beetles, for example, make a habit of ruining insect collections.
The beetle hypothesis matched the remains I had found. As I looked at the mysterious fragments of chitin again, I saw that their shapes could easily be the hollowed-out abdomens and thoraxes and wing cases of beetles. The question seemed settled. Up to this point I had tried not to damage the wasp nest too much, since I might thereby miss some detail that would help me solve the mystery, but now I went about dismantling it. As I extracted the wasp carcasses, I noticed a whitish gleam at the tops of their cells. I cut away a few cell walls with scissors. I poked into the whitish mass. Was it caterpillar silk? If so, I would have to change my beetle hypothesis.
Suddenly a white spider with brown spots emerged and went waddling across my hand. Its tiny body was almost all abdomen, a soft abdomen with textured bands that resembled rolls of fat. It wasn’t a black widow. It was a member of a common species I had seen many times before, in the corners behind furniture or under pieces of siding, a creature so unobtrusive it has no common name.
After capturing the little spider, I reinspected the silk on the wasp nest. The silk on the surface was, as I had assumed, the tough fiber of the black widow, and the widow had definitely scored the emergent wasp and some of the scavenging beetles. But inside many of the cells were tiny snares made of softer silk, the delicate work of the little white spider. Thanks to the tunneling of those paper-eating scavengers, a cavity joined most of the cells at the top, and in this cavity the white spider had been living. His web held the remains of dozens of the beetles. It was an ideal arrangement for the two spiders, the smaller protected from the larger by the remains of the wasp nest, both feeding on what must have been a great wealth of prey—a symbiosis between two predators, each presumably unaware of the other.
The widow had, by its choice of web site, exterminated a half-dozen queen wasps who might have produced nests of their own and who should at this season be dying off, having seen larval daughters into pupation.
I found a similar case of miniature genocide in a widow’s web built over the egg case of a mantid. The egg case was about the length of a large paper clip—an oval mound of beige lying unobtrusively on the piece of wood to which it was attached. A single case can hold two hundred eggs. The young mantids had emerged from the egg case, and dozens of small, thready knots in the widow web showed what had happened to them.
Widows have been known to snare and eat mice, frogs, snails, tarantulas, lizards, snakes—almost anything that wanders into that remarkable web. I have never witnessed a widow performing a gustatory act of that magnitude, but I have seen them eat scarab beetles heavy as pecans, cockroaches more than an inch long, bumblebees, camel crickets, and hundreds of other arthropods of various sizes. I have seen widows eat butterflies and ants that most spiders reject on the grounds of bad flavor. I have seen them conquer spider-eating insects such as adult mantids and mud dauber wasps. The combination of web and venom enables widows to overcome predators whose size and strength would otherwise overwhelm them.
Among the widow’s more interesting habitual enemies is a certain carabid, or ground, beetle. There are thousands of species of carabids, but the one I’m talking about runs about the size of a domino, with mandibles over a quarter of an inch. A pair of these serrated mandibles resembles the claw of a crab. They pinch shut with unbelievable force.
I became interested in these beetles one particularly wet May when an abundance of earthworms writhed all over the sidewalks and the grass. The worms congregated by the dozens under rocks and lawn furniture, a few of them hobbled in their conjugations, the rest slithering away into the wet earth at any intrusion. Looking at earthworms in the loose upper layer of soil, stirring among their castings, I disturbed many carabid beetles. They would storm off when I uncovered them, somehow thrusting the substantial bulk of their black bodies, gleaming with the dampness of the earth, into the ground within a second or two of being exposed. When I tried to dig them out, they had already vanished, as if they’d converted themselves into bits of the fertile earth they lived in.
Their mandibles marked them as predators. I looked for them and found them abundant: here a carabid dismantling the grub of a June beetle, its mandibles cutting the grub as easily as scissors would; there another snipping an earthworm in half. I captured one carabid by harassing him with a stick. He seized the stick between his mandibles and did not let go until after I had lifted him into a jar.
His predatory habits were spectacular. He would attack any moving thing immediately. I offered adult June beetles. The carabid would rush one, seize it, and work his mandibles over the June beetle’s body until he had a grip on the juncture of abdomen and thorax. Then he would squeeze until the June beetle broke in half with a loud crack. He would lap the juice out of the abdomen as the head and thorax of the dismembered prey crawled away in a panic.
The carabid’s next victim was a tomato hornworm, which is actually the caterpillar of a gigantic sphinx moth. The caterpillar was about the size of my middle finger. I removed it from a tomato plant in our garden and placed it on the lip of a two-gallon can. It rippled around, gripping the brim of the can, making a complete circle in a few seconds. It did not stop.
I left it and returned two hours later to find the creature still circling, its pace and path unaltered. The huge green caterpillar might have crept endlessly in its circle. Picking it up gently, I set it back on the lip pointing in the opposite direction. It circled, and circled again….
I decided the caterpillar was too stupid to live. I put it into the carabid beetle’s container. The caterpillar was much larger, but it had no means of defense. The carabid sliced into it and lapped at its leaking blood. Because the caterpillar was so big, the carabid had to repeat his attack eight or ten times. The caterpillar crawled away frantically for the first few wounds, but it was so slow that its movements hardly inconvenienced the beetle drinking from its bleeding flank. After ten minutes or so the caterpillar lay still. Its jade flesh turned black as the beetle chewed and drained it. After half an hour the entire body was a black heap about a quarter of its original size. It lay in the dirt like an empty burlap sack. The beetle stood with his head raised and his mandibles flexing. He looked something like a bellowing bull and might have been humorous if he hadn’t just committed an awesome display of predation.
The carabid was insatiable, and I eventually offered him a great variety of prey. He tried to eat a small toad but couldn’t get a good enough grip to kill it. Once I put the carabid in a jar with a large gray wolf spider. The spider was missing a leg because I had injured it in the capture. The next morning the carabid was circling the jar looking for his next meal; all that remained of the big spider were seven gray legs.
In late autumn, as the supply of prey was running out, I realized I would have to sacrifice either the carabid or one of the widows I was also keeping. The choice was not mine; I could only put the carabid in with a widow and see which fed and which died.
The fight, if it can be called that, was over in about three minutes. The heavy carabid was half a foot above ground, arching his body against the gummy strands that had hoisted him. His mandibles slashed and scissored at the web, doing no damage at all. The widow circled just out of range of his mandibles and his kicking legs, picking her chances to hurl silk strategically. Soon she had his mandibles roped shut. Reaching delicately past that awesome and now useless set of hardware, she bit him on an antenna. He thrashed a minute longer, and then was food enough to last her through the winter.
Since then I have noticed the remains of carabid beetles in or beneath widow webs many times. The hard black exoskeletons seem immune to erosion and decay; they lie in piles of rot for months, maybe years, without losing their striking luster. Once I removed the head of a carabid, now hollow and dry, from a widow web and found two narrow strips of what looked like transparent tape projecting from the rear of the head. When I tugged on these, I realized they were the tendons that controlled the mandibles. I used them like puppet strings to make the disembodied head bite. It would pick up pencils, twigs, and bits of gravel this way. I even put my little finger between the mandibles and caused the beetle head to bite me, but it wasn’t painful. I couldn’t generate nearly as much force as a live carabid can, with the tendons anchored far back in the thorax.
The widow routinely knocks off larger predators, but, like every other animal in the world, it sometimes serves as an entrée for something else.
The mantid is a unique danger because of its unusual weaponry, but even this superpredator doesn’t always survive the widow. Widows are sometimes paralyzed by mud daubers and other wasps, who use them as live food for their larval young. The innocuous-looking daddy longlegs spider and some of its kin are said to eat widows, as are certain lizards.
A century or so ago, when black widows and various other small and mysterious predators had been insufficiently studied and most people had only the exaggerations of folklore to go on, people would stage fights between such predators, creating a Colosseum spectacle in miniature. The participants included Gila monsters, widows, tarantulas, scorpions, small rattlesnakes, and mantids. One can find similar activities mentioned in histories and travelogues from various cultures. Tarantula fighting is supposedly still common in the Philippines, and the Chinese had an elaborate system for the sport of mantid fighting.
The battles between the mini-superpredators in the United States were generally staged for gambling purposes or as advertising gimmicks (one such fight went on in the window of a general store). We know about them mostly from newspaper stories, which covered them as curiosities or sporting events; I’ve even seen a paper from an Old West town in which a bug fight was the lead story on page one. The fights could last days— or, if mutually uninterested combatants were chosen, past the tolerance of the observers. Outcomes varied according to the method of staging, but the widow, smallest in the field of competitors, fared respectably. Even rattlesnakes proved vulnerable to the widow’s venom.
While such spectacles no longer meet the average editor’s requirements for serious journalism, people still stage them for gambling or just for their private amusement. I came across a reference to this practice in a 1993 article in Harper’s Magazine. The article is about a man who stole thousands of rare books from libraries, but it mentions in passing that he and a traveling companion, while stopping in Amarillo, Texas, tried unsuccessfully to make a widow and a tarantula fight in a coffee can. The book thief’s mistake was in not giving either spider an environment suited to its hunting methods. Since this diversion is pretty much irrelevant to the article’s main subject, I suppose it was included to show just how strange the book thief was, or perhaps to show how people behave in Amarillo.
Another participant in these contests was the wind-scorpion. This creature is known, where it is known at all, by many names: solpugid (“sundagger”), sunspider, and matavenado (Spanish for “deer-killer,” though it does no such thing). It is actually neither a scorpion nor a spider. It constitutes a separate family within the arachnid class that contains both. Superficially, it resembles a spider, and its hunting habits are similar to those of wolf spiders—though the windscorpion can grow up to five or six inches long. But a closer look (which is hard to get: the animal is nocturnal and the fastest runner of all the arthropods) shows an upswept, segmented abdomen like a scorpion’s. The pedipalps, the leglike feelers at the front end, are clubbed and sticky, for nabbing prey. Two prominent eyes sit above enormous jaws, proportionately the largest found in any known animal; in one specimen I collected, the jaws constituted one-third the total body length. The windscorpion kills by the mechanical injury it inflicts with these instruments. It has no venom.
In the desert of the American Southwest, windscorpions and widows thrive—both love heat. The two predators compete for the available insect prey, and they also readily devour each other. The windscorpion is an avid eater of widows. It chews them into scribbles of skewed legs and pulp, sucking down body fluids that literally are poisonous enough to kill a horse, but that have no adverse effect on the windscorpion. However, even windscorpions have a less-than-sterling record against the widow, which frequently snares and eats them. In many deserts around the world, true scorpions make this a three-way rivalry. Seven-inch scorpion husks have been found in widow webs.
A widow’s most dangerous enemy is another widow. An adult female will fight any other female who crowds her, and the winner often eats the loser. I am told that staged fights between widows are still a popular entertainment in Mexico: children put the widows on a stick and pass it around so everyone can see. Sometimes one female ties another up and leaves without killing her. I’ve seen this happen several times with widows in captivity, and in the wild I once came across what looked like a black pearl wrapped in silk on a red fence. When I peeled off the silk, the pearl unfolded its legs and rushed away. Another time I saw a female widow bind another and bite her on a leg joint, just as she would do to a prey item, and then leave without feeding. Soon the beaten widow stretched her legs, shrugged off her fetters, and walked away, becoming the only arthropod I’ve ever seen survive a widow’s bite.
The widow gets her name by eating her mate, though this does not always happen. When a male matures with his last molt, he abandons his sedentary web-sitting ways. He spins a little patch of silk and squeezes a drop of sperm-rich fluid onto it. Then he sucks the fluid into the knobs at the ends of his pedipalps and goes wandering in search of females. When he finds a web, he recognizes it as that of a female of the appropriate species by scent—the female’s silk is laden with pheromones. Before approaching the female, the male tinkers mysteriously at the edge of her web for a while, cutting a few strands, balling up the cut silk, and otherwise altering attachments. Apparently he is sabotaging the web so the vibratory messages the female receives will be imprecise. He thus creates a blind spot in her view of the world. This tactic makes it harder for her to find and kill him. Then he’s ready to approach her. He distinguishes himself from ordinary prey by playing her web like a lyre, stroking it with his front legs and vibrating his belly against the strands.
I came upon one courtship in progress. The male was brown and white. A broad white bar marked the midline of his back; the hourglass on his belly was white. He tapped his two front legs on the web before him like a blind man tapping his cane. The female was near the tubular retreat in a sheltered corner of her web. She responded by staying still. He approached and turned to bicycle his hind legs, roping her legs with fine silk. She stirred briefly, as if settling in her sleep, the strands of web he’d thrown sliding off her; he fled to the far side of her web and hung there licking the tips of his claws. The next time he approached, the female responded to his leg-tapping with a tap of her own foreleg—the same move she would make if she suspected prey at hand. Its impact on the web sent him running again.
He never gave up, but approached her time after time. Sometimes he retreated for no reason visible to me. Sometimes she seemed momentarily hypnotized by his tapping routine; other times she tensed as if she had detected prey and were “listening” to the vibrations of her web for a direction. I counted over one hundred retreats before an appointment forced me to leave. The next morning I looked at the web. The female was nowhere in sight. At the center of the web hung a small bundle of silk from which a number of translucent legs protruded. I removed the bundle carefully, the web tearing with its characteristic dry crackle. Once I had unwrapped the male’s body, I found little structural damage to the exoskeleton. It had turned golden instead of brown with the loss of blood and organs. The palps were still dark and round and probably full.
No explanation for the female black widow’s unpredictable response has held up for long. Sometimes she eats the male without first copulating; sometimes she snags him as he withdraws his palp from her genital pore; sometimes he leaves unharmed after mating. Scientists used to assume the female only ate the male if she had already mated with a different male, or if she was particularly hungry. But no such pattern has proved true. Recently fed virgin females sometimes eat males.
I have witnessed male and female living in apparently platonic relationships in one web. Sometimes the male’s attempts to mate, and the female’s attempts to run him off, last for days or weeks before some decisive ending occurs. Occasionally a male will devour a female in captivity. Whether this occurs in the wild I don’t know, but such abortion of future generations obviously couldn’t be very common.
Captivity may play an enormous part in our understanding of widow mating—or, rather, our misunderstanding. In the wild, a male will quickly run away after mating. A researcher named R. G. Breene found that captive males, if removed from the container of a female, could breed repeatedly, fertilizing the eggs of a whole series of females. He proposed that this outcome is the normal one, and that sexual cannibalism, while it does happen occasionally, is fairly unusual. The high incidence of mate-eating found by scientists in laboratories, says Breene, can be explained by the sealed containers used in labs. The male can’t escape as he naturally would, and sooner or later he gets eaten. Breene has even suggested that John Henry Comstock, the arachnologist who popularized the name black widow around 1900, was observing under just such misleading conditions and used his misinformation to foist the “widow” name onto the general public. Breene suggests males eaten in the wild are generally malnourished or sick. Though he doesn’t go this far, his notion would allow us to see the female’s cannibalistic brand of romance as an instance of natural selection, with the female scourge culling imperfect males from the gene pool before they mate, or at least before they mate again.
Breene’s position is weakened by the more-than-occasional observation of sexual cannibalism in the wild—I’ve seen it several times, and so have others. I used to keep a male and female of breeding age in a mustard jar together, and they never injured each other, disproving Breene’s idea that the captive situation invariably produces cannibalism. And then there’s the red-back.
The red-back widow of Australia enacts a startling variation on the motif of mate murder. When the red-back male has inserted the tip of his palp into the female’s genital pore, he does a somersault, bringing his abdomen to the female’s fangs. She bites him and begins to digest and suck out his innards while they are still copulating. He sacrifices himself, perhaps helping to ensure protein and calories enough for the female to lay eggs.
Then again, scientists have not been able to show an increase in egg-laying among females who have eaten males, which are, after all, skimpy—often the female outweighs the male by a factor of fifty. Another theory is that the males hold the females’ attention longer, and are allowed to copulate longer, by offering their bodies as a sort of diversion. Their self-sacrifice reduces the mating opportunities of rival males.
None of the widows I’ve been around has sacrificed itself the way the red-back sometimes does, but the strategy should still work. A female whose time is taken up by an elaborate series of threats and retreats before mating doesn’t have time to receive other prospective mates. A freshly mated female who’s busy eating suitor number one may not want to be disturbed at her meal by suitor number two. In this view, the most genetically successful males are those who occupy the female’s attention longest, even if it means sticking around to become a meal.
Mating is the last thing a male does. Once he’s left his web to seek mates, he never eats again; and whether he finds females or not, he is already wasting away, collapsing toward his preordained life-limit, which is marked by the coming of the cold.
Many widows will eat as much as opportunity gives. One aggressive female I collected on the back porch of my parents’ house had an abdomen a little bigger than a pea. She snared a huge cockroach and spent several hours subduing it, then three days consuming it. Her abdomen swelled to the size of a largish marble, its glossy black stretching to a tight red-brown. With a different widow, I decided to see whether that appetite was really insatiable. I collected dozens of large crickets and grasshoppers and began to drop them into her web at a rate of one every three or four hours. After catching and consuming her tenth victim, this bloated widow fell from her web and landed on her back. She remained in this position for hours, making only feeble attempts to move. Then she died.
The widow’s appetite is connected to its reproductive prowess: the more a female eats after mating, the more eggs she can lay. I rarely find a black widow in the wild with more than two or three egg sacs, but in captivity, where the spiders’ work of fighting the elements and repairing the web is reduced and the prey abundant, I’ve seen them produce many more. Some widows lay eggs until their bellies shrivel like raisins and they die. When an egg sac is taken away from a widow, she lays a new clutch that night. As long as the female widow keeps eating, she can make more eggs, but the last clutch or two in a long series are usually sterile. The greatest number of sacs I have seen one female produce is nine, of which six hatched a normal number of spiderlings. From the seventh a small brood of a dozen hatched. The eighth and ninth sacs proved sterile.
The female starts her egg-laying ritual by spinning the beginnings of the sac—a short stem from which hangs a flat patch of webbing like a lace doily. Working belly-up, the widow lays her egg mass on the lower surface of this patch. The egg mass slowly squeezes out of the genital pore in the middle of the belly. It is a gooey substance in which no individual eggs are visible, and it comes out in a nearly perfect orb. The process resembles the blowing of a bubble with chewing gum, but can last hours. The egg mass, which is the color of butterscotch pudding or a little lighter, sticks to the silk platform.
After resting, the widow returns to work on the sac. Hanging beneath the egg mass in the usual belly-up position, she pokes the spinnerets that tip her abdomen at the edge of the platform and squirts silk at it. This silk is fine; as it comes out and adheres to the platform, you can see the individual fibers accreting into a lacy tangle. The edge of the structure always has spaces like those in lace, but the rest is solid; somehow, the silk dries into an unbroken, waterproof fabric. Its texture is like nothing else the widow spins; it is somewhere between paper and linen. As she adds to the platform, it grows to resemble an inverted goblet; then the goblet rounds in to form an orb, which does not touch the inner orb of the egg mass except at the original point of attachment. You can see the darker egg mass inside the sac by holding it in front of a light.
After the egg sac dries, it usually has a smooth surface with a single nipple at its starting point. Its color darkens a bit; the darkest become light brown or manila, and others remain almost white. Its fabric is tough; when you tear into it, you can see intricate layers within. The egg mass inside slowly dries, resolving itself into individual eggs that look like the grains of sand in an hourglass.
I worked as a groundskeeper at a hospital one summer when I was in college. One day I was cleaning out a cement pit that opened onto the basement laundry. The pit was full of dead leaves and discarded containers and other trash, and the vents from the laundry poured steam onto me as I swept. Whiptail lizards as long as my hand would streak out of the trash and lodge a few feet from their original hiding places. One ran across my boots. I ran after him and dug through the pile of junk where he went to ground.
I forgot the harmless reptile when I turned over a five-gallon plastic bucket and found it filled with the web of an immature female widow, who hung at the center of the bucket, the bright hourglass nearly covering the ventral surface of her slender abdomen.
She did not seem to have noticed that I had turned her world upside down. I was shocked. I had been thrusting my hands into such junk all afternoon. I aimed the handle of a rake at the spider pool-cue style and with a tap converted her to a paste on the bottom of the bucket. I felt pleased about having dispatched her so economically, but soon I regretted it. She was, after all, a good-looking specimen, and I could have enjoyed watching her with a safe layer of glass between us. I told myself I had prevented the possibility of anyone else’s getting bitten, but, since no one but me would find himself cleaning out this hole in the ground in the near future, my rationalization didn’t entirely convince me.
I forgot this moral dilemma when I found a second widow. And a third, and a fourth and fifth. I captured them in discarded paper cups and styrofoam Big Mac containers (this was before McDonald’s became environmentally concerned). They were all immature, all colored brown and white except the one I had killed. I stashed them in some sunless corner so that I could retrieve them after work. Later, when I told my boss about seeing black widows, he said, “I hope you killed them.” I changed the subject.
I took those widows home after work and installed them in terraria. As the summer passed, I found other widows at the hospital. I found them on three sides of the building; I found them low and high; I found them at various ages.
One day I was cleaning out a latticed stone wall. I suppose it was designed to throw a lovely dappled shadow on the walk, but what it actually did was provide crevices for trash to lodge in when the wind got stiff. I reached into the wall’s triangular holes to fish out candy wrappers and floral-print Dixie cups that must have come from the hospital’s family room. The wall was thick; my hand went in up to the middle of my forearm. In a dazzling display of intelligence, I was working bare-handed.
I thrust my hand into the next triangular space and felt my finger brush something desiccated and velvety. I pulled my hand out immediately. I had no idea what I had touched. I had never felt anything like it. I looked into the hole.
A female widow hung in a torn web with dry leaves and a few scraps of shredded paper. It was the widow’s abdomen I had touched, but, because she had not re-treated at my intrusion, I knew she was dead. I pulled everything out of the hole.
The widow’s exoskeleton was in good shape, but it was dry. Her leaking blood had made a sugary crust where abdomen joined cephalothorax. She had simply died, as widows do after laying their last egg sacs. That last egg sac hung in the web too. It still held its globular shape, but its crisp beige had gone a little gray with age. A single pinhole showed that the spiderlings had left. I tore the sac open. The tiny individual eggs were visible, each broken open so that its shape was ruined, a neatly halved orange rind instead of a spherical orange. These shells had dried to a sandy grit. The web also held the wrapped carcasses of a few young black widows. They had been eaten by siblings or maybe by their mother in her last languid days.
The remaining spiderlings must have dispersed soon after hatching that spring, as young widows do after their infant phase of cannibalism. After crawling out of the wall, each produced a few filaments of web, which caught the wind; when the filaments had spun out long enough, the wind lifted strand and spiderling and carried them as far as it wanted to take them. This strategy for dispersal is called ballooning; it is common in spiders. Human balloonists have encountered ballooning spiderlings high in the atmosphere; scientists have found spiderlings hundreds of miles from their birth sites.
In the case of the black widow, it’s not unusual for the spiderlings to land very close to the mother’s nest, so that a parabola of new webs springs up on the ground downwind from the point of origin. A few years of this pattern of dispersal can infest miles of open ground. The widows can exist so close to each other because, even though they’re cannibals, they seldom leave their own webs. Infestations of this size crop up in grassy fields, and farmers have burned off stretches of pasture to destroy the black widows. Putting sheep or pigs on the fields is also supposed to clear them of widows. Sheep react only slightly to widow venom, probably because of their long evolutionary history of grazing low in the spidery grasses. Pigs are not immune, but a layer of subcutaneous fat tends to keep poisons out of their bloodstreams, so that they often survive the bite of a widow. Their rooting destroys widow webs. The U.S. Navy once arranged for men to clear an infested field with flamethrowers.
What I had been seeing at the hospital that summer was the dispersal of the widows in reverse. I had found the young early and then, near the end of the summer, discovered their nest of origin. Of course, some or all of the young widows I had found may have come from other nests; I’ll never know. But all the females I found there that were old enough to show their adult colors had the same pattern as the dead mother—no red marks except the double triangle on the belly.
The last few weeks of the summer I often noticed the wind. It made the roof of the building creak; it sent trash scudding around corners. It eddied into odd nooks of the building to deposit dirt and dead leaves. It stopped short, dropping things from high up—pine needles, dust, scraps of paper on which were written the names of diseases and drugs, bits of newspaper, dandelion seeds on their tufted parachutes, bits of animal fur, bits of gossamer.
The first thing people ask when they hear about my fascination with the widow is why I am not afraid. The truth is that my fascination is rooted in fear.
I have childhood memories that partly account for my fear. When I was six my mother took my sister and me to the cellar of our farmhouse and told us to watch as she killed a widow. With great ceremony she produced a long stick (I am tempted to say a ten-foot pole) and, narrating her technique in exactly the hushed voice she used for discussing religion or sex, went to work. Her flashlight beam found a point halfway up the cement wall where two marbles hung together—one crisp white, the other a glossy black. My mother ran her stick through the dirty silver web around them, and as it tore she made us listen to the crackle. The black marble rose on thin legs to fight off the intruder. As the plump abdomen wobbled across the wall, it seemed to be constantly throwing those legs out of its path. It gave the impression of speed and frantic anger, but actually a widow’s movements outside the web are slow and inefficient. My mother smashed the widow onto the stick and carried it up into the light. It was still kicking its remaining legs. She scraped it against the sidewalk, grinding it to a paste. Then she returned for the white marble: the widow’s egg sac. This, too, came to an abrasive end.
My mother’s purpose was to teach us how to recognize and deal with a dangerous creature we would probably encounter on the farm. But of course we also took the understanding that widows were actively malevolent, that they waited in dark places to ambush us, that they were worthy of ritual disposition, like an enemy whose death is not sufficient but must be followed with the murder of his children and the salting of his land and whose unclean remains must not touch our hands.
The odd thing is that so many people, some of whom presumably did not first encounter the widow in such an atmosphere of mystic reverence, hold the widow in awe. Various friends have told me that the widow always devours her mate, or that her bite is always fatal to humans—in fact, it rarely is, especially since the development of an antivenin. I have heard told for truth that goods imported from Asia are likely infested with widows and that women with bouffant hairdos have died of widow infestation. Any contradiction of such tales is received as if it were a proclamation of atheism.
Scientific researchers are not immune to the widow’s mythic aura. The most startling contribution to the widow’s mythical status I’ve ever encountered was Black Widow: Americas Most Poisonous Spider, a book by Raymond W. Thorpe and Weldon D. Woodson that appeared in 1945. This book apparently enjoyed respect in scientific circles. It was cited in scientific literature for decades after it appeared; its survey of medical cases and laboratory experiments was thorough. However, between their responsible scientific observations, the authors present the widow as a lurking menace with a taste for human flesh. “Mankind must now make a unified effort toward curtailment of the greatest arachnid menace the world has ever known,” they proclaim. The widow population is exploding, they announce with scant evidence, making it a danger of enormous urgency. Perhaps the most psychologically revealing passage is the authors’ quotation from another writer, who said the “deadliest Communists are like the black widow spider; they conceal their red underneath.”
We project our archetypal terrors onto the widow. It is black; it avoids the light; it is a voracious carnivore. Its red markings suggest blood. Its name, its sleek, rounded form invite a strangely sexual discomfort: the widow becomes an emblem for a man’s fear of extending himself into the blood and darkness of a woman, something like the vampire of Inuit legend that takes the form of a fanged vagina.
The widow’s venom is, of course, a soundly pragmatic reason for fear. People who live where the widow is common have known about its danger for centuries; from Russia to North America, folk wisdom carried warnings and remedies. However, the medical establishment was slow to accept the widow as a killer of humans. The creature seemed too small to be responsible for the things she was charged with—extravagant suffering, painful death. People bitten by the spider sometimes didn’t link it with the symptoms that developed hours later; if they did, doctors assured them the spider was not the cause.
Virtually all spiders use some sort of toxin to subdue prey; the question arachnologists were still debating into the twentieth century was whether any of these toxins, in the small doses delivered by spiders, could harm people. Many doctors treated black widow bites and believed their patients’ surmises about the source of the problem, but the larger scientific and medical community remained skeptical. The skeptics didn’t find the anecdotal evidence sufficient. They wanted definitive laboratory evidence, the kind that could be replicated. Starting in the late nineteenth century, many workers attempted to deliver such evidence in the form of animal experiments.
Reports of such animal tests—they still go on today, as scientists try to understand how the venom works— read like H. G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau. People have applied venom to monkey kidneys and lobster claws, to the iris of the eye of a rat and to the nerves of frogs and squid. They have poisoned rats, dissected them, liquefied heart, brain, spleen, liver, kidneys, lungs, and rump muscles separately, and injected them into other rats—all of which died except for those receiving the rump-muscle fluid. They have elicited venom from widows with electric shocks. They have given widows water laced with radioactive selenium and phosphorus and then counted the Geiger clicks in the organs of guinea pigs the widows killed. They have induced widows to bite laboratory rats on the penis, after which even the rats “appeared to become dejected and depressed.” They have injected animals with the blood of human widow victims; the animals reacted as if they themselves had been bitten. In one experiment, scientists caused rats to be bitten on the ankle; then, at intervals, they amputated the bitten legs at the knee, to see how fast the venom spread. Only those who lost their legs in the first five minutes were spared the full effects of the toxin. Even those amputated in the first fifteen seconds showed some symptoms.
Such experiments revealed the peculiar reactions of different animals to the venom. Rats become more sensitive to noise, so that they’re easily startled; they rub their snouts and twitch; they put their heads on the floor between their hind legs, as if expecting an air raid, before they die. Cats, those nocturnal hunters, come to fear the light. They crawl backwards, belly to the floor, howling, and then drop into a condition that in human schizophrenics is known as waxy flexibility. The animals remain catatonically still, holding any odd position the experimenter bends them into, before they, too, die. An early experimenter noted that cats exhibiting waxy flexibility don’t react to being poked and cut. Among the animals who find widow venom especially deadly are guinea pigs, mice, horses, camels, snakes, frogs, insects, and spiders, including the widow itself. Others, like dogs, sheep, and rabbits, can often survive a bite.
The meager reactions of some animals left skeptics room for argument. The Russian government tried to resolve the question in 1899. Its experimenters couldn’t provoke the spiders into biting, so they concluded the danger was mere folklore. The project’s photographer apparently decided to illustrate this point by putting half a dozen widows on the naked chest of another man and taking pictures. During this stunt, the man being photographed got bitten. He was seriously sick within five minutes.
Meanwhile, at least half-a-dozen Western researchers tried to toxify themselves. They teased widows into biting them, or else injected themselves with fluid derived from the venom sacs of widows. All of these researchers reported no symptoms at all—a result that bolstered the position of the skeptics. Why weren’t these men affected? Research in the decades that followed showed an enormous variation in the widow’s venom according to environmental factors, especially season and temperature. The early experimenters may simply have collected spiders that were too cold or too old to produce good venom. In the cases in which the experimenter allowed himself to be bitten, rather than injecting an extract, there’s another possibility. The spider chooses whether to inject venom, so she can deliver a dry bite if she wants to. Doing so is sometimes a good strategy, since the dry bite may succeed in driving off a big animal without any waste of venom. The men who injected themselves with extracts may have been misled by some faulty chemical procedure.
In 1922 an arachnologist at the University of Arkansas, William Baerg, experimented on himself. At first he couldn’t convince the widow to bite him. Eventually he did elicit a bite and was rewarded with three days of pain and delirium in the hospital. That seems like compelling evidence, but since other experimenters had gone symptomless, the skeptics held out. In the next few years the evidence mounted: a doctor compiled hundreds of case histories, and other experiments using reduced doses in the interest of safety produced slight symptoms.
The next researcher to risk the widow’s bite was Allan Blair, an M.D. and a member of the faculty at the University of Alabama’s medical school. Blair’s wife and several others volunteered to serve as his guinea pigs in a widow bite experiment, but Blair declined their offers. Taking frequent measurements and thorough notes for the scientific article he would later write, Blair provided spectacular proof of the widow’s power to harm human beings. His scientific triumph nearly killed him.
Look into the widow’s face. This close, it doesn’t even look black: it is glossed with light, supernally transformed into something luminous. A crown of black beads rims her head: she has eight eyes, though you cannot see them all as you stare into her face. The central pair looks blandly back at you. The exoskeleton is pitted and spined, nothing like the smooth, dark glass it appears to be from a distance. The forelegs seem to reach past you. Between them the hairy pedipalps dangle. Between the palps, the chelicerae: darker than the rest of the face, each shaped like the outline of a hacksaw, each terminating in a fine pale fang that looks like a cat claw and curves in toward the middle. The chelicerae seem outsized, a Rip Van Winkle beard on the relatively small face.
You could never see the widow this way without some mechanical help. The face I’m looking at is a photograph taken in 1933, an extreme close-up of “Spider #111.33,” as she was designated for research purposes. In the lower right corner of the photo is a handwritten note from the photographer to Allan Blair: “Lest you forget.”
Blair had been keeping widows in his laboratory for experiments on animals. (One of his experiments proved even the widow’s eggs are toxic to mice.) He and his colleagues and assistants had collected the spiders from the wild; widows were plentiful around Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Blair captured Spider 111.33 in a rock pile near his own home on October 25, 1933. Like the other captive widows in Blair’s laboratory, she was kept in a jar and provided with live insects. A water beetle became her last meal before the experiment. Then she went hungry for two weeks. Since earlier experimenters, like Baerg, had sometimes found it difficult to provoke a widow into biting, Blair wanted his spider hungry and irritable before he made any attempt to get bitten. (Incidentally, two weeks without food is a Cakewalk for a widow. Other scientists working with a similar setup—many numbered widows in jars on shelves—once found that they had misplaced one widow at the back of a shelf for nine months. When they found her, she was still alive and eager to eat.)
On November 12, Spider 111.33 was, in Blair’s words, “of moderate size, active and glossy black, with characteristic adult markings”—he means the red hourglass—“and appeared to be in excellent condition.” Blair described himself as “aged 32, weighing 168 pounds … athletically inclined and in excellent health.” A former college football player, Blair had just won the university’s faculty tennis championship. He had monitored his body for a week and found his condition “normal.” He had no particular sensitivity to mosquitoes or bees.
At ten forty-five in the morning, Blair used a small forceps to pick Spider 111.33 up by the abdomen and place her on his left hand. Without being prompted, she immediately bit him near the tip of his little finger, “twisting the cephalothorax from side to side as though to sink the claws of the chelicerae deeper into the flesh.” The bite felt like a needle prick and a burn at the same time. Blair let the spider bite him for ten seconds, the burning growing more intense all the while. He removed the widow, putting it back into its jar unharmed.
A drop of “whitish fluid, slightly streaked with brown” beaded at the wound—venom laced with Blair’s blood. The wound itself was so small that Blair couldn’t see it even with a magnifying glass.
Blair’s right hand was busy taking notes. Two minutes after the bite, he recorded a “bluish, pinpoint mark” where he had been bitten; the mark was surrounded by a disk of white skin. The finger was “burning.” Soon the tip of the finger turned red, except for the pale area around the bite. The pain became “throbbing, lancinating.”
Fifteen minutes after the bite, the pain had spread past the base of Blair’s little finger. The side of his hand felt a bit numb. The area around the bite was sweating. The pain quickly traveled up his hand and arm, but it still was worst at the tip of his finger, which had swollen into a purple-red sausage.
At the twenty-two-minute mark, the vanguard of the pain had spread to Blair’s chest, and the worst of it had progressed to his armpit, though the finger continued to throb. Noting the pain in the lymph node near his elbow, Blair deduced that the toxin had traveled through his lymphatic system.
Fifty minutes after the bite, Blair realized that the toxin was traveling in his blood. He felt “dull, drowsy, lethargic”; his blood pressure dropped; his pulse weakened; his breathing seemed deep. His white count began the steep climb it would continue throughout that day and night. His blood pressure and pulse continued to worsen.
Soon he felt flushed and had a headache and a pain in his upper belly. Malaise and pain in the neck muscles developed. Blair turned the note-taking duties over to his assistants. Shortly after noon, he noted that his legs felt “flushed, trembly” and his belly ached and was “tense.” A rigid, pain-racked abdomen is a classic black widow symptom, as Blair knew from his study of other doctors’ cases. He must have suspected he was about to experience pain much, much worse than he already felt. He asked to be taken to the hospital, which was three miles away. The ride took fifteen minutes, during which, as they say in politics, the situation deteriorated.
At half-past noon, Blair was at the hospital. His pulse was “weak and thready.” His belly was rigid and racked with pain. His lower back ached. His chest hurt and felt “constricted.” “Speech was difficult and jerky,” he wrote later, adding in the detached tone obligatory for the medical journal in which he published his results, “respirations were rapid and labored, with a sharp brisk expiration accompanied by an audible grunt.”
Blair’s pains made it difficult for him to lie down for electrocardiograms—in fact, an assistant dutifully wrote down that he described it as “torture”—but he managed to lie still, and the EKGs proved normal. Hearing about the painful EKGs later, newspaper reporters wrongly assumed the venom had injured Blair’s heart. That myth was repeated and embroidered in the press for decades, giving the widow’s danger a spurious explanation easier for casual readers to grasp: heart attack.
Two hours after the bite, Blair lay on his side in fetal position. The pain had reached his legs. His “respirations were labored, with a gasping inspiration and a sharp, jerky expiration accompanied by an uncontrollable, loud, groaning grunt.” He could not straighten his body, which was rigid and trembling; he certainly couldn’t stand. His skin was pale and “ashy” and slick with clammy sweat. In short, he had fallen into deep shock. The bitten finger had turned blue.
Folk remedies reported from places as diverse as Madagascar and southern Europe involved the use of heat, and some doctors had reported hot baths and hot compresses helpful. William Baerg had attested the pain-relieving power of hot baths during his stay in the hospital. Blair decided to try this treatment on himself. As soon as his body was immersed, he felt an almost miraculous reduction of his pain, though it was still severe. His breath laboring, his forearms and hands jerking spastically, he allowed a nurse to take his blood pressure and pulse. His systolic pressure was 75; the diastolic pressure was too faint to determine with a cuff and stethoscope. His pulse remained weak and rapid— too rapid to count.
Forty-five minutes after Blair had arrived at the hospital, his colleague J. M. Forney arrived to take care of him. Forney found Blair lying in the bathtub, gasping for breath, his face contorted into the sweat-slick, heavy-lidded mask that has since come to be recognized as a typical symptom of widow bite. Blair said he felt dizzy. Forney later commented, “I do not recall having seen more abject pain manifested in any other medical or surgical condition.”
After soaking for more than half an hour, Blair was removed from the bath, red as a boiled lobster. His breathing, like his pains, had improved as a result of the bath. Fifteen minutes later, both the ragged breathing and the pain were back at full force. Blair writhed in the hospital bed. Hot water bottles were packed against his back and belly, again reducing his pain. Perspiration poured from him, drenching his sheets. His blood pressure was 80 over 50. His pulse was a weak 120. He accepted an injection of morphine to help with the pain.
Blair continued to gulp down water. Sweat poured out of him and would for days, leaving him little moisture for producing urine. A red streak appeared on his left hand. He vomited and had diarrhea; he couldn’t eat. In the evening of the first day, his blood pressure rebounded to 154 over 92; it stayed high for a week. His face swelled; his eyes were bloodshot and watery.
The night was terrible. He felt restless and could not sleep. The pain persisted. He had chills. A dose of barbiturates didn’t help. He was in and out of hot baths all night. Sometime in that night the worst part came. Blair felt he couldn’t endure any more pain. He said he was about to go insane; he was holding on only by an effort of his steadily weakening will. His caregivers injected him with morphine again.
The next day, his hands trembling, his arm broken out in a knobby rash, his breath stinking, his features distorted by swelling, Blair was still in pain, but he knew he was getting better. In the evening, as he sat guzzling orange juice, sweat pouring from his body, his worst symptom was pain in the legs.
By the third day, Blair was able to sleep and eat a little. His boardlike abdomen had finally relaxed. He was beginning to look like himself again as his swollen face returned to its normal proportions. He went home that day. It took about a week for all the serious symptoms to vanish. After that, his body itched for two more weeks, and the skin on his hands and feet peeled as if burned.
Blair later returned to his native Saskatchewan, where he had an illustrious career in cancer treatment and research. When he died of heart trouble at age forty-seven, prime ministers and other public figures eulogized him. The story of his black widow experiment, which the wire service had named one of the top ten human interest stories of 1933, was retold in the papers at his death, and one more accretion of myth was added to the story when his heart trouble was falsely attributed to the bite of the black widow sixteen years before.
Blair’s ordeal convinced the skeptics the widow’s bite is toxic and potentially deadly. Thousands of cases of latrodectism, as widow poisoning is called, have been documented since then. The variation in symptoms from one person to the next is remarkable, making some cases hard to diagnose. The constant is pain, usually all over the body but concentrated in the belly, legs, and lower back. Often the soles of the feet hurt—one woman said she felt as if someone were ripping off her toenails or taking an iron to her feet.
Some doctors trying to diagnose an uncertain case ask, “Is this the worst pain you’ve ever felt?” A “yes” suggests a diagnosis of black widow bite. Several doctors have made remarks similar to Forney’s, about the widow causing the worst human suffering they ever witnessed (though one ranked the widow’s bite second to tetanus, which is sometimes a complication of widow bite). One of the questions Blair had in mind when he began his experiment was whether people acquire immunity over successive bites. He never answered this question because, as he frankly admitted, he was afraid of having another experience like his first.
Besides pain, several other symptoms appear regularly in widow victims, and Blair’s suffering provided examples of most of them: a rigid abdomen, the “mask of latrodectism” (a distorted face caused by pain and involuntary contraction of muscles), intense sweating (the body’s attempt to purge the toxin), nausea, vomiting, swelling. A multitude of other symptoms have occurred in widow bite cases, including convulsions, fainting, paralysis, and amnesia. Baerg and a number of other victims reported nightmares and sleep disturbances after the life-threatening phase of their reactions had passed.
Blair’s fear for his sanity was not unusual either. Other patients have expressed similar fears, and some, like Baerg, have lapsed into delirium. Some have tried to kill themselves to stop the pain. (A few people have intentionally tried to get bitten as a method of suicide. It would be hard to imagine a method at once so uncertain and so painful.)
The venom contains a neurotoxin that accounts for the pain and the system-wide effects like roller-coaster blood pressure. But this chemical explanation only opens the door to deeper mysteries. A dose of the venom contains only a few molecules of the neurotoxin, which has a high molecular weight—in fact, the molecules are large enough to be seen under an ordinary microscope. How do these few molecules manage to affect the entire body of an animal weighing hundreds or even thousands of pounds? No one has explained the specific mechanism. It seems to involve a neural cascade, a series of reactions initiated by the toxin, but with the toxin not directly involved in any but the first steps of the process. The toxin somehow flips a switch that activates a self-torture mechanism.
People sometimes die from widow bites. Thorpe and Woodson report the case of a two-year-old boy who was walking in the garden with his grandfather when he said his big toe hurt. He soon fell unconscious. Within an hour he lay dead. The grandfather went to the spot in the garden where the boy had felt the pain. He turned over a rock. A black widow, suddenly exposed, wobbled away over the flagstones.
Widow bites kill old people with greater-than-average frequency, apparently because they’re especially susceptible to some of the secondary effects. The high blood pressure, for example, kills some victims via stroke or heart attack. That’s what happened to Harry Carey, an actor best known for his character roles in John Wayne Westerns. A black widow bit him while he was working on Red River; he died of a heart attack.
Many of the symptoms reported for widow bites are actually symptoms of such complications. Anybody who already has a serious medical problem runs a big risk when bitten by a widow. One man with a chronic kidney problem died from a bite, the toxin overtaxing his diseased kidneys as they tried to clean his blood. Another common complication, and a proven killer in widow bite cases, is infection. The widow’s habit of dwelling in outhouses and piles of trash can make her bite septic. Besides tetanus, encephalitis and gruesome staph infections of the skin have also killed bite victims.
Some early researchers hypothesized that the virulence of the venom was necessary for killing scarab beetles. The scarab family contains thousands of species, including the June beetle and the famous dung beetle the Egyptians thought immortal. All the scarabs have thick, strong bodies and tough exoskeletons, and many of them are common prey for the widow. The tough hide was supposed to require a particularly nasty venom. I have seen widows take dozens of thumb-thick American-style dung beetles. These broad-shouldered creatures, smaller but still massive replicas of their African cousins, are armed with digging claws like ornate hair combs on their front legs. They come wobbling along the gutters and sidewalks around my house in the summer. I remember hitching a toy wagon to one when I was a child: he was equal to towing a load several times his weight. When I tired of him and threw him into a widow’s web, he struggled in his windup toy way and threw a defensive flurry of tarry feces. The patient widow hung just out of range and threw silk onto him for more than an hour before moving to his front end to deliver the killing bite. Big as the dung beetle was, her bite, once delivered, killed him in minutes.
As it turns out, the widow’s venom is thousands of times more virulent than necessary for killing scarabs. The whole idea is full of the widow’s glamour: an emblem of eternal life killed by a creature whose most distinctive blood-colored markings people invariably describe as an hourglass.
No one has ever offered a sufficient explanation for the dangerous venom. It provides no clear evolutionary advantage: all of the widow’s prey items would find lesser toxins fatal, and there is no unambiguous benefit in killing or harming larger animals. A widow that bites a human being or other large animal is likely to be killed. Evolution does sometimes produce such flowers of natural evil—traits that are neither functional nor vestigial, but utterly pointless. Natural selection favors the inheritance of useful characteristics that arise from random mutation and tends to extinguish disadvantageous traits. All other characteristics, the ones that neither help nor hinder survival, are preserved or extinguished at random as mutation links them with useful or harmful traits. Many people—even many scientists— assume that every animal is elegantly engineered for its ecological niche, that every bit of an animal’s anatomy and behavior has a functional explanation. However, nothing in evolutionary theory sanctions this assumption. Close observation of the lives around us rules out any view so systematic.
We want the world to be an ordered room, but in a corner of that room there hangs an untidy web. Here the analytical mind finds an irreducible mystery, a motiveless evil in nature; and the scientist’s vision of evil comes to match the vision of a God-fearing country woman with a ten-foot pole. No idea of the cosmos as elegant design accounts for the widow. No idea of a benevolent God can be completely comfortable in a widow’s world. She hangs in her web, that marvel of design, and defies teleology.