Urban gardening: Introducing the 'False Widow'

 

The 'False Widow' spider is spreading through
Southern England – this is a female Steatoda nobilis
(Image: Wikimedia Creative Commons)

London-based urban gardener, Dan Combes, tells us of his close encounter of the eight-legged kind...

Introducing the False Widow! Britain's deadly spider... or is it?

Recently both London and National media has been littered with articles documenting the rapid rise of the False Widow, labelling it "Britain's most deadly spider."

The Daily Star reports '...a plague of 10 million False Widow spiders.' Both The Independent and The Guardian discuss the potentially lethal bite of this small yet dangerous looking arachnid.

As a London gardener the only bite or sting I am likely to endure is that of a nettle or a wasp. Has this all changed?

Meeting the False Widow

Steatoda nobilis on paving

Steatoda nobilis male (Image: Wikimedia
Creative Commons)

Last week I was building a green roof on a newly built kitchen extension. This is a great option for Londoners with limited space, but a thirst for greenery. It is amazing what you can successfully grow in a properly irrigated yet thin soil medium.

As I was unravelling a roll of permeable membrane a small spider scuttled over my hand. A distinctive cream band around the front of its abdomen and its reddish legs caught my attention. Research confirmed that I was dealing with a False Widow.

The False Widow (Steatoda nobilis), named due to its rather tenuous resemblance to the far more dangerous Black Widow, was first discovered in England in Plymouth.

Steatoda nobilis on paving

Steatoda nobilis in its web (Image: Dan Combes)

Native to Madeira and the Canary islands it is thought to have hitched a ride on a banana boat, joining a long lineage of exotic species that have made their way to these shores as a result of our love for those fruits.

For 100 years Steatoda nobilis was content to languish in the milder climate of the south coast. Milder winters (attributed to climate change) have enabled the population to move inland, with hosts of sightings now reported in London.

Nobody really cared when a few Cornish pensioners reported swelling and nausea as a result of False Widow bites.

But when Londoners started reporting False Widow sightings, the media got excited.

Just how deadly is the False Widow?

Steatoda nobilis in grass

Another female False Widow scuttles
through the grass
(Image: Dan Combes)

There have been exactly zero recorded deaths. The Natural History Museum describes the effects of biting as follows:

"...reports from those bitten describe a certain amount of pain... and often a degree of swelling in the affected part. Some describe fever and a general feeling of being unwell... more serious symptoms have been reported but are likely to be exceptional reactions of individuals to the venom."

The False Widow is not going to kill you. For the majority of us a bite will resemble nothing more than a wasp sting.

My limited understanding of behavioural ecology reminds me that the production of venom is very energy intensive. Spiders don't scuttle around squirting venom willy nilly. It is used as a last form of defence.

As the temperature drops Steatoda nobilis will start making its way indoors. If you awaken to screams of, "Help! There's a spider in my bed!" just grab a piece of card and a glass, scoop it up and throw it out the window.

If you've encountered the False Widow, let us know your story below!

Flowers for a green roof

Lavender is a great urban green roof plant – it's perfect for city bees, easy to keep under control, and provides the most heavenly scent.

Or any of a number of spring bulbs can be naturalised into shallow soils – providing flushes of colour and important early food for pollinators. They're largely fit and forget too, with a single planting lasting 5 years or more. Consider any of Narcissus, Crocus, Bluebell, Grape hyacinth, Snake's head fritillary, Tulips or Wood anemones.

 

6 thoughts on “Urban gardening: Introducing the 'False Widow'”

  • Dan Wright

    My wife and i spent a good few hours identifying one of these four years ago on Canvey Island, near Southend. We had no idea what it was, only that it looked aggressive with its colours and with marking. Initially and could find very little literature about it at the time! Now there are a common sighting for us around the South East Essex area.

    Reply
  • J Brown

    As an invasive species, the False Widow is bound to be having an impact, encroaching on, or out-competing native species. Is there a programme to control and neutralise them? Surely better advice for a 100% positive identification would be to kill the spider to limit it's spreading further, rather than simply 'chuck it out the window'. A 'noninterventionist' policy usually caused far more harm than good.

    Reply
  • iain wood

    Speaking of invasive species, I'd be more concerned with antipodean flatworms, considering they can, if not decimate, certainly impede earthworm populations. Not a concern in London, though, with its drier climate.

    Reply
  • John

    I have around 10 of these spiders in my garage (that I have spotted so far). The males seem to have smaller and slimmer bodies than the females but are similar in appearance. As has been said elsewhere, they are *extremely* timid and will scuttle away to a habitual hiding place if disturbed - they are not in the least aggressive towards humans, indeed quite the opposite. Needless to say, the trash media have blown this issue out of all reasonable proportion in pursuit of sensational headlines. In reality these spiders are probably doing us a favour by devouring mosquitoes and house flies.

    Reply
  • Galaxy

    A few years ago I was cutting a climber in my back garden not wearing gloves ( have done since ) all of a sudden pain in my index finger pulled my hand out and there it was still with its fangs sunk in, I tried to shake it off didn't budge, had to swipe it off with my other hand looked at my finger and there was two tiny blood spots were it had decided to have a chomp some slight swelling followed and numbness but that was it. It was like being stung by a wasp painfull but didn't last as long.
    Dave
    Basildon
    Essex

    Reply
  • My next door neighbour trapped one as she was cleaning out her garage. She brought it to me to identify it. Must say it is a very impressive spider. Nothing to fear methinks. I let it go in my garage.

    Reply
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