Sure, the female black widow has a terrible reputation. But who’s the real victim here? Her male counterpart is a total jerk — and might just be getting what he deserves.
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We’ve all heard the stories. She mates and then kills. Her venom is 15 times stronger than a rattlesnake’s. One bite could kill you. With a shiny black color and a glaring red hourglass stomach, she has long inspired fear and awe.
But most species of widow spider (there are 31), including the western black widow found in the U.S., don’t kill their mates at all. Only two widow spider species always eat their mate, the Australian redback and the brown widow, an invasive species in California.
And the male seems to be asking for it. In both of these species, he offers himself to her, somersaulting into her mouth after copulation.
He may even deserve it. During peak mating season, thousands of males will prowl around looking for females. Females set up their webs, stay put and wait.
Once the male arrives at her silken abode, he starts to wreck it, systematically disassembling her web one strand at a time. In a process scientists call web reduction, he bunches it into a little ball and wraps it up with his own silk.
Then, while mating, he will wrap her in fine strands that researchers refer to as the bridal veil. He drapes his silk over her legs, where her smell receptors are most concentrated.
After all of that, he is most likely to crawl away, alive and unscathed.
— Why does the black widow spider eat her mate?
No one really knows, but scientists assume his body supplies her with nutrition for laying eggs. Sometimes she eats him by accident, not recognizing him as a mate.
— How harmful are black widows to people?
We couldn’t find a documented case of a human death from a black widow spider in the U.S., but a bite will make you sick with extreme flu-like symptoms. Luckily, black widows aren’t aggressive to people.
— Why do black widows have a red hourglass?
It’s a warning sign, a phenomenon common in nature that scientists call aposematicism, which is the use of color to ward off enemies.
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—+ For more information:
Black widow researcher Catherine Scott’s website: http://spiderbytes.org/
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