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Black Widows

I spend a lot of my outdoor time looking for and at bugs. Especially ones that are dramatic looking or interesting to photograph, so when I noted a medium-sized spider on the front of the Carlotta post office last month ("Black Widows Found at Carlotta Post Office," Sept. 30), I got closer, tilted my head to use the reading portion of my bifocals and was surprised to see a tiny red hourglass on the creature's abdomen.

There are several other members of the large comb-footed spider family, theridiidae, that look similar in shape and size to the black widow, but only family latrodectus has the red hourglass on the undersides of their abdomens. It is one of the best diagnostic features. If the red hourglass is there, it is dangerous to humans.

Figures vary but it seems there are about 2,000 bites reported in the U.S. per year and very few fatalities. The symptoms, I understand, are particularly unpleasant. I only know one person who's been bitten. Her health was not particularly robust and she spent several days in the hospital. She reported that it was like having one horrendous body cramp that just didn't quit for days.

The spider gets its ominous name from the female's habit of eating the male after mating. Recent research indicates that our local species Latrodectus hesperus rarely does this, and such cannibalism may be a consequence of observing them in the laboratory where the male has no escape.

An article in Scientific American indicates black widows are toxic if consumed, however several species, including chickens and alligator lizards, seem to eat them with no ill effects. The extremely long-legged cellar spiders are known to eat young widows, as well.

Widow spiders are nearly blind and are creatures of their web. If you see one walking on the ground, it is either seeking to get back to its web or looking for a place to make a new one. They spin a deceptively "messy" three-dimensional web which may give them some protection from spider-hunting wasps. They are usually secretive, which leads to a common problem of people getting bit on the rump or genitals in outdoor privies. You sit down, make vibrations in the web, and she responds by rushing to potential prey and biting.

False Scorpions

After moving to the country a little more than 20 years ago, I noticed a tiny, dark critter, no bigger than a newsprint letter "o" scurrying across my counter. I scooped it up and checked it out with a hand lens. It was an animal I had only read about, a book scorpion or pseudoscorpion. After looking a bit I let it go outside. I've been on the lookout for them ever since.

When I got my new "super macro" lens, I went around snapping pictures of every little thing. When I downloaded some images of a tiny spider, I saw it was in the process of eating one of the strange little beasts. It made for a couple of dramatic and interesting photos but what I really wanted was the pseudoscorpion itself.

The other night at the light trap I noted a tiny dot on the old bedsheet I use as a reflective backdrop. I was surprised to see one of the tiny creatures. This time I took plenty of photos, captured it and took some more before letting it go.

I don't think it was attracted to the lights. They are active hunters so I think it was just exploring. While they are seldom seen, I suspect they're pretty common, feeding on tiny animals among leaf litter. Although they lack their larger cousin's tail and stinger, their claws (pedipalps) have tiny venomous bristles on their "thumbs," so the prey gets crushed, pierced and poisoned in one swift move. They pose zero threat to humans and are considered beneficial since they eat mites, carpet beetles, carpet moth larvae and just about anything else small enough for them to attack. Many species of these tiny arachnids are known to hitch rides on insects and even birds. I really like these little guys.

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