Should we be worried about an ‘attack of giant spiders?

False widow spider species found in the south of England. Picture: The Natural History Museum

False widow spider species found in the south of England. Picture: The Natural History Museum - Credit: The Natural History Museum / Tru

Bob Gilbert looks at the hysteria surrounding false black widows.

There’s nothing like press hysteria to surround a wildlife issue, whether over-familiar foxes or dive-bombing herring gulls.

My own all-time favourite appeared when harlequin ladybirds were beginning to spread here from their native southern Russia.

The fact that they could, on rare occasions, produce a minor bite led the Daily Star to pronounce; ‘Putin orders man-eating ladybirds to attack UK’. It has a surreal magnificence that will be difficult to match.

Spiders are a favourite subject for popular panic and autumn saw a rash of stories in our best-selling dailies.

‘Millions of super-quick giant house spiders,’ we learnt were ‘on the rampage across Britain’.

There followed stories of spiders ‘the size of rats’ invading homes and even chasing a child from room to room.

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Just when we thought that nothing could be more frightening there came news of ‘huge numbers of giant false widow spiders expected over the next few weeks’.

It was in one of those ‘next few weeks’ that a local Headteacher invited me to confirm the presence of a colony of false black widow spiders already living in her school.

They were actually living just outside the premises having developed a colony underneath the projecting eaves of the school wall where they benefitted from the extra warmth from the external lights.

It was around these that I found their untidy, unarchitectural, webs, hanging egg sacs and just a few spiders, pressed against the brickwork.

Given the level of hysteria they had attracted elsewhere we were circumspect over sharing the information.

Two schools in neighbouring Tower Hamlets had completely closed after finding the spider on their premises, one for a week.

These spiders are definitely not ‘giant’, I took one home in a jar for closer examination. It sat poised on the screwed up ball of paper I had provided with one pair of legs arched forward over its head, as though waiting to pounce on some passing prey. Its abdomen was globular with a pale pattern that was indistinct against its otherwise dark colouration, a feature that identifies the female of the species. It remained still enough to examine under a magnifying glass and its markings became quite beautiful; a pattern the shape of an oak leaf with three pairs of white spots on either side of a central ‘vein’.

There are several types of false black widow. The one now appearing among us is the interestingly named ‘noble false black widow’ or steatoda nobilis. It’s not a new arrival having been here since at least the 1870s when one was found in Torquay, probably originating from a crate of imported bananas. It is climate change however that has assisted its more recent spread. It can now survive our winters, especially if it finds a warm retreat like a centrally heated school. The extraordinarily mild months we have just experienced will have encouraged a further expansion of its range.

Only the females have a bite, and then only if cornered or provoked. Despite the stories, this remains a rare occurence. Though there are a few people who are allergic, the general reaction is little different to a bee sting. I kept my specimen for a few days and then released her into the wild. Later, at the school, we quietly removed the rest. Personally I was sorry to see them go. There had been no invasion, no rampage and no child had been chased from room to room. One thing I am sure of is that will not be the last of them. Over the next few years, I confidently predict they’ll be coming to a warm building near you.