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The Spider Myths Site
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Just Plain Weird Stories

Myth: When black widow spiders mate, the female always kills and eats the male.

Mating pair of western black widows B&W photo
Western Black Widows
Latrodectus hesperus
Females weigh 10-160 times as much as males, lending "weight" to the myth.
(from B.J. Kaston photo)
Click image to enlarge

Fact: This myth (which is not totally false, but very far from true) is believed even by scientists, and can be found in many ecology textbooks! It's depressing; the authors are obviously copying each other and have never actually watched black widows mate in the field.

To understand the facts about black widow mating, you must first understand that there are many different species worldwide in the black-widow group (the genus Latrodectus), and three different black widow species in the United States alone, two in the east and one in the west. These species do not all behave alike. Moreover, in the past most observations of mating took place in laboratory cages, where males could not escape.

The only known Latrodectus species in which mate cannibalism in nature is the rule, not the exception, are in the Southern Hemisphere. Of U.S. species, mate cannibalism occurs sometimes in Latrodectus mactans, the eastern (southern) black widow, but most males survive to mate another day. In the other two black species, including the western black widow L. hesperus (only species west of Kansas), mate cannibalism has never been observed in the wild!

Myth: Spiders (often deadly ones) or their eggs may lurk in human hairstyles or in bubble gum.

Fact: These older urban legends don't seem to be in wide circulation today. One dating from the days of beehive hair-dos relates that a young woman died from the bites of black widow spiderlings that had hatched inside her bouffant. There are a number of variants, including a common one where the victim is a man with an Afro hair-do. In an Australian version, the spider was a red-back rather than a black widow. A late 20th century rumor concerned a popular brand of ultra-soft bubble gum which, it was alleged, was manufactured from spider eggs.

Spiders, need I say, do not find the human body or hair a favorable site for egglaying, and spider eggs are not so easy to harvest that any mass consumer product could be made from them. Even if black widow hatchlings could bite, the minute amount of venom they carry would not likely be very harmful; even the bites of adult females are very rarely fatal if properly treated.

More details on these tales may be found at the Urban Legends Reference Pages (which perpetuates one myth while debunking others, by listing spider legends on their insect page!).

Text © 2003, Burke Museum of Natural History & Culture,
University of Washington, Box 353010, Seattle, WA 98195, USA
Phone: 206-543-5590
Photos © as credited
Queries to Spider Myths author, Rod Crawford

This page last updated 1 September, 2010

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