There aren't many things that can bring a quiver to a Briton's stiff upper lip, but a venomous arachnid named the "false widow spider" seems to be giving the entire country a case of the heebie-jeebies.
The BBC reports that an amateur soccer player named Steve Harris has been sidelined indefinitely due to a bite from a false widow. The Daily Mail described in lurid detail how a healthy 31-year-old man collapsed on the floor of a Toys "R" Us in Southampton the day after being bitten 10 times on the neck by one of the notorious crawlers.
Not to be outdone, a headline in the Daily Star trumpets, "False widow spider on rampage in Britain." The article adds the unlikely news that the arachnid "can kill humans with a single bite." But exactly how fearsome is the false widow — and is the British press making a monster out of an ordinary garden bug? [See Photos of the Spookiest Spiders]
A few facts may be in order: The false widow spider (Steatoda nobilis) is a native of Spain's Canary Islands, and is widely believed to have spread to Europe and the British Isles through shipments of bananas. Its name comes from a superficial resemblance to the black widow spider, which has a much more venomous bite. The largest of false widows are no more than a half inch (13 millimeters) across, and both males and females have pale marbled markings on their abdomens that some observers have called a "skull mark."
And while a bite from a false widow can cause pain and swelling — and a handful of people may suffer an allergic reaction — the venom is widely believed by experts to be less harmful than a bee sting. "For almost everyone, the effect of spider bite in this country is an itchy lump for a day or so at worst," said Matthew Chatfield on his blog Naturenet.
"So actually, there's almost no evidence of Steatoda nobilis or any other U.K. spider causing anything more than temporary discomfort to anyone," Chatfield noted, adding, "Steatoda may well be the U.K.'s most dangerous spider, but that position is only slightly more odious than being the U.K.'s most dangerous kitten."
Stuart Hine, an entomologist at London's Natural History Museum, also weighed in on Chatfield's Naturenet blog: "Yes, this story makes its annual appearance, and I fully expect to cover it once a year for the next decade," Hine wrote. "Generally speaking, the effects of bites … are paltry, though shocking for the victim."
One thing that all parties agree on, however, is the spread of the false widow spider throughout Great Britain, largely due to a warming climate. "Interestingly, we never recorded this species as an inquiry pre-1999, and numbers have risen each year since," Hine wrote on Naturenet.
Environmentalist Matt Shardlow of the conservation group Buglife told the Star, "The false widow has long been prevalent across much of the southwest because of the milder temperatures. They come from warm countries and are usually killed off by our cold weather. But climate change may have helped."
Despite the spread of the false widow spiders, most experts are quick to remind people that, despite the creatures' nefarious reputation, spiders are an important part of the natural world, and help to control insect pest populations. "Spiders are of great environmental importance, and are really rather beautiful and very interesting," Hine wrote.