PUBLISHED: 07:18 GMT, 25 October 2013 | UPDATED: 10:05 GMT, 25 October 2013
The false widow is the most dangerous of the 12 species of biting spider known to be in Britain – and cases of people being bitten by the venomous creature have been on the rise in the last few months. John Catlin, 66, from Bromley, Kent, is still recovering a year after a bite that caused his organs to start shutting down. Bodybuilder Gary Meadows from Teesville, Middlesborough, required a skin graft when he was bitten in 2011 and has suffered severe reactions to any insect bite since and schoolgirl Layla Benton, 14, was off school for three weeks after her knee swelled up when she was nipped in her bathroom. Here is a comprehensive guide to what it is – and what you can do to protect yourself.
WHAT IS IT?
Not much bigger than a 50p coin with its eight legs outstretched, Steatoda nobilis – better known as the false widow – is the most dangerous of the 12 species of biting spider known in Britain.
There are actually six spiders in the false widow group, but all except Steatoda nobilis are native. The spiders are shiny and black with distinctive cream markings on the abdomen that resemble a horseshoe – or in some eyes, a skull.
They have long, spindly legs and are easily confused with the black widow (genus latrodectus) – a far more venomous cousin, not found in Britain.
As with most species of spider, it’s the female false widow who is the force to be reckoned with. Males don’t tend to grow much bigger than two centimetres, while females reach up to three centimetres.
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WHERE DID IT COME FROM?
The first false widow is thought to have comes here from the Canary Islands or Madeira in the 1870s in a bunch of bananas.
The first recorded sighting was in Torquay, Devon, in 1879.
They established a stronghold in the South West, particularly Devon, but in recent years Britain’s warmer climate has meant the spider has survived the winter chill in larger numbers, been able to breed and spread north.
Its untidy nests in crevices and crannies can now be found across the south of England, in southern Wales and up as far as the Midlands.
They live in walls, fences, the bark of trees and other dark places (check those wellington boots) and eat insects, other invertebrates and even other spiders.
WHERE’S IT GOING NEXT?
If the current proliferation is anything to go by, the false widow could be coming your way.
Where once it was found sporadically, it is now commonly observed in homes, sheds and garages throughout the South.
Apparently they have a distinct preference for south-facing walls and love conservatories and toilet blocks.
Sightings have been rare in places north of Nottingham, but the warmer weather may have caused the spiders to migrate, with some allegedly being spotted in North Yorkshire.
HOW DANGEROUS IS IT?
That’s the tricky question. As Steve Harris, who needed emergency surgery after he was bitten last week, will attest, a false widow bite can be very painful indeed.
But experts say extreme reactions such as his are rare.
Like all spiders, the false widow produces venom – it’s how they paralyse their prey. The false widow is one of only a dozen breeds of spider in Britain with powerful-enough jaws and strong enough venom to pierce human skin and cause a reaction.Bodybuilder Gary Meadows from Teesvile, Middlesborough, was bitten by a false widow in 2011 and required a skin graft. He has suffered severe allergic reactions to insect bites ever since
According to the experts at the National History Museum, the false widow is not an aggressive creature, but prod it or intrude accidentally on its territory and it will give a defensive bite. How dangerous that bite is, seems to depend on the victim. Most will experience nothing worse than a short stinging pain, much like a wasp or bee sting.
But other symptoms can include numbness, severe swelling and discomfort or burning sensations. Some victims have reported chest pains.
Others report swelling, tingling fingers and occasionally a general sense of feeling unwell and fever with symptoms lasting for a couple of days.
But Stephen Falk, of the charity Buglife, insists we shouldn’t panic. ‘It can be painful, but it’s on a par with a bee or a wasp sting for the average person.’ He believes some wounds described by victims may be the result of an infection entering the site of the original puncture wound, rather than directly from spider venom.Infestation: Earlier this week Dean Academy in Lydney , Gloucestershire, had to close its doors to pupils because of the dangerous spiders
Migration: The first false widow is thought to have comes here from the Canary Islands or Madeira in the 1870s in a bunch of bananas
Sadie Perry (above) spotted that her 15-month-old daughter Ava drop the spider onto the carpet and quickly snapped a picture of the creature to upload to the social networking site.
Miss Perry, 27, had laughed off inquisitive daughter’s fearlessness as the tot picked up the spider, until her online friends identified it as a false widow.
Decorator Ricki Whitmore, 39, from Collier Row, Essex, almost lost a leg this month after being bitten by one.
Then Steve Harris, an amateur footballer from Devon, was left with a huge wound in his side after being bitten while he slept.
HAS IT EVER KILLED?
No. In fact, no one has ever died of any kind of spider bite in the UK and the number of reported bites from spiders in general is minimal.
But that is not to say the false widow hasn’t been blamed for some nasty incidents.
Catherine Coombs, from Poole, Dorset, almost lost her left hand after it swelled dramatically and the flesh began to rot after being bitten by a false widow in bed, in 2012.
Grandmother Lyn Mitchell, 56, of Egremont, Cumbria, fell into a coma in 2009 after suffering an allergic reaction when bitten in bed as she rolled over in her sleep. She woke gasping for air and losing consciousness but managed to call a doctor.
She was given anti-allergy drugs and spent 26 hours on life support.
Perhaps the biggest threat comes from an allergic reaction. However, as yet, out of the 20 to 30 people who die each year in the UK from an anaphylactic shock, an extreme form of allergic reaction, there are no records of spider bites being the trigger.
WHAT SHOULD I DO IF I GET BITTEN?
If there is severe swelling or ulceration, or you have an allergic reaction from a suspected spider bite, it is recommended you see your doctor immediately or visit an A&E Department. But in most cases, symptoms will ease with no lasting effects.
As Pip Collyer, secretary of the British Arachnological Society says: ‘Try to take the spider with you so someone can identify it.
‘But don’t, of course, touch the creature again.’
CAN I KEEP THEM OUT OF MY HOME?
In a word, no. ‘You can’t spider-proof your home,’ says Pip Collyer. ‘They’ve been around for years and we have to learn to live with them. My view is there’s not been an explosion, but an explosion of reports. I’m probably getting 30 emails a day with reported sightings, but only three of four are false widows, most are garden spiders or a little spider called Zygiella x-notata.
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