Don’t fear spiders – they are not out to bite you

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Do you have arachnophobia? Are you extremely scared of spiders and think a spider will bite if you get too close? Do you fear for the safety of those living with you, or your pets? Do you reach for the shoe or can of Doom every time you see a spider inside the house?

Being scared of spiders in South Africa is natural for so many. However, most of the spiders you meet daily will not harm you in any way. Spiders don’t find any interest in humans and don’t want to bite you. They will only bite in self defence, to get away from a life-threatening situation. Other creatures such as mosquitoes, mites, ticks, fleas, lice, and bed bugs are not as ‘friendly’ and will bite without thinking twice. Should we not be more scared of these critters than we are of spiders?

Perhaps it is the horror stories and urban legends around spiders that give arachnids a bad name. Luckily, most of these tales are not true. There are absolutely no records in South Africa of anyone dying from a spider bite in decades. Also, that itchy, red, swollen spot that appeared during the night is likely not even a spider.  A rule of thumb – if you did not see the spider bite you, or found it dead underneath your body, anything could have bitten you.

Is the spider venomous?

This is a very common question on social media groups. Most spiders in South Africa have venom, but spider venom is generally only strong enough to kill or paralyse their prey. So unless you are the size of a small bug, you need not worry about most of the spiders in South Africa. They can bite, but as long as you resist the temptation to scratch, and keep the area clean, you have nothing to worry about. Just like with any injury or bite, touching and scratching can lead to secondary bacterial infection. This is where the problems come in.

When it comes to venomous spiders in South Africa, we have even less to fear. Less than 1% of all spiders found in South Africa are medically significant, says Rudolph Steenkamp, a spider enthusiast that also once feared and killed spiders. Today, he takes photos of these critters and educates people about them.

So why exactly are so many people petrified of spiders if such a small number of them are significant from a medical perspective? Do we really have to be scared of spiders in South Africa?

A garden orb web spider. Not medically important. Photo: René de Klerk

Where does that fear for spiders come from?

Why are we scared of spiders in the first place? Generally, it is a lack of knowledge. Fear is normal when all you see is a creepy arachnid with eight legs, and (generally) eight eyes somewhere staring back at you. Who knows how long the fangs might be, and how venomous spiders in South Africa are, right?

The attitudes of uninformed people who know very little about spiders in South Africa don’t help either. If all you hear is that someone else suggests you kill the spider, it is normal to fear that spider. Of course, movies depicting spiders as killers do not help either.  

Horror stories of people losing parts of their flesh due to spider bites spread fear, most of it is unnecessary. Spiders are just not out to bite you. “Their first line of defence is to run away or hide. Then, their next option is usually thanatosis (playing dead), like the button/widow spiders often do when disturbed. Their very last resort is biting, which makes spider bites very rare,” says Steenkamp.

South Africa’s medically significant spiders – the most venomous spiders

What are the most venomous spiders in South Africa? There are only a handful of venomous spiders in South Africa that you need to know about, and this out of the 2400 described species. These spiders: the black button, brown button, six-eyed sand spider, and the violin spider. Researchers need to do more work to determine whether the long-legged sac spider really is medically significant, or not.

The above spiders are the most venomous in South Africa. They are medically significant, but finding them might not prove as easy either. “Two of the most venomous spiders in South Africa – the black button spiders and the six-eyed sand spiders – are very difficult to find,” says Steenkamp. “They don’t frequent homes nearly as much as, for example, the brown button spiders. Violin spiders are also rather difficult to find and most people will never even see one in their entire life. This is why they are called ‘recluse’ spiders in America.”

Button Spiders (Latrodectus)

Heard of the term widow spiders? In many parts of the world, members of this genus are referred to as widow spiders, but in South Africa, we call them button spiders. There are seven species of button spiders in South Africa.

Brown button spider

Brown button spider from above. Photo: Rudolf Steenkamp
Brown button spider from above. The red hourglass is at the bottom. Photo: Rudolph Steenkamp

Many people confuse the brown button spider with the black button spider. The spiders are sometimes so dark in appearance that they look black. Brown button spiders are web-bound. They would rather play dead than bite. You also have to go out of your way to get the spider to bite you. Only the female brown button spider can deliver medically significant amounts of venom.

The visible red hourglass of a brown button. Photo:
Rudolph Steenkamp

Brown button spiders have a red hourglass on the underside of their abdomen. They have dark knee joints and not striped legs. The egg sacs of the common brown button spider (Latrodectus geometricus) are spikey, while the egg sac of the Zimbabwe brown button (L. rhodesiensis) are large and wooly. The recently described Phinda button spider (L. umbukwane), which falls in this species group, has a large, smooth egg sac that is purple when freshly spun, and turns grey when it dries.

Where will I find brown button spiders?

Brown button spiders mostly live around human-made structures, especially in corners, and mostly close to the ground. The Phinda button can be found in the sand forests of KwaZulu-Natal. Don’t expect to find one of these very rare spiders.

Black button spider

An inland black button spider (Latrodectus renivulvatus). The markings of black buttons are always on top. Photo: Rudolph Steenkamp.

These are considered the most venomous South African spider on the list. Just like the brown button, black button spiders will also rather drop to the ground, curl into a ball and play dead before biting. If squashed, though – even by accident, the spider might bite. The venom of the black button spider is neurotoxic, so it affects the central nervous system. If a black button spider bites you, you will feel extreme pain, sweating, nausea, disorientation, and shortness of breath. This is the only medically significant species where antivenom is available.

Identification: A black spider with red markings on top of the spider’s abdomen that fade with age. The egg sac is white and smooth.

Where will I find black button spiders?

Look for the black button spiders in fields or low in vegetation. It’s quite unlikely that you’ll find one inside your house, but happens from time to time.

Six-eyed sand spider (Hexophthalma)

This spider, also known as the six-eyed crab spider, is extremely venomous, but your chances of running into this spider are extremely rare. There are no records in South Africa of six-eyed sand spider bites. This is because they are so hard to find. They occur in deserts and sandy spots in South Africa. These spiders are shy and secretive and hunt by ambushing their predators. Six-eyed sand spiders are living fossils that pre-date the Gondwanaland drift. This genus is only found in South Africa and Namibia, while their close cousins, Sicarius, with the same common name, are found in South America.

Identification: Looks like a crab, with the body approximately 15 millimetres in size. The spider has fine hairs that hold particles of sand.

Where will I find six-eyed sand spiders?

The six-eyed sand spiders live in sandy areas, where they will hide under the sand or rocks. Of all the medically significant spiders, they’re the most difficult to find.

Violin spider (Loxosceles)

Found in most provinces in South Africa, violin spiders are free-ranging spiders and not web-bound. You will often find them in caves or underneath rocks, logs, and other dark areas. You can also find violin spiders in homes and garages. Searching for pictures online will often result in pictures of the American brown recluse spider, and even though they are in the same genus, they look quite different. Violin spiders have cytotoxic venom, and bites could result in tissue damage.

A violin spider. The lighter knees are a dead giveaway. Photo: Rudolph Steenkamp

Identification: Violin spiders are often confused with the giant daddy longlegs (Aterma atlanta), and the violin marking is not always easy to identify. Violin spiders have no dark bands on their legs; their knees are scaly and often lighter than their legs..

Where will I find violin spiders?

Violin spiders live in grassland, savannah, arid areas, caves, under logs and rocks, etc. They also come into homes, but not in the open, and it’s also unlikely that you’ll find them.

Long-legged sac spiders (Cheiracanthium)

Long-legged sac spider. Photo: Rudolph Steenkamp

There is an ongoing debate on whether these spiders are medically significant or not. “Some experts say they are medically significant, while others say they’re not,” explains Steenkamp. He says that almost all the studies conducted use circumstantial evidence and suspected bites. Steenkamp was once bitten by a sac spider. Nothing happened. “We’ve seen quite a few confirmed bites on the spider groups where envenomation occurred but that resulted in no necrosis. We can at least say with certainty that necrosis from a wet Cheiracanthium bite is NOT a given.” Also, in most other countries, they are not considered medically significant anymore.

What if a spider bites me?

“Unfortunately spiders get the blame for almost every skin condition or lesion, even when people did not feel the bite (most spider bites will burn). When not felt, chances are more likely that your lesion was caused by something else,” explains Steenkamp. Jan van der Velden agrees with the statement. “I am a retired doctor with a special interest in spiders,” says Van der Velden. He says that doctors who easily identify ‘spider bites’ learned it from their grandmothers. “If you did not see the spider bite, you can’t say.”

So what do you have to do if you saw a medically significant spider bite you? Keep calm! “You won’t die, and you don’t need to rush to the emergency room. In most cases, you wouldn’t even need to go to a doctor, and self-medication often resolves the issue. This differs from person to person though. The most important thing with any skin lesion, including spider bites, is to keep the bite clean and dry, and to refrain from scratching,” says Steenkamp. If you skip this step, the symptoms can often become worse than the bite itself. An antibacterial ointment will help prevent infections.

Then, if the bite gets worse, see a medical doctor. Only button spiders need antivenom as their neurotoxic venom attacks the nervous system. “For the black button spiders, you’ll probably at least need something for the pain,” says Steenkamp.

He says the other medically significant spiders have cytotoxic venom that attacks tissue and might result in necrosis and in very rare cases, complications with the organs. “Fatalities from spider bites are extremely rare. They haven’t been recorded in many decades, so just remain calm”

Do you have a fear of spiders? Join the Facebook group The Spider Club of Southern Africa and learn more about these wonderful animals. Post your photos and ask questions. Are you over your spider fear? Tell us in the comments!

Spiders can be cute! Do you agree?

Macro photography is a great way to see some of the smallest spiders up close! See some macro images taken by Rudolph Steenkamp in the slideshow below.

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