October 16, 2021
One of the things bequeathed to me by mom during her downsizing was a small clay pitcher pot had gotten while in El Salvador that was about 4 inches high. This was one of several clay pots that were unceremoniously strewn in her rock garden to add visual contrast. I picked it up, brushed the dirt off the sides, and then put it in with two larger clay pots I was bringing home for Melissa’s succulents. When I got home, I noticed there was debris inside the pot so I tried to clean it out with water and even used a straw to scrape out what I could. Then I left it on the counter to dry. You can imagine my surprise when I came in the kitchen several hours later and saw a large black spider drying herself on the handle of the pot. Apparently, I had not gotten all the debris out of the pot when I cleaned it.
While the spider looked like a North American Black Widow (Latrodectus mactans), also known as a southern black widow, it did not have the distinctive red hourglass on its abdomen. When I looked online, I found the False Black Widow (Steatoda grossa), was commonly mistaken for the actual black widow. The false widow is a common species of spider in the genus Steatoda. It is a cosmopolitan species found in many parts of the world, including North America, Australasia, and Europe. Like black widows, the female false widow is 6-10.5 mm (1/4-1/2 inches) in length and dark colored with a round, bulbous abdomen. Typical coloration ranges from purplish brown to black, with light-colored markings, but no red hourglass. The false widow may shed up to six times (instars) before reaching maturity. According to Charles Hogue (Insects of the Los Angeles Basin, 1993), it reportedly preys on black widows. This seems like a good spider to have around.
When I checked the pot again, I noticed there was still a lot of debris in the bottom of the pot. The false widow likes to make her nest in small holes of crevasses and then spins her web around the opening. The female spiders can live up to six years, while the typical lifespan for the male is 1-1.5 years, as males often die shortly after mating (if not eaten). The web is so strong that it can catch and hold small vertebrates. When the spider feels the vibrations in the web, she will rush out and wind her silk tightly around the victim, immobilizing her prey, and then inject her venom. The false widow is even known to capture and eat the predators that come for her. I decided while outside may be good, I did not want it in my house. I flushed it.
Thoughts: When I was excavating at Petra, Jordan, I worked as the lab artifact curator. That meant I had to sort what was uncovered, clean the debris from the artifacts, select representative samples, and place them in piles by provenience so they could be analyzed by the Director. The one caution I was given was not to scrub the dirt off the pot. A curator on another excavation had roughly scrubbed the pottery and had washed the painted design off the earthenware. There are times when we are too aggressive and destroy things that are beneficial (spiders and paint). There are other times when we are too passive and do not take the action needed to save lives. The trick is to determine what is real and what is false. As one of our state officials says on nightly promo spots, “get off google and listen to the experts”. Follow the science. Change is coming and it starts with you.