A rare find?

Becky Vargo • Jun 23, 2017 at 8:00 AM

ROBINSON TWP. — Bret Ankelen was a little concerned when he discovered what looked like a black widow spider in a watering can in his garden.

Already wary because of the increased amount of ticks in the area, the Robinson Township man said he was still surprised to see the small black spider with red markings.

“I went to grab the can and there was web all inside it,” he said. “I just happened to glance in there and see it.”

Ankelen said he used a pair of long forceps to carefully pick up the spider and put it inside a glass jar.

A couple of phone calls later, the Sleeper Street resident was in contact with Michigan State University entomologist Howard Russell, who can also be reached for bug identification by email at [email protected]

Through pictures, Russell was able to confirm that the nearly dime-size insect was a northern widow spider (latrodectus variolus). Its distinctive "hour glass" marking on the underside of the abdomen is incomplete or split in the middle. Northern widows also have a series of red spots along the dorsal midline of the abdomen, and the immature forms have a series of lateral white stripes on the abdomen.

Russell said the sighting might be a little unusual, but a black widow spider in West Michigan is not.

“Northern widows are more common in the western side of the Lower Peninsula than other parts of the state, although they do occur throughout the Lower Peninsula,” Russell said. “I can’t recall seeing one from the U.P.”

This spider is found throughout the eastern U.S., from southern Canada south to Florida and west to eastern Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. They are found in old stumps, hollow logs, under fallen fence posts, in abandoned animal burrows or piles of brush.

Ottawa County Parks naturalist Curtis Dykstra said they had a couple of the spiders at the Hemlock Crossing Nature Center, but recently released them back into the wild.

“They are around, just seldom seen,” he said.

Russell said the venom from the spider is highly toxic, but because such a small amount is injected into the bite, it is rarely fatal.

While the spider is not aggressive, it will respond to pressure and bite. For the most part, that bite feels like a pin prick. Local swelling and redness in the area will be followed in 1-3 hours by intense spasmodic pain, which can travel throughout the affected limbs and body, settling in the abdominal area and back.

The severity of the bite depends on the age and health of the bite victim, according to Bugguide.net. Elderly patients or young children run a higher risk of severe reactions. Other symptoms include nausea and profuse perspiration.

If untreated, tremors, convulsions and unconsciousness may result. When death does occur, it is due to suffocation.

If you are bitten by a widow spider:

Contact your physician, hospital or poison center immediately and follow their instructions. The national emergency number for poison centers is 800-222-1222.


Wear gloves and pay attention to areas that might harbor one of these spiders.

What to do with the spider:

Russell said the spider is not a protected species, so Ankelen is free to do what he wants with it.

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