Category: Uncategorized

The Wolf And The Woodcutter

Last year, in a nightclub, I noticed a man filming me and my friends as we sat talking; a long, slow sweep of the camera along the line of young women dressed for a night out. When I confronted him, he put his hands on me, a lingering stroke that ended at the waistband of my jeans. It was a threat, and a reminder of my place in his world. What I should have done was knock his hand away and start shouting. What I actually did was step back in disgust, yielding space and power to the already physically and culturally dominant party. The doorman showed up and barred him from the venue while he was still trying to convince me that he knew the owner, as if that gave him the right to act like the club was the red-lit window of an Amsterdam brothel.

Later that same night, I had the same general conversation with someone’s unwelcome ex, whose complete unwillingness to take “fuck off” for an answer was only weakened by the presence of an angry woman inside his own personal space. This wasn’t the same night on which a punter threatened unspecified harm to the DJ’s fiancée if he didn’t play his request; the threat was made in conversation with the DJ himself, who didn’t have the song in question, and the fiancée was kept unaware of the danger until it had passed. Indeed, the punter only knew they were a couple because she’d told him so when she’d turned him down four times earlier in the evening.

This kind of thing happens all the time because the club stays open after the pubs close; after 1am, the event becomes a human zoo for drunken Essex boys who believe they’re operating in a buyer’s market. The message was plain: this is a space that we can take from you and use against you. You thought you had a legitimate presence and agency here? We’re here now, you can go back to being the exotic and specialised property of entitled misogynists. For the most part, we tolerate it; it’s a tiresome inevitability, but one that most of us got used to while we were still at school. We tell ourselves that it really wasn’t that bad; the ones that took pictures didn’t talk, the ones that talked didn’t always touch, the ones that touched didn’t really hurt us…

2014 was a vintage year for rape culture. Every aspect of popular culture was unusually saturated with aggressively anti-consent messages, from the misrepresentation of BDSM practises in 50 Shades Of Gray, through news coverage of rapist hero-worship in Steubenville, past the ugly harassment of feminist campaigners on Twitter, on to the normalisation of abuse in the lyrics of Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines; by any measure, a barrage from all sides. To the untrained eye, it looked as though the oppressor was winning.

For young women  – and, indeed, young men – growing up in a culture which drips such poison in their ears from their earliest years, it takes considerable resistance to grow up rejecting these messages and asserting their own agency. The influence of teachers, parents, peers, and the media, whether positive or negative, constructs a sexual identity and morality that can be difficult to alter. Early expectations about later sexual encounters have to come from somewhere, and the twin threads of pornography and fiction weave an uneven and warped tableau. Girls expecting consideration and care meet boys who imagine that women enjoy being choked, having their heads held in place, and accepting anal penetration without preparation or warning. The two are irredeemably incompatible; someone’s going away disappointed.

When young women emerge blinking into the light of the real world, they slowly begin to understand that they were never really a pawn in this game at all: instead, they were the prize. In this transaction, sex is the reward that a man expects for his involvement. It is the return on his investment, the dividend paid to him for paying us attention, buying us dinner, being a Nice Guy, allowing us to bask in the bright light of his important and enviable masculine presence for a few hours. The choice we’re given is no choice at all; a woman who does becomes the proud owner of a new set of social labels, and a woman who doesn’t takes possession of a similarly bitter collection of invective. There is no position from which a woman can win. If we dodge, if we falter, if we defy or redesign the traditional balance of power, if we love women over men, society finds a way to punish our transgression.

The dominant culture of the UK is one in which young women are required by society to take responsibility for the sexual responses of male strangers and adjust their behaviour accordingly. Women and girls who dare to wear the “wrong” clothes, “overindulge”with drugs or alcohol, or have the temerity to walk home unaccompanied are understood to have contributed to their own victimhood. Just as folklore used to warn us against drawing the attention of jealous fairies by displaying too much pride or wandering from the righteous path, 21st-century bogeymen are used to force young women back on to the straight and narrow. Add to this the bare-bones sex education of the generation before – boys cannot control themselves, so you must exercise control for both of you – and you’re left with a pretty damning picture.

The implication is that young men are not responsible for their urges or their behaviour; by compelling young women to act as sexual gatekeepers, we excuse young men from taking responsibility for their sexual behaviour. By propagating the belief that a young man is unable to exercise self-control, we don’t just remove his responsibility; we also imply that he lacks the capacity for impulse control and objective judgement that separates humanity from animals. Rather than using this as an excuse, it’s amazing that young men aren’t more insulted by this slur against their capacity for reason and judgment.

Asking young women to take responsibility for young men’s sexual behaviour places an additional burden on their shoulders; now, in conjunction with considerations about pregnancy, disease, and social censure, they must also negotiate the complexities of sexual ethics and consent for two people. This is expected of girls and women equally, both by their peers and their elders, as well as by other women. Tellingly, the easiest ways to insult a woman are to accuse her of promiscuity or of being unattractive; the two worst things a woman can be are too desirable or not desirable at all. Conversely, portraying a world in which men are helpless hair-triggered slaves to their sexual longing is to cheat some men of their place in the picture: men for whom sex is not important, who prefer to take a passive role, or whose sexual nature is incompatible with aggression and entitlement don’t fit easily inside this worldview.

But this image is made up of layers of myth upon myth: in all likelihood, your rapist will not attack you in a dark alley on the way back from a club. This is obfuscation, smoke and mirrors, the Red Scare of our 21st-century sex war. Keep your eyes on the stranger in the shadows, and you won’t see the real threat – your husband, your boyfriend, your colleague, your best friend – until it’s too late. Your rapist is probably not the big bad wolf. Often, he’s the woodcutter.

Normalising the notion that a man’s very nature is what makes him dangerous means that trying to have a healthy sex life can feel like taking a cobra to bed; everyone knows they’re dangerous, so keeping the snake happy is a necessity. If you’re going to take the risk and then aggravate the creature, no one will be surprised if it spits poison. They certainly won’t blame the snake: the nature of a cobra is to do harm when provoked. We’d be to blame for being in that situation in the first place. Are we really expected to believe, then, that the nature of the men in our lives – the instincts of brothers and fathers, colleagues and friends – is to rape when they choose to?

Little boys are rewarded for displaying strong and assertive behaviour, and little girls are brought up to be obliging and people-pleasing. Boys are conditioned to push for what they want, and girls are conditioned to acquiesce to the wishes of others. When a small boy hits a little girl, she may be told that he did it because he likes her; an irresponsible gesture, perhaps, but also the first step on a lifetime of equating pain and love, suffering and affection. It creates in both children the understanding that someone who cares about you can demonstrate this by hurting you; a pernicious message, and one that too often flies under the radar. What else will this young person tolerate, having mistaken aggression for love, ten or twenty years later when the idea is thoroughly internalised?

Conversely, a girl that hits another child – regardless of that child’s gender – is censured for being spiteful, just as she is rebuffed for shouting, answering back, standing up for herself in a group, or otherwise displaying behaviour that deviates from her socially-assigned role of looking pretty and being a good girl. Slowly the child is robbed of her ability to assert herself, push for her own desires, and defend her own needs within a group dynamic. In adulthood, this develops into an aversion to causing trouble, starting fights, or displeasing those around her – useful in the workplace, but entirely dangerous in the bedroom.

Pair this with decades of additional conditioning by society in general and the media in specific – magazine articles exhorting her to look good and perform like a porn star for ‘her man’,  the ageless and baseless notion that men should maintain the upper hand due to some spurious biologically determined propensity for dominance – and a woman with a pushy partner must struggle with her own psychological programming just to consider asserting her right to refuse. While newly designed relationships and sex education courses cover issues of consent and ways to say no, it’s difficult to imagine that negotiating your way out of an unwanted encounter with a pushy partner is as easy as some make it sound.

Of course, consent training and rape awareness campaigns will never entirely remove the threat of sexual violence from our streets and our homes; indeed, by clarifying the lines and making an act unacceptable, you create a clear weapon for those individuals whose psychological makeup makes such power desirable. Not all rapists are motivated by their sense of entitlement or the need to control another human; some, unquestionably, are motivated by the terror and abasement of their victims.

The report in autumn 2015 that identifies a 17% increase in rape convictions is to be welcomed, but more concerning was the statistic that revealed that few of these cases were historic. Crimes against property and against the person have fallen year on year, but offences linked to sexual violence are becoming more prevalent. We must push for a strengthening of the judicial response to sexual violence complaints, although there will never be a simple solution; a multi-pronged attack, cultural, social, ethical, legislative, and judicial, is necessary to create real and lasting change.

Opposing rape, as a man or a woman, doesn’t just mean not committing it. The dominance of rape culture can be diminished by refusing and resisting. We live in societies that have never been more connected, more able to interact; we’ve never been more able to communicate our disgust and resentment at the microaggressions rape culture uses to prolong itself. Male social groups use humour to bond; some groups make such egregiously off-colour jokes that there seems to be no limit to how far they can go. In company where rape jokes and open sexual assault – in a nightclub, for instance – are treated like fair game, it takes a special kind of strength to stand against it.

Some years ago, campaigners tried to tell the world that consent is sexy. it isn’t; it’s mandatory. there can be no argument. This is the viewpoint that commissions consent seminars for university freshers, and the notion that young men who don’t think they look like rapists try to kick holes in. What the young men have missed, though, is that rapists look like everybody else. To argue differently is to buy in to the pervasive myths surrounding sexual violence, the ones that tell us that the real threat is the heavy-breathing creeper in the darkened alleyway. As a society, it’s time to move past the harmful rhetoric that reinforces these ideas.

Some victims of sexual violence have shared their experience – an act of courage or of anger or of healing – and these testimonies will help to explode some of the more tenacious fallacies that still dog our understanding of the issue. Making such a bold statement carries its own risks, though; say you were assaulted at a party and you’ll be asked how much you’d had to drink and what you were wearing, say you were raped by your husband and someone will argue that he had a perfect right to your body. The anonymity of online exposure makes it easier for victims to share their stories, but also makes it easier for other users to criticise, question, and blame without fear of censure. Moderators can ban and supporters can shout the harasser down, but – as any writer will tell you – reading the comments is easy, and ignoring the content is hard.

For a species that survives by fitting in with the people around them, being the one voice of dissent in a laughing, complicit crowd can feel as if you’re trying to start a fight.  Rejecting media that endorses rape culture can mean missing out and being made to feel like you’re the one with the problem, particularly if you use a platform like Twitter to question the creators. Challenging news reports and idle gossip that perpetuate harmful and damaging rape myths can lead to eye-rolling from those nearby who have heard the message before. That’s no reason to quit.

Dilettantes change little; online activism may feel lightweight, but the combined weight of those continued challenges will leave its mark in time. Culture is not monolithic and handed down from on high; it shifts and evolves, and it comes from us. Even the most tacky, vulgar, and puerile products of the modern media are there by our assent; culture is designed by committee, even if – like all the worst committees – it’s unequally composed, vague in its outlook, and dominated by those who shout loudest. However, change is not impossible. It takes time, and efforts are met with ridicule, derision, and overt aggression. No-one would claim it’s easy, but with slow and patient effort change is achievable. Tides turn, social values shift, those in power yield to pressure. Changing culture is possible because we create culture.

Subcultural Capital and the Shirt That Broke Science

The last fortnight has been a truly testing time for 21st-century feminism, a turbulent spell amongst an ongoing storm of renegotiated social identities and complicated practical applications of theoretical truths. It’s been two weeks of amazing scientific firsts and tawdry details, of the political clout of clicktivists and the overt rejection of some truly repugnant individuals. It’s also been a fortnight – another one? – of condemning the efforts of men and women alike to create safe and welcoming spaces on our streets, in our clubs, in our universities, and in our astronavigation labs. We should be used to it by now, realistically, but like a dripping tap, the predictable white noise of ill-informed dissent is no less annoying when you expect it. We publicly demonstrated our opposition to rape jokes by unseating Daniel O’Reilly, and efforts to prevent appearances of Julien Blanc’s sexual assault circus have been successful in more than one country. But when it came to what could have been the most relaxed and easily-addressed issue – Dr. Matt Taylor’s shirt – the civilised discussion so many surely hoped for seemed only to crash and burn.

To confirm, and to guard against misunderstanding, he’s plainly highly intelligent, very skilled, and good at his job. His professional achievements mark a high point in human endeavour, and we should respect his work – but, unlike the lander he controlled, he does not exist in a vacuum. He made an unwise and unprofessional choice at a time when he knew he’d be in the public eye, representing an industry with known issues surrounding gender representation and equal access, and this needs to be commented upon. That’s all. A discussion needs to take place, calmly and without Boris Johnson comparing the incident to Stalinist purges. Some scientists and STEM industry insiders, men and women alike, passed reasonable and justified comment on a poor choice he made. It’s regrettable that he made it in such a high-profile way, but if the initial objections hadn’t been blown out of all proportion, we could have had meaningful discussion about an important issue and maybe changed a few minds. That was all anyone wanted. No-one called for his head on a silver salver. He apologised promptly and without grudging.

In certain forums, though, the discussion has taken on an entirely unexpected character, coloured by elements rarely seen in conventional gender relations. The owner of The Shirt That Broke Science was defended in discussions due to his perceived membership of an alternative subculture. Plainly in the minds of those who argued this point, this not only meant he could do little wrong in their eyes, but also that he’d shunned all traditional societal conventions and had a perfect right to create an unwelcoming environment so long as he was upholding the noble traditions and referencing the accepted iconography of his chosen social group. He’s in a video getting a tattoo! He’s pictured in a Cannibal Corpse t-shirt! He landed a piece of kit we don’t understand on a comet we didn’t know he was aiming for until two days ago! There’s something about harpoons too – OMG, so metal!

It’s not particularly that the metal community is overtly sexist (and my goodness, but it is!) – it’s more the implication that membership of this privileged group, this happy few, confers complete absolution from having to follow normal social conventions. It’s the subculture’s best-kept secret: that owning metal albums renders one immune to equality and diversity legislation. To have defied convention and abandoned the mainstream is seemingly to occupy a metaspace where women are welcomed only if they have arrived dressed as the strippers from a Mötley Crüe video, and people of other races and sexual preferences are seldom welcome at all. Take, for instance, the twin female uniforms of the UK alternative scene over the last ten or fifteen years: tight-laced corsets, fishnets, leather and lace, high boots and ultra-feminine long hair for some, and band t-shirts and nondescript jeans or combat trousers (like the lads!) for others. This is what the scene permits; unlike the early hand-sewn days of punk or the art-school adventures of the Blitz kids, deviation or experimentation is frowned upon. This is who we are. This is what we do. This is what we wear and what we listen to. Don’t like it? Go somewhere else.

It’s beginning to feel like the relentless emotional exploration of nu-metal (dismissed as “whining” upon its downfall) and the slight, passive, anti-macho aesthetic of emo (attacked with homophobic language even at its height) has caused a hyper-masculine, testosterone-soaked backlash: bands full of rugged woodsman-types who look equally at home with a literal or a metaphorical axe. A full beard holds more cultural capital and fetishistic weight at a metal club than at any bear bar one could visit, and the bear bar is likely to be a less judgmental space. The struggle for female artists to achieve recognition and success is real and well-documented, and a hyper-masculine backlash will surely only make the journey more arduous. What can we tell them? “Sounding great, girls, but come back in seven or eight years when they’ll be slightly more ready for you”?

Accordingly, the faithful adherents of the “fuck-you-I-won’t-do-what-you-tell-me” crowd are heartily endorsing the shirt, the beard, the tattoos, and all the other associated icons of alternative masculinity on display. From a few inflammatory articles courtesy of agit-prop mainstream journalists, the neutral space of Facebook has been colonised by the kind of wilful ignorance I’d imagined only the religious right and Republicans were capable of. It’s only more worrying when we consider the political and religious leanings of the community involved: it includes atheists, fierce critics of party politics, advocates for marijuana legalisation, mistrustful of the criminal justice system. When men who call themselves free-thinkers wilfully misuse feminist rhetoric to misrepresent our resistance and refuse to even visit the websites they imagine they criticise, instead choosing to rely on the bitter hearsay of the mainstream press, have they any right to the title? Is this really the best this community can do? After the decades of relentless anti-authoritarian sentiment, isn’t is more appropriate for the scene to reject traditional notions of “a woman’s place” and “ladylike” ventures and encourage their female compatriots to expand to fill the spaces now available to them? And when those spaces are contested or defended, isn’t it more subversive to storm the barricades, kick the doors down, and demand inclusion?

If the alternative scene is genuinely about defying convention, the proud men of the subculture should be our allies, not our enemies. That’s the difference, after all, between a subculture and a counterculture: one exists alongside mainstream culture, in opposition but peaceable, while the other endeavours to force change. Does rebellion only reach so far? Do we reject Simon Cowell’s once-a-year pop-music prodigies, but not the significant wrongs that affect us every day? Is there anything sadder than a conservative sailing under false colours, a Tory MP in a Slayer shirt? The alternative scene shares a rebellious worldview and a resilient spirit with campaign groups the world over; does it lack real power, or simply not know how best to direct it? To borrow an appropriate metaphor, have we delivered only a toothless Cerberus, slobbering vainly at the gates of the Underworld but unable to instil any real terror into even the most damned of souls?

There is no gender block on understanding science and technology; instead, there are school science teachers who expect less or nothing at all from girls, careers advisors stuck in the 1950s, PhD boards who won’t award funding, workplaces that are deliberately unwelcoming. There is no gender block on listening to, creating, or knowing about music; instead, there is dismissal and investigative prodding from “real fans”, constantly examining to see if the girls know their stuff. There are phrases like “not bad for a girl”, and grudging approval when we get something right. There are sales assistants that will talk about pickups and floating bridges with the guys for hours and assume that the girl standing next to them is a long-suffering girlfriend. No-one plays guitar with their genitals; the strings are like cheese-wire*. No-one builds a space shuttle or a car or an artificial heart with their genitals either, even if it can accommodate the handle of a screwdriver. If it really needs explaining, let’s explain it one last time: women are good at stuff. We’re not prepared to beg for space and chances; we’re studying, we’re working, we’re creating, we’re making it happen. We’re too good to just let it go; what we can do will move humankind forward at the pace we’ve come to expect. You can provide room for us at the table, or you can expect the same argument a thousand times over.

*I’m willing to stand corrected on this. What else is the comments section for?

Cool Girls, Basic Bitches, and Manic Pixie Dream Girls: Navigating Fractured Female Identities

With the cinema release of Gone Girl, which codified the concept of the cool girl while simultaneously offering incisive criticism, a wave of introspection has overtaken commentators and, like Aphrodite from the seafoam, birthed another hot-topic notion of femininity. The cool girl, debated in publications as diverse as Jezebel and the Telegraph, now stands alongside her sisters, the basic bitch and the manic pixie dream girl, in the pantheon of potential female identities. Of all possible iterations of womanhood, of all the manifold and infinite things a woman can be, we collapse them to their simplest forms, paint their portraits in broad strokes, and then chase our own tails asking how accurate they are.

It would be naive to imagine that many women are basing their identity on these ideas. We’re not compelled to choose our self-concept based on these parameters, or obliged to use media figures as models. Although media theorists still argue about the degree of influence pop culture has on our behaviour, there can be little doubt that a civilisation’s art is a mirror, if not a template. And it’s not a uniquely female problem. Representations are equally poor across the board; if we’re criticising women, fictional or otherwise, for drinking beer or pumpkin spice lattes, we should definitely be talking about what the irresponsible masculinity of the Hangover franchise or the emotionally damaged violence of recent Batman trilogy suggest to us.

When Helen Coffey tells Telegraph readers that cool girls don’t exist, she’s entirely correct. None of these figures exist, certainly not in the pure and definitive way that they’ve been described to us. They’re lazy stereotypes, a collection of attributes extrapolated to form a personality; a kind of character shorthand at best, and at worst, another tiresome effort to regulate and manage human behaviour. Like traditional youth subcultures, their definitions are based on consumption and activity – prescribed modes of dress and methods of behaviour are the order of the day. Unlike subcultures, it’s rare to see anyone who willingly uses the stereotype to describe themselves – ironically, self-deprecatingly, or otherwise – outside of the confines of a newspaper column. Under close examination, the existing representations display implicit class considerations, as well as almost overwhelming limitations on race and physical ability.

That’s not to say that the concepts lack any intrinsic value: like reading a novel or watching a film, the characterisations enable us to explore our own identities while contrasting ourselves against others. We can try identities on like new outfits, check them for comfort and fit, and reject those that don’t suit. To use the ideas to define others, though, is to significantly underestimate the limits of human variation. It’s born of the same logic that encourages women to say they’re “not like other women” – the facets of identity that build an individual are erased by sweeping notions and broad stereotypes, to everyone’s detriment. So do we encourage media producers to write more intricate, varied characters? Do we encourage women to form their own self-concept based on a wider selection of potential variables? Or shall we try both, and see what happens?

Guest Post: Home Is Where The Spider Is

A note from the author: Now before I begin proper on this latest missive, allow me to extend my thanks to all the readers of my article The False Scourge of the False Widow and its fellows. I’m glad to say that together we really did make a difference. It is noticeable everywhere, from the general lack of panic that it displayed amongst the public to the dismissive nature of comments when stories about Steatoda nobilis rear their ugly head and the media do their best to instil fear into us in a bid to sell papers and get hits. So thank you, my aim was to reassure the public and save a few spider lives and it is extremely gratifying to see that in some small way this objective has been achieved.

It’s nearing that time again; the nights draw in and the weather grows colder. Can you feel it? It’s time for the tabloids to start spouting their spurious lies again, and this means that the gutter press have had to find another subject for their scaremongering. This time it’s an all too common spider friend that they have in their sights: the house spider. I for one find this absolutely hilarious, as I would struggle to think of a more benign arachnid.

Of course not everyone will be so tickled. House spiders (Tegenaria domestica to the press) unfortunately tick all of the boxes when it comes to people’s problems with spiders. They are large, hairy, prolific and fast. They are also completely harmless! I can understand a little the concern over Steatoda, they look a bit like the infamous Black Widow and can inflict a reasonably painful bite. They are also something that people have only recently started to notice thanks to a recent rapid expansion throughout most of the southern UK, though they don’t seem to have quite made it to the northern reaches. They are an introduced species and therefore their range is not quite nationwide just yet. Tegenaria, on the other hand have been here for much longer; you’ve all seen them and we should all know that they pose us no threat.

Beyond this it is certainly worth mentioning that the press are doing their best to spice things up a bit at least. Whether it’s the obsessed Daily Star, with their nearly constant arachnid-hating, or one of the other tabloids, spiders have once again started to make it back into the news in various ways, normally employing words such as “invading”, “rampaging”, “attacking”, or other such scary terms. Now, as it is that season again I shall bring my efforts to debunking each of these in turn, but this time around I am defending the house spider and the hobo spider that the press currently have their knickers in a twist over.

Let’s start with a few facts. Tegenaria is a genus of spider that is not invasive: in fact it has been introduced to much of the rest of the world from Europe! It consists of around 100 species, of which we enjoy just a few here in the UK. I’m not going to get too deeply involved in differentiating between the myriad subspecies as a: nomenclature and taxonomy of arachnids are headache-inducing at best and are also constantly changing, with Tegenaria currently under revision and some species seem destined for Erategina, so all these scientific names are soon to be redundant anyway. Suffice it to say it can be very difficult to tell spiders apart at times. So if many learned Arachnologists can sometimes struggle with these things – often a conclusive ID can only be obtained with microscopic inspection – how are we supposed to believe that a pest controller or nurse can make a positive identification, often without seeing the actual specimen?

Anyway, back to Tegenaria (or Erategina). Yes, they are the archetypical ‘creepy crawly spider’ that people tend to see as the days get colder. More often than not you will encounter a male out and about looking for a female to mate with/not get eaten by. These poor blighters have enough to worry about without contending with a book or boot heading in their direction! You will often see them late at night, normally scurrying across the floor. I guess it is the movement that is one of the things that really bothers people; they are easily startled and bolt rather than retreat. This rapid movement can easily be misinterpreted as an attack. I have never heard of a house spider attacking anyone. They are a ridiculously timid species and their only thought is for flight, not fight.

 

House spider, photo by Jade Masters
House spider, photo by Jade Masters

I mean, come on guys, this is a creature that cannot even negotiate a bathtub! How scary can they possibly be? It doesn’t help that they have a face that only a mother could love. They lack the adorable characteristics of peacock spiders (Maratus volans, for instance) or even the photogenic garden spiders (Araneus) and the proportions are those that will invoke the worst nightmares of the majority of common folk, being all gangly, hairy and lightning fast. However they are great at keeping the number of pests down and apart from the males you see on a quest for nookie, a very shy species that prefer to secrete themselves in extensive tunnel-like webs in corners of sheds. If you are to come across one it is more than likely to be in the bath as, as previously mentioned, they are incredibly inept at escaping the smooth sides of your average bathtub.

So with that introduction to the house spider, let’s have a look at a couple of the stories, shall we? To be clear, I will not be posting links to these tales of arachnid terror as I refuse to add to the advertising revenue of these scaremongering swine. It all started with headlines proclaiming Giant Spiders Set To Invade UK Homes This Autumn, Warn Experts, courtesy of the Mirror. And not to be outdone, the Daily Star gave us Attack Of The Giant Spiders: Scorching Summer Leaves Beasts Poised To Invade Britain.

Despite the fact that experts are warning no such thing – the headline is horribly out of context to the actual quotes given – this is something that happens every year. It gets cold. Spiders like it warm, spiders come inside. It’s nothing new and certainly not worthy of a headline, but I guess it is the kind of thing that will sell papers. I’m also unsure on how any arachnid can invade (surely one of the gutter press’ favourite verbs) Britain from within Britain: I was always of the impression that invasions came from outside of our sovereign lands. Maybe the editor of the Daily Star can help me out with this. I suspect my invitation will go unacknowledged, however.

One point I will concede is that the spiders do seem to be a bit bigger this year than in previous years. There are probably a few reasons for this: one is the weather of late, which has been ideal for the reproduction of the small flying insects that form the primary food source for the spiders. Of course, something else that may have resulted in a boom of prey insects is people indiscriminately slaughtering their predators around this time last year: you only have yourselves to blame, people! Anyway, it gets cold, spiders come in, you’ll see more spiders. Nothing to see here; move along.

After that non-event, they had another go at terrifying the public with the following beauty: They’re Invading! Terrified Couple Under Attack From Aggressive Venomous Spiders. Well, I suppose we should be thankful that they have started to make the correct distinction between venomous and poisonous at last! This aside, they’ve realised they need to give the story a bit of a twist to keep people interested, so we are introduced to a new arachnid terror: the Hobo spider, an “ultra-aggressive monster spider”. Mysteriously, none of the articles or ‘victims’ seem to be able to produce one, instead triumphantly brandishing dead male house spiders. Apparently, “Liam, dad of 3” has been bitten by one of these attack-minded killing machines and has a horrific wound that’s expected to take three months to heal – it looks a bit like a cigarette burn. His partner has encountered and killed around 30 of these monsters, although none of the dead spiders they portray seem to be particularly oversize.

Hobo spiders do exist. They are called Tegenaria agrestis, from the Latin for ‘field’ – their primary habitat. The effects of their bite are largely undocumented as there have been very few bites to go on. They are not aggressive and not monster. They are not native to England and I have never actually seen one in this country. All the pictures I have seen thus far purporting to be a ‘Hobo spider’ are a completely different species. Should Liam’s condition have developed from a spider bite I would think it was once again from a secondary infection rather than the venom itself. Describing to the spider to the intrigued journalist, Liam stated, “their bodies are pretty much normal size but it’s the legs – the front legs are the size of your hand.” The quote appeared immediately below a picture of a house spider barely bigger the one penny piece it was depicted with.

In a similar story involving a four-year-old child, the culprit is described as a 5” house spider even though the pictures attached to the article are of a garden spider (Araneus diadematus) and jumping spider (probably Salticus sp.) respectively. Five inches? The jumping spider maxes out at 5mm, so I am already taking this article with a big pinch of Salticus. (Sorry!). Secondly the picture of the rash on the poor child seems to follow an unusual and atypical distribution pattern, affecting the torso only. That’s a bit odd. Any rash caused by a bite would spread across the body, not be impeded by clothing. In fact, a rash like the one pictured could be something altogether viral or a reaction to a chemical on the skin, not envenomation from a bite. This could be an allergic reaction to a fabric softener for all we know!

UK Jumping spider (possibly Heliophanus flavipes) Photo courtesy of Simon Robson
UK Jumping spider (possibly Heliophanus flavipes) Photo courtesy of Simon Robson

According to the story, the staff at a walk-in medical centre – not even a hospital – “discovered an insect was to blame“ for the child’s condition and prescribed a course of tablets: a surprisingly well-informed and accurate diagnosis without bloodwork or consultation with an expert, even if we forget that spiders aren’t insects. I’m unsure what tablets you would prescribe for envenomation; however, I suspect that it may have been some kind of antihistamine, a drug family commonly used for allergic reactions. Regardless, it wasn’t considered serious enough for a trip to the hospital. There are endless things that could have caused this kind of reaction: the aforementioned chemical agent, a virus, flea bites, bed bug bites, dust mites bites (or at least the reaction to them) – but no, plainly the spider was to blame. I have never heard of a house spider biting anyone; it’s certainly possible, but every single one I have ever encountered, and we are talking hundreds here, has scarpered. So, I’m sorry, the evidence just doesn’t support the story in this instance. Notwithstanding the quality of these scaremongering reports – bad grammar is rife within – and the hilarious amount of ill-considered misinformation that they endlessly come up with, the only thing that I am horrified by is that this kind of reporting is not regulated in some way.

Now, I am under no impression that this is going to end any time soon; this has already been raging for some time, and it has started to reach a point where once again I have been compelled to say something about it. Spiders have few enough friends as it is: even members of their own (inherently cannibalistic) species want them dead. Let’s not add to their difficulties. Should you encounter one, just trap it under a glass, slide a bit of card underneath and pop it outside. If it’s a male, as it nearly always is – you can tell by their enlarged bulbous pedipalps or feelers – then it likely doesn’t have all that long to live anyway and it is really not interested in you in any event.

At the end of the day, a spider is not smart: they lack the brainpower for reasoned thought and every single encounter with another organism is probably best characterised thusly: “can I eat it or is it going to eat me?” The first response will result in a bite. Venom is used to kill prey; no other reason. The venom kills the prey, or at least renders it helpless, so that the spider can eat up all the juices at its leisure. If it is not something the spider can eat, then its primary reaction will be to flee. Spiders are not aggressive: nearly without exception they will not launch themselves at something they have no hope of eating, particularly not something that is several hundred or thousand times bigger than they, and waste precious venom in the process. Spiders can be defensive, reacting to provocation, but even then a bite will be a very last resort.

So don’t fear them. I don’t expect you to love them like I do, but maybe find a way to respect them. They are fascinating creatures – I will be following this up with a more generalised article in an attempt to persuade you – and it is unfortunate that they key into all our deepest primordial fears. Should you encounter a spider and be unsure of what type it is, don’t forget that there are several aids to identification. There is even a British Spider Identification group on Facebook that will gladly ID any specimen, preferably alive – it might even be me that comments.

So until next time, keep calm and carry on. After all, it’s only a spider.

 

Allen Ward is an experienced keeper and breeder of arachnids, sharing his home with more than 300 spiders and tarantulas from all over the world – many of which have medically significant venom. He also has a large collection of various invertebrates and reptiles. The only times he has ever been bitten by spiders was when he was a child and was in the habit of just picking them up in the wild for a better look. He is still in possession of all of his limbs. He is available to advise on all relevant stories until the  drama has died down – please contact the Elwell Press for details.

Angry Birds: What Essex Girls Can Give To Feminism

From working-class Basildon and Southend on the river, to the homogenised nouveau riche vulgarity of Brentwood and the manicured affluence of Colchester, the women of Essex are arbiters of bad taste and barometers of the county’s shifting fortunes – like Christmas trees, wealth is dangled from them in the form of glitzy baubles. The dedication to conspicuous consumption is tangible; first Lakeside, then Bluewater, and finally Westfield have sprung up within driving distance of Basildon.

Each High Street is a seemingly endless procession of beauty salons, nail bars, and estate agents; particularly important towns benefit from the addition of a big Primark. The stereotype has become an archetype, but that’s not to say it hasn’t evolved – the crunchy perm of the ’90s, fossilised by hairspray and wet-look mousse, resembling nothing more than uncooked Ramen noodles, has all but vanished, replaced by the ubiquitous sock bun. But the area’s defining feature – the insurmountable, indisputable Shibboleth of the Estuary – is the reputation.

Even at the furthest reaches of the UK and beyond, the reputation is hard to escape; in pubs in the Highlands and clubs in the States, new acquaintances will ask where the white stilettos are. There’s no denying it; the second we speak, the game’s up. Even an accent that sounds comparatively refined in Essex is instantly recognisable outside the Home Counties, and the dialect fares no better. The first glimpse of an ‘innit?’ or an excitable ‘oh my God!’ are proof conclusive, as if any were needed, that this particular specimen is a dyed-in-the-wool Essex original.

Last month, seemingly in response to UsVsTh3m’s ‘North-o-meter’, Facebook has been colonised by an Estuary variation: ‘How Essex Are You?’ Inevitably, I scored 100% – far higher than anyone else I know, and a source of enormous hilarity for those who scored less. Much of this article was composed in the stylist’s chair at Toni & Guy Basildon; the resulting cut was a layered bob, not ratty extensions, but the very fact that I feel the need to defend myself indicates how much judgement I anticipate. And if it had been extensions, should I be ashamed? There’s no need to give up your roots totally, is there?

Unlike personal politics or subcultural affiliation, our county of origin is manifestly not a conscious choice. If Yorkshire and Lancashire can inspire civic pride even in their southbound émigrés, why should other counties be a source of shame and embarrassment? Until last year, I hadn’t heard an Essex Girl joke used in earnest for 20 years – now, possibly thanks to the inexplicable recent popularity of a reality TV programme set in the county, it seems they’re back in style.

Against all expectation, though, Essex has had a pivotal role to play in women’s rights. The striking women of the Ford plant in Dagenham, demanding equal pay for machining car upholstery compared to what the men on the production line earned, were instrumental in shepherding in debate and subsequent legislation protecting equal rights in the workplace. When the cry went up – ‘everybody out!’ – the women of Essex did not falter. Earning the vote might have been the domain of genteel middle-class ladies of means, but the opening salvo in the battle for equal pay was fired by resolutely proletarian foot soldiers – the rank-and-file, not the officer class.

But what of the stereotype? Maybe it does hold some power after all. Perhaps in our hurry to defy the limitations of fashion and beauty, we’ve made the mistake of assuming that the trappings of traditional femininity hold no value. Perhaps the archetypal Essex girl is due a critical reassessment. Perhaps our intellectual posturing doesn’t entitle us to look down our noses at those who choose differently. Perhaps the hair, the heels, the makeup, are ‘glamour’ in the occult sense – a spell cast to obscure reality, carrying its own special power.

‘Innit’ is a useful filler word – if female speech is traditionally characterised by approval-seeking phatics and tag questions, why should this low-rent elision be any less acceptable? It may make the speaker sound as if they lack class, but not nearly as much as sneering at someone’s unalterable background and origins does. If an Essex girl – or, more often, whole groups of them – are having a good time getting dressed up and drinking pitchers of sticky-sweet cocktails at Bas Vegas, do you want to be the one that tells them they mustn’t?

Despite the efforts of the feminist intelligentsia to forcefully introduce sophisticated notions of liberation to the county’s oppressed sisterhood, even a fleeting visit will reveal a homegrown brand of tried-and-true female resilience. Wronged women – and there are many – will tolerate so much and then no more; past a certain point, they’re not being funny, but they’re not having it. He ain’t worth it. You can do better, babes. Ultimately we can all do better.

I spied a spider: But which spider have I spied, eh? A False Widow Identification Guide

MEME

Contrary to popular reports, not every spider in a UK household is a False Widow. Indeed, out of the vast amount of arachnids I have been asked to identify only a very small proportion have been confirmed to belong to the genus Steatoda and even fewer as the Noble False Widow, S.nobilis. Unfortunately a lot of these spiders are being killed due to these cases of mistaken identity (not that you need to be killing S.nobilis either). So here I am going to present a guide on identifying a few UK spiders in the hope of cutting down these instances, I will show you what to look for in a spider to either hopefully identify it as a False Widow or eliminate it from suspicion.

First, however, a few brief disclaimers.

1: There are over 650 species of spider in the UK (of which a dozen are reported to have bitten humans). Obviously we cannot represent even a significant fraction of this number here. What we will be featuring in this article will be ‘the usual suspects’; the spiders that most frequently come up in pictures I am asked to identify. This should allow you to visually identify 80% of the S.nobilis look-alikes you come across in the UK. The list is not exhaustive, however, and you may still come across the occasional oddity.

2: Arachnid markings can vary wildly, depending on the age and sex of the specimen and even upon location. Bear in mind that spiders periodically shed their skin as they grow and as time passes markings may become duller, losing the vivid colours they might have when freshly moulted – this may also cause some confusion. To accommodate this, I will be presenting alternative methods based upon physical characteristics, not just markings.

3. Spiders are broadly defined by genus (Araneus, Amaurobius, Tegenaria, Steatoda etc.) Within these, there can be a number of different species, (or sp.) So if you see XXX .sp that means it can be any species from within that genus. Sometimes there are just a few and sometimes many more – Theridion has over 600! This can also make identification difficult, but I shall endeavour to present enough information to make an educated and informed identification.
4: If you poke your fingers into webs and crevices then you run the risk of being bitten. Spiders are remarkably tolerant and shy creatures that normally run at the slightest disturbance, but they will sometimes bite if given no other recourse. However, no spider will bite you for just looking at it so fear not about viewing them, or taking photos.

I will be using scientific terminology throughout to describe various elements of a spider’s anatomy, as illustrated in the diagram below.

Spider anatomy

So without further ado let me present a few of these usual suspects. None of these are False Widows and are not in the family Steatoda.

1.
Zygiella
sp. featuring Zygiella .x-notata, The Missing Sector Orb Weaver

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Photo taken and kindly supplied by Jenni Louise Cox

Most commonly it is the Missing Sector Orb Weaver, Zygiella x-notata, that is misidentified and ends up paying the ultimate price. In truth, these are easy to distinguish from False Widows before you even see the spider! No false widow will ever spin an orb web – the big, pretty, two-dimensional webs commonly seen. A Steatoda web is messy and in a corner, usually with the spider hiding out of sight in a tubular retreat, waiting for prey to get caught in the web. Missing Sector Orb Weaver spiders spin vertical 2-dimensional circular webs that often miss a section (hence the name) giving them a somewhat unfinished look.

Zygiella frequently gets mistaken for Steatoda as it shares the large bulbous abdomen and longer front legs of that genus and has pale markings that can superficially seem similar to Steatoda nobilis. However, the rest of the abdomen colouration is frequently lighter than Steatoda and the glossy, almost silvery abdomen lacks the pale anterior band characteristic of the Noble False Widow, having vertical dark stripes instead. The forelegs are also shorter than Steatoda’s; close but no cigar. This species makes up the majority of the spiders I am tasked to identify. It’s utterly harmless and it is a real shame to see so many of this attractive spider killed through ignorance.

2. Amaurobius sp. featuring Amaurobius similis, The Lace Web spider

amaourobiussmilisPhoto taken and kindly supplied by Jenni Louise Cox

Amaurobius pictures usually tend to be either A.similis  or A.fenestralis. They are normally misidentified as False Widows as they share a pale, marking on their abdomen and inhabit similar environs to Steatoda. However, upon closer inspection there are several differences – don’t worry, you won’t have to get too close!

The abdomen, whilst similar in markings, is a totally different shape to Steatoda, being more oval (even in a plump female) than the False Widow’s. It is also more matte or maybe satin than the False Widow’s shiny gloss finish. The legs are slightly thicker and it doesn’t have the four dimples on top of the abdomen that characterize Steatoda. An inspection of the patterning on the abdomen will reveal it to be different to S.nobilis, more yellowy-cream than the silver-white of the Noble False Widow. Nonetheless, Amaurobius is the second most frequently misidentified spider and I have seen all too many that have been killed based upon False (Widow) assumption.

3. Araneus sp. featuring Araneus diadematus, The Common Garden Spider

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The classic Garden Spider pose: Photo taken and kindly supplied by Jenni Louise Cox

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A female specimen awaiting prey. Photo taken and kindly supplied by Jenni Louise Cox

You’d think it unlikely that Araneus could be mistaken for Steatoda, but nonetheless this is the third most frequent suspect for misidentification as a False Widow. Again, simply by looking at the spider’s habitat you should be able to discount it from being Steatoda. Typically found in large, beautiful orb webs (as opposed to Steatoda’s messy web), particularly in September and October, Araneus have somewhat hairy or  ‘spiky’ striped legs that are more or less the same length – completely unlike Steatoda. The abdomen shape is also often completely different, having a more triangular shape tapered towards the bottom where the spinnerets are housed, particularly in the case of Araneus diadematus, our common Garden Spider. They also have a fantastic amount of variation in patterning and colouring. The abdomen can be anything from a light brown to black with the distinctive ‘cross’ shape varying from white to silver and sometimes gold. Truly, they are a beautiful native species that can be seen all over the country. Unfortunately they are still often mistaken for False Widows as they have a habit of wandering about between spinning webs – they will usually spin a different one every night! Again, they really do not look anything like Steadoda upon closer inspection and I am surprised so many pop up in ID requests. It is probably due to their general abundance, particularly at this time of year. Incidentally I have been bitten by one of these spiders at the tender age of about 12 when I picked one up and held it too tightly in my fist. Aside from the initial pain of the bite – no more than a pinprick – there were no effects.

4. Tegenaria sp. featuring Tegenaria domestica, the Common House spider

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Tegenaria domestica, the one you see scurrying across the kitchen floor, is also inclined to get stuck in baths. Tegenaria domestica; © 2004 by M. Betley (creative commons)

Tegenaria is the one that most people will see running about late at night. Favouring the warmth, they move into our houses this time of year and are one of our most active species. They probably only occur in ID requests due to this frequency of being seen. Usually if you see one out and about it is a male looking for a mate, so pity him and leave him alone. A male spider’s life is hard enough as it is, he doesn’t need you making it any harder (or flatter!) One of the main things that should discount Tegenaria from suspicion of being a False Widow straight away should be they are usually just too big! One of our biggest species, they can easily reach three or four inches (or feet if the general arachnophobe’s estimate is used!) Add to this the general ‘legginess’ and proportionally small abdomen and you should have no issues with thinking this is a Steatoda family member. Even a big female’s abdomen would be small in comparison to her legs and their markings are quite different, almost dappled tan and dark brown stripes. Prone to bolting if disturbed, a glass and piece of card is your best bet, as with all spiders.

5. Segestria sp. featuring Segestria senoculata, the Snake Backed Spider

ssecol

Photo taken and kindly supplied by Jenni Louise Cox

Segestria doesn’t crop up all that often, most likely because it is a somewhat reclusive spider. The genus is known largely as the Tube Web spider, from its tendency  to hide in tubular retreats in walls. It is one of the larger species in the UK and rather impressive-looking, with large mouth parts (or chelicerae) which in the case of S.florentina are an iridescent green! On the whole Segestria doesn’t really resemble Steatoda; the abdomen is somewhat elongated and the patterning is different.  In the case of S.senoculata the pattern resembles that of an Adder, which gives it its common name. In most Segestria, however, the patterning is a noticeably darker.

That said, it is not entirely outside the realms of possibility that someone could mistake this for a Steatoda of some description, especially if they encountered a gravid female, and it is for this reason that I have included the genus here. Segestria has been known to deliver a painful but otherwise harmless bite to humans, and should in no way be regarded as dangerous.

6: Nuctenea sp. featuring Nuctenea umbratica, the Walnut Orb Weaver Spider. 

numbratica

Photo taken and kindly supplied by Jenni Louise Cox

Similar to Araneus – indeed, until reclassified it was to be found in that genus – The Walnut Orb Spider has a vaguely triangular dark brown body and is found on large circular webs. It lacks the cross of A.diadematus but otherwise resembles a duller example of that specimen. One noticeable difference is that it is flatter in profile, allowing it to secrete itself in crevices whilst it waits for unsuspecting prey to blunder into its web. Indeed, umbratica means ‘living in the shadows’ in Latin. Some examples do have slightly lighter patterning and it is another species that could be mistaken for Steatoda. However, apart from sharing the four depressions on the abdomen they share little resemblance.

7: Theridion sp. featuring Theridion sisyphium, the ‘Mother Care’ spider

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Theridion Sp. likely T.sisyphium. Photo taken and kindly supplied by Jenni Louise Cox

No, despite its common name, T.sisyphium was not named after a large chain of stores selling baby products; rather  for its characteristic of tending to its young after they are born and feeding the hatchlings -not a common behaviour for true spiders. Sadly I have never seen one amongst the many arachnids I have been asked to ID, but I am including it as it does bear some resemblance to S.nobilis. T.sisyphium is, in my humble opinion, another example of a quite beautiful UK species.

With striking markings, this small species belongs to the aforementioned Theridion genus, which contains over 600 known species. this in turn is part of the family Theridiidae (over 2,200 species) which also contains the Lactrodectus and Steatoda genera – the Widow and False Widow spiders of recent interest. As you might expect, it does share many characteristics with these genera, round abdomen and lengthened forelegs amongst them. It is, however, much more heavily patterned than Steatoda nobilis, with a wonderful marbling and mottled colouration varying from tans and creams to white. Should you be lucky enough to see one, please don’t kill it, enjoy it and know that I am somewhat jealous!

Steatoda

So after all these innocent bystanders, let’s get to the real thing – the False Widow. I will feature the three main Steatoda species commonly found in the UK, culminating with S.nobilis itself.

S.bipunctata – The Rabbit Hutch spider

S_bipuncata

Photo taken and kindly supplied by Jenni Louise Cox

More than any other False Widow spider, S.bipunctata resembles the infamous Black Widow. She is dark brown, bulbous in abdomen, and generally uniform in colour, although light variants with a very small pale dorsal line exist. As with all Steatoda there are four giveaway dimples on top of a very smooth and round abdomen. The legs are longer at the front and these are rather small measuring no more than 3cm or so. Despite their resemblance to Black Widows, S.bipunctata are harmless by comparison.

S.grossa. – The False Widow Spider or cupboard spider

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Mature Male Steatoda grossa: Photo: Creative Commons License :Algirdas, 2005, Lithuania. Note that this is a male specimen, evidenced by the slighter build and enlarged pedipalps.

S.grossa looks a little like S.nobilis and has a similar bite, akin to a nasty bee sting that some may react adversely to. It has fewer markings than its close relation S.nobilis, normally looking like a series of arrows on the abdomen, and the distinctive anterior abdominal band. Want a bit of trivia? A painted S.grossa was used in Sam Rami’s Spiderman film as the spider that bit Peter Parker (note: neither the author nor the editor wish to imply that spider bites may bestow superpowers. Unfortunately.)

S.nobilis – The Noble False Widow.

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Steatoda nobilis. Photo taken and used with kind permission of Brenda Averly

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Another example of Steatoda nobilis, this time with decreased markings. Note, still, the elongated front legs and pale band round the front of the abdomen. Even though trapped under a glass, the spider is not reacting. Photo kindly supplied by Lauren Whitely. Well done for trapping and not killing it!

Which brings us to the beastie that everyone was so worked up about in the first place, the Noble False Widow spider. S.nobilis are small, averaging 2-3cm, with smooth-looking legs that are noticeably longer at the front. They generally have a large bulbous abdomen with a pale band round the front and a marking on the top that can variously resemble a skull, a trident, or other patterns dependent upon individual. Once you know what you are looking for, they are very distinctive and easy to spot. They are fairly clumsy when off their web and will retreat from any disturbance.

Males are generally more diminutive, with proportionally smaller abdomens and, if mature, enlarged pedipalps. Even once you have positively identified S.nobilis, there is no need to kill it. A glass and card can be used to safely remove the spider, should you be so inclined, or you can just leave it be and let it continue providing you a service by eating flies and other disease-carrying insects. S.nobilis will not bite unless provoked (like being caught against skin in clothing) even then the bite should be no worse than a nasty bee sting. I’ll say it again one more time and this time paraphrase the great Douglas Adams in my description. DON’T PANIC – MOSTLY HARMLESS. Ignore the nonsense the papers are spouting. S.nobilis has never killed anyone, nor has it eaten any flesh. They have been here for 140 years and are not a new species in the slightest. I have written multiple articles and even made a video in which I handle a specimen.

Hopefully this guide will stop people assuming every spider they see is a Steatoda. We are blessed with a great number of spider species in the UK, each of which forms a vital part of our ecosystem. Without our eight-legged friends we would be overrun with disease-carrying insects and in a far worse state all round. So the next time you see a spider, don’t be alarmed. If you need to remove it, do so using the tried and tested glass and card method and deposit it outside. Spiders are phenomenally adaptive and resourceful creatures and really do not deserve the levels of fear and danger which they have accrued. I will, in time be producing one final article in which I will discuss ways for people to try to overcome their fear of spiders, which is often irrational and based upon misunderstanding and misinformation, though often through no fault of their own. Until then, happy spider spotting! 

Allen Ward is an experienced keeper and breeder of arachnids, sharing his home with more than 300 spiders and tarantulas from all over the world – many of which have medically significant venom. He also has a large collection of various invertebrates and reptiles. The only times he has ever been bitten by spiders was when he was a child and was in the habit of just picking them up in the wild for a better look. He is still in possession of all of his limbs. He is available to advise on all relevant stories until the False Widow drama has died down – please contact the Elwell Press for details.

Guest Post: Weave Had Nothing But Bad Press

So like a bothersome pest – completely unlike our subject, which sits in a web and bothers no-one – the horror stories about deadly spiders just will not go away. Since the publication of my well-received first article, the gutter press have continued to spout their hysterical headlines: everything from vulnerable single mothers being attacked by spiders to babies eating False Widows, before resorting to writing about a mother just seeing and killing spiders – even though none of those spiders that she had killed was Steatoda nobilis. Bravo!

It’s all getting a little silly and thankfully, due to the efforts of myself and many likeminded individuals, the message seems to be getting though. Increasingly, the articles are being lambasted by the general citizenry for what they are: scurrilous attempts at scaremongering. So, while I’m pleased that people are now a little more informed about Steatoda nobilis I feel it would be remiss of us if I didn’t try to impart the same level of education on the part of Latrodectus mactans, the Black Widow spider, the new target of the tabloids’ sensationalist hyperbole with headlines like “Black Widow spider invasion from US sparks fear of lethal bites.

So we’d like to introduce you to the real Black Widow, and hopefully by the end of this article we can turn the much-feared Black Widow into the much respected Black Widow instead.

What’s in a name?

The Black Widow’s very moniker is designed to spread fear, coined for the female’s penchant for killing and eating the male spider shortly after mating. Far from being the Black Widow’s particular party trick, the males’ fate in the spider kingdom is frequently -although not always- to be eaten by the female. From a logical perspective this can make sense and is not simply a cruel act by Mrs Spider. Male spiders usually die shortly after reaching maturity. Their biological purpose is to become mature and mate. Once this has been achieved the male is redundant. He has passed on his genetic code and his existence is no longer biologically imperative. Please note, however, that the male does not willingly offer himself up: he has a sense of self-preservation and will likely try to escape after performing the deed. They just don’t always make it.

From the female’s perspective, she is about to lay hundreds of eggs which she will wrap up in a silken sac and defend with her life. Therefore, it is sensible to absorb as much nutrition as possible, and a male spider makes a fine meal. The male is sacrificed as a cruel necessity. So technically, all spiders have the potential to be ‘widows’ and there’s no real reason for Latrodectus to claim sole rights to the name. But then I guess just calling it the clumsy black-and-red spider doesn’t really have the same ring to it, eh? For the record, the Genus name Latrodectus comes from the Greek for ‘biting in secret’- they don’t just name these spiders at random, you know!

Image

Taken by Stuart Longhorn, Latrodectus Sp. in natural habitat in Central America

The lady herself

Just like Steatoda, the False Widows –including the species S.nobilis, the Noble False Widow of recent reports – it is the females of Latrodectus that bite. The females are easy to distinguish being many times larger and bulkier than the males. The Eastern Black Widow Spider (Latrodectus mactans) is one of 32 confirmed species, and is usually jet black, (although some variations with dorsal red markings exist) with a highly distinctive red hourglass marking on the underneath of the abdomen of both sexes, although it is more vivid on a female. Certainly experts should not be troubled with the same volume of mistaken Identity cases that Steatoda has caused, resembling as it does so many other UK species currently being slaughtered in its stead. This said there is significant variety amongst Latrodectus with many weird and wonderful variants each more colourful than the last.

Despite the papers’ reports about the abundance and deadliness of Black Widows in the UK, they are found here in very small numbers. They came over in imports from the US, this much is true, but they are isolated to just a few small colonies in the south in and are not likely to be seen. The main reason for this is that they like to stay in their webs and are not likely to attack. In fact, Latrodectus are comically uncoordinated when not in their haphazard webs and could quite comfortably be described as clumsy; certainly more Bridget Jones than Femme Fatale. Subsequently, you are very unlikely to see one or even be close to one, and given their distinctive markings and lack of similarity to other species it is likely that reports will be few and far between. They are also rather small, reaching no more than 4cm or so. So in a nutshell, you’re looking for small black spiders that have a distinctive, easily-seen hourglass shape on the ‘belly’, and stay in a haphazard-looking web. Most of us will go our entire lives without ever seeing one.

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Taken by Stuart Longhorn, Latrodectus Sp. in natural habitat in Central America

The reports

We’ll take an article from the stalwart of shoddy reporting, the Daily Star, who have featured a spider story every day this week and show no signs of stopping: Black Widow spider invasion from US sparks fear of lethal bites. This article should be issued to GCSE Media Studies classes for careful language analysis. First, this must be the first time ‘six’ has constituted an invasion. Secondly, all of Graeme Skinner’s quotes have been taken out of context. The line “Black Widows have come in this year” is a statement, not a warning: they come in every year, along with many other species that don’t get reported or become an established species. “Experts fear there could be widespread deaths,” but mysteriously wouldn’t go on the record to comment further on that? Thirdly, the only thing “terrifying Brits” is the tabloids’ misjudged reports.

Ricki Whitmore may have suffered a gruesome leg wound, but it was almost certainly not from the venom or the bite; secondary infection is the most likely cause. Also, “it is only a matter of time before they kill” is a dangerously misleading overstatement, and is directly contradicted in Mr Skinner’ next quote. For the record, nearly anyone can get a Dangerous Wild Animals License, provided certain criteria are met and the license fee (which varies hugely from borough to borough) is paid. We at the Elwell Press feel that the spider’s bite is the least of the Star editorial team’s worries – if Latrodectus could engage a libel lawyer, the arachnophobes of Wapping would really be in trouble.

The bite

If you are ever unfortunate enough to be bitten by a Latrodectus species, then seek medical attention immediately, retaining the spider’s body in a secure container for examination if possible. Although unlikely to be fatal to a healthy adult, being bitten will be a deeply unpleasant experience. Typical symptoms are localised swelling, nausea, tremors, a fever, and painful muscle cramping. Like Steatoda,Latrodectus has a neurotoxic venom, although it will certainly not rot or dissolve your flesh. Latrodectus bites have killed in the past, although fatalities are extremely rare. The young or the old are particularly vulnerable as their bodies lack the capacity to safely metabolize the venom. However, an effective anti-venom against toxic components of Latrodectus venom has existed for many years, and been regularly used throughout the world for effective treatment of bites.

As worrying as that sounds, there is another glimmer of good news. As stated previously, you are extremely unlikely to ever encounter a Black Widow spider. The chances of coming across one are infinitesimally small; in spite of recent claims, they exist in tiny numbers in the UK and, like all spiders, will avoid human interaction as far as possible. This round of fearmongering will backfire on the papers as the lack of sightings fail to hold readers’ interest. This correspondent has been asked to identify a great many spiders in photographs of varying quality, some of which were barely recognisable as spiders. None of these have been Latrodectus, and only about 20 percent have even been Steatoda. It would be astonishing should widespread reports of Black Widow spiders surface.

In time, Latrodectus may well become an established species in the UK. As climate change continues to be a powerful force in dictating animal habitat and behaviour, we may well see, in several years’ time, Black Widow spiders becoming more prevalent. In that eventuality, what will we do? Well, I guess we’ll just have to deal with it the same way that other countries where these spiders are abundant do: with caution but not panic, with respect but not fear. Leave well enough alone and no harm will come to you. Deaths from Latrodectus venom are extremely uncommon, normally only occurring in freak instances where multiple bites are recorded.

In the UK, we do not have overtly dangerous or lethal species present in the wild in any great numbers. From an exotic animal perspective, we are a rather boring island. Should we ever reach the stage where such potentially harmful invertebrates are more commonplace, then we will simply need to adapt. After all, if Latrodectus ever became that much of a problem an antivenom is readily available; that there is no antivenom for Steatoda bites should indicate the seriousness with which their bites are to be regarded. So let’s not lose our heads when we have extremely isolated and small numbers of a relatively medically significant spider like Latrodectus present as an interloper from foreign shores. Stiff upper lip and all, chaps! Best foot forward, and in true British fashion, let’s keep calm and carry on.

Allen Ward is an experienced keeper and breeder of arachnids, sharing his home with more than 300 spiders and tarantulas from all over the world – many of which have medically significant venom. He also has a large collection of various invertebrates and reptiles. The only times he has ever been bitten by spiders was when he was a child and was in the habit of just picking them up in the wild for a better look. He is still in possession of all of his limbs. He is available to advise on all relevant stories until the False Widow drama has died down – please contact the Elwell Press for details.