Many people fear or dislike spiders but, for the most part, spiders are beneficial because of their role as predators of insects and other arthropods, and most cannot harm people. Spiders that might injure people—for example, black widows—generally spend most of their time hidden under furniture or boxes, or in woodpiles, corners, or crevices. The spiders commonly seen out in the open during the day are unlikely to bite people.
The Brown Recluse, notorious for poisonous bites, are not a common species in California: there are no populations of the brown recluse in the state and fewer than 20 verified specimens have been collected over several decades in California. Yet in California people frequently relate stories in which they or someone they know was supposedly bitten or they have had a physician diagnose them with a brown recluse spider bite. However, there are several other species of recluse spiders that can occur in southern areas of California and that can cause similar medical concerns.
The most definitive physical feature of recluse spiders is their eyes: most spiders have eight eyes that typically are arranged in two rows of four, but recluse spiders have six equal-sized eyes arranged in three pairs, called dyads. There is a dyad at the front of the cephalothorax (the first main body part to which the legs attach) and another dyad on each side further back with a space separating the dyads from one another.
Some other spiders share each of these physical characteristics. However, to be identified as a recluse spider, it must have all five of these characteristics.
- Six eyes in dyads (pairs)
- Uniformly colored abdomen with fine hairs
- No spines on the legs
- Uniformly colored legs
- Body not more than 3/8” in length
Spiders resemble insects and sometimes are confused with them, but they are arachnids, not insects. Spiders have eight legs and two body parts—a head region and an abdomen. They lack wings and antennae. Although spiders often are found on plants, they eat mainly insects, other spiders, and related arthropods, not plants. Most spiders have toxic venom, which they use to kill their prey. However, only those spiders whose venom typically causes a serious reaction in humans are called “poisonous” spiders.
Common Spider Families in North America.
Funnel weavers or grass spiders
Sit-and-wait predators feed during the day and night on the ground in most types of vegetation, including low-growing plants and trees. Spin funnel-shaped webs, often with several-inch-wide, flat extension covering plants or soil. The spider waits in the hole of its web. When it detects vibrations from an insect that flew or walked into the web, the spider runs out, captures and bites the prey, then carries it back into the funnel to be eaten. Webs on low vegetation become conspicuous in morning light after collecting dew. Funnel weavers have six or eight eyes, all about the same size, arranged in two rows. About 300 species in North America.
Orb weavers or garden spiders
Feed on insects that fly, fall, or are blown into web. Elaborate silken webs are spun in concentric circles. Spiderlings often make symmetrical webs; mature spiders may spin a more specialized design that is helpful in identifying certain species. The spider rests at the center of its web or hides in a shelter near the edge, waiting for prey to become entangled. Orb weavers generally have poor vision and rely on web vibrations to locate and identify prey. About 200 species in North America.
Sac spiders or two-clawed hunting spiders
Stalk and capture prey that is walking or resting on surfaces. They spin silken tubes or sacs under bark, among leaves, and in low plants or on the ground, where they hide during the day or retreat after hunting. Commonly are nocturnal, medium-sized, pale spiders with few markings. About 200 species in North America.
Prey on insects that fall, walk, or land in their web. Diurnal (day active) spiders occurring in the plant canopy and among litter on the ground. They produce sheetlike webs on the surface of plants or soil and are common in some field and vegetable crops. Most are relatively small. Several hundred species in North America.
Prey on insects that are walking or resting on the ground. Actively hunt in the open during the day and night, often observed on the ground in litter and on low vegetation. Can occur in burrows and under debris on soil. Instead of spinning webs to catch prey, make a small, thick web where they rest. Have a distinctive pattern of eyes: four small eyes in front in a straight row, one middle pair of larger eyes, and one rear pair of widely spaced eyes on top of the head. They have long hairy legs. They are usually black and white or strongly contrasting light and dark, which can make them difficult to discern unless they are moving. About 200 species in North America.
Stalk and capture resting or walking insects. Active hunters with good vision. Most have spiny legs and a brightly colored body that tapers sharply toward the rear. They have four pairs of eyes grouped in a hexagon. About 2 dozen known species in North America.
Day-active hunters in plants or on the ground. They make no web; instead they stalk and pounce on prey by jumping distances many times their body length. Jumping spiders have a distinctive pattern of eyes in three rows: the first row of four eyes, with large and distinctive middle eyes; a second row of two very small to minute eyes; and a third row of two medium sized eyes. They usually have an iridescent, metallic-colored abdomen and black carapace. About 300 species in North America.
Cobweb weaver, or combfooted spiders
Feed on insects that walk or fly into their webs. Almost always found hanging upside down by their claws in irregularly spun, sticky webs, waiting for prey. The spider is usually concealed in a corner of the web, in a silken tent, or behind debris. This group includes the black widow spider, which produces relatively thick silk that feels rough and sticky. They generally have a soft, round, bulbous abdomen and slender legs without spines. Over 200 species in North America.
Crab spiders or flower spiders
Stalk and capture insects walking or resting on surfaces. Diurnal hunters that do not spin webs. Front two pairs of legs are enlarged and extend beyond the side of their flattened body, making them look like tiny crabs. Their small eyes occur in two slightly curved rows, with the top row often much wider than the lower row. Over 200 species in North America.
Unlike mosquitoes, spiders do not seek people in order to bite them. Generally, a spider doesn’t try to bite a person unless it has been squeezed, lain on, or similarly provoked to defend itself. Moreover, the jaws of most spiders are so small that the fangs cannot penetrate the skin of an adult person. Sometimes when a spider is disturbed in its web, it may bite instinctively because it mistakenly senses that an insect has been caught.
The severity of a spider bite depends on factors such as the kind of spider, the amount of venom injected, and the age and health of the person bitten. A spider bite might cause no reaction at all, or it might result in varying amounts of itching, redness, stiffness, swelling, and pain—at worst, usually no more severe than a bee sting. Typically the symptoms persist from a few minutes to a few hours. Like reactions to bee stings, however, people vary in their responses to spider bites, so if the bite of any spider causes an unusual or severe reaction, such as increasing pain or extreme swelling, contact a physician, hospital, or poison control center (in California, the number is 1-800-222-1212).
Sometimes a person may not be aware of having been bitten until pain and other symptoms begin to develop. Other species of arthropods whose bites or stings may be mistaken for that of a spider include ticks, fleas, bees, wasps, bedbugs, mosquitoes, the conenose (kissing) bug, deer flies, horse flies, and water bugs.
For first aid treatment of a spider bite, wash the bite, apply an antiseptic to prevent infection, and use ice or ice water to reduce swelling and discomfort. Bites or stings from a variety of arthropods can result in an itching wound. Rather than scratching, if necessary, try to relieve the itch with medication. Scratching can break the skin and introduce bacterial infection, which you or even a physician may mistake for an arachnid bite. If you receive a bite that causes an unusual or severe reaction, contact a physician. If you catch the critter in the act, save it for identification, preserve it (or whatever parts of it remain), and take it to your county UC Cooperative Extension office. If no one there can identify it, ask that it be forwarded to a qualified arachnologist.
Black Widow Spider
The black widow spider, is the most common harmful spider in California. Venom from its bite can cause reactions ranging from mild to painful and serious, but death is very unlikely and many symptoms can be alleviated if medical treatment is obtained. Anyone bitten by this spider should remain calm and promptly seek medical advice; it is helpful if the offending spider can be caught and saved for identification.
The typical adult female black widow has a shiny black body, slender black legs, and a red or orange mark in the shape of an hourglass on the underside of the large, round abdomen. The body, excluding legs, is 5/16 to 5/8 inch long. Only the larger immature female and adult female spiders are able to bite through a person’s skin and inject enough venom to cause a painful reaction.
The adult male black widow is one-half to two-thirds the length of the female, has a small abdomen, and is seldom noticed. The male black widow does possess venom, but its fangs are too small to break human skin. The top side of its abdomen is olive-greenish gray with a pattern of cream-colored areas and one light-colored band going lengthwise down the middle. The hourglass mark on the underside of the abdomen typically is yellow or yellow-orange and broad waisted. The legs are banded with alternating light and dark areas. Contrary to popular belief, the female black widow rarely eats the male after mating but may do so if hungry. Like males, young female black widow spiders are patterned on the top side. In the early stages they greatly resemble males but gradually acquire the typical female coloration with each shedding of the skin. In intermediate stages they have tan or cream-colored, olive-gray, and orange markings on the top side of the abdomen, a yellowish orange hourglass mark on the underside, and banded legs.
Webs and Egg Sacs. The web of the black widow is an irregular, tough-stranded, sticky cobweb mesh in which the spider hangs with its underside up. During the day it often hides under an object at the edge of the web or stays in a silken retreat in the center. The black widow may rush out of its hiding place when the web is disturbed, especially if egg sacs are present. The egg sacs are mostly spherical, about 1/2 inch long and 5/8 inch in diameter, creamy yellow to light tan in color, opaque, and tough and paperlike on the surface. A female may produce several egg sacs. Tiny, young black widows, which are nearly white in color, disperse to new locations by ballooning and infest new areas.
Where the Spiders Live. Black widow spiders occur in most parts of California. They and their associated webs usually are found in dark, dry, sheltered, relatively undisturbed places such as among piles of wood, rubbish, or stones; in culverts, hollow stumps, and old animal burrows; in garages, sheds, barns, crawl spaces, utility meter boxes, and outhouses; and sometimes among plants. People are most likely to be bitten when they disturb the spider while they are cleaning out or picking up items in such places. A sensible precaution is to always wear gloves and a long-sleeved shirt when working in areas that have been undisturbed for a time and where there are good hiding places for spiders.
Effects of the Bite. The symptoms of a black widow bite are largely internal; little more than local redness and swelling may develop at the bite site. The internal effects may range from mild to severe. Pain tends to spread from the bite to other parts of the body and muscular spasms may develop. In severe cases the abdominal muscles may become quite rigid. Other effects can include profuse sweating, fever, increased blood pressure, difficulty breathing and speaking, restlessness, and nausea. Typically, the pain and other symptoms reach a maximum within a day of the bite, then gradually subside over the next 2 to 3 days. Most people who are bitten spend a few hours under observation by a physician but do not develop symptoms severe enough to require treatment. Small children, the elderly, and persons with health problems are likely to suffer some of the more severe consequences of the bite. Black widow bites are fairly common in California.