Liam Creedon on the false widow spider
Spiders. Big ones, little ones, stripy ones, hairy ones – at this time of year there is seemingly no escape from arachnids, as they decide to wedge themselves en masse into every nook and cranny of our homes.
The sight of a large house spider can momentarily catch even the most fearless off their guard. So news that a venomous impostor, related to the deadly Black Widow, has embarked upon an unstoppable conquest has sent mild panic among garden shed aficionados across the UK.
The offender in question is Steatoda nobilis – the Noble False Widow spider.
So is the British Black Widow really on the rampage, and should we start to panic?
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Dr John Tweddle, head of the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity at the Natural History Museum, urges caution. "Yes, the species is both becoming more common and widespread. It's not an influx as such, rather that existing populations are expanding," he explains.
"It's worth remembering that spider bites are extremely rare within the UK and are much less frequent than, for example, bee or wasp stings. It's not an aggressive species towards humans and is most likely to bite when prodded or squashed, or trapped in clothing."
The prospect that British spiders are even capable of biting may cause some alarm, but of the UK's 650 species, only around a dozen have fangs large enough to deliver a nip.
Steatoda nobilis is one of six false widows found in the UK. It lives in or around houses and is the largest and most venomous of the group. Armed with a dark, compact body and strong reddish-brown legs, it does bear an unnerving similarity to the much-feared Black Widow. But the Noble False Widow is here by accident. First spotted in Torquay, Devon, in the late 1800s, its distribution was initially quite localised. But in recent decades, populations have rapidly spread and the species is now found in many parts of southern England.
Dr Tweddle suspects that climate change could enable the British Black Widow to spread
"It is likely that this spread is at least partly a response to a changing climate and, as such, we're expecting the species to continue to increase its distribution within the UK," he says. "It is most likely that the spider arrived as an accidental stowaway on a boat. It's native to the Canary Islands and Madeira."
This autumn, the Society of Biology is asking people to pluck up their courage and take a closer look at the spiders hurtling past the UK's skirting boards. It has launched the free app "Spider in da House", complete with species photos and information, to help people identify and record house spiders.
But for those who can't stomach the thought of sharing their home with a spider, the advice is – scoop them up with a piece of card, pop them into a cup and deposit them outside.