A black widow spider. Photo by Flickr user Ramones Karaoke
The United Kingdom has faced many existential threats in its long and storied history, from the classics like Nazis and nuclear war, to more modern and sophisticated perils like Islamist terrorists, avian flu and Robin Thicke's permanent hard on. In recent weeks though, a new threat has emerged unlike any other: the false widow spider.
This autumn has, in the words of the Mirror, seen a “spate of terrifying incidents involving false widow spiders”. The crisis reached new heights this week when a school in the Forest of Dean was closed, after staff found an infestation of the arachnids in the school’s ICT department. (Presumably they were trying to get on the web – ayooooo.)
So, in scenes not witnessed since the Great Killer Fox Epidemic of last winter, innocent civilians going about their lives are being attacked in their homes and gardens by gigantic enraged spiders filled with deadly venom. And thanks to climate change, the spiders’ range is expanding year-by-year, putting an ever-growing portion of the UK at risk.
Some of the cases brought to light by bored tabloid hacks spotting stories in local newspapers are pretty shocking. If scars are sexy, Richard Whitmore has one of the sexiest thighs in history after his encounter with one of the fanged fuckers almost led to his leg being amputated. He lost most of the muscle mass in his thigh, and faces several months of intensive physiotherapy to get back on his feet again.
Then there’s John Catlin, a grandfather, who was bitten on the toe while making a bonfire, causing his foot to swell up with giant yellow blisters. Or, as the Daily Star put it, “Killer false widow spider made my leg explode!” Doctors saved his foot, but Catlin had apparently been suffering the after effects for more than a year before he finally decided to go public and warn others: “I remember the nurse telling me that other spider bites she’d seen had completely cleared up after three months but that turned out to be cobblers."
Except that’s not the only part of this story that’s cobblers. It turns out that the giant yellow blisters on Catlin’s foot weren’t any sort of reaction to spider toxin, but the result of a strep infection picked up when bacteria entered the small puncture wound. The details of Whitmore’s case are also pretty vague. We’re told that his leg had to be sliced open to clean out the "poison", but it’s not at all clear from the Mirror’s reporting (or the Mail’s) whether the poison in question was venom or the subsequent infection – I’d tend to assume the latter.
More than that, it’s not clear whether some of these people were ever really bitten by false widows in the first place. Whitmore at least saw the spider bite him, but even then misidentification is likely – I’ve not described what a false widow looks like in this article yet, and I bet most of you couldn’t without a quick google. Catlin recalls being bitten on the toe, but there’s no indication in reports that he saw what bit him. Other accounts are even less reliable: a footballer bitten in his sleep witnessed nothing, while a grandmother attacked in the boob woke up startled and saw something scuttling away at high speed.
The truth is, false widows aren’t killers and they aren’t deadly. Bites are incredibly rare, and the venom is no more "deadly" than a string from a bee or a wasp. The main difference being that while stings from bees and wasps kill several people a year, the false widow spider has never killed anybody in the UK, ever. As killers go, it’s about as dangerous as a Scooby-Doo villain.
The tabloid hysteria about the spider is eerily reminiscent of the ongoing panic about foxes. Fox stories reached the level of self-parody last year, when newspapers reported that a fox mugged a 15-stone man outside a Tesco in Orpington, forcing him to hand over a loaf of garlic bread. Foxes of course being one of the biggest natural predators of the garlic bread. The garlic butter on that cake of a story was Metro’s decision to enlist a wildlife deterrence specialist, John Bryant, who explained to readers that the best way to avoid fox-mugging was to carry a water pistol. Bryant is a real person, and not played by Chris Morris.
The same pattern occurred back then – incredibly hokey stories from often-unreliable witnesses that escalated to the point where foxes were supposedly creeping into people’s houses and attacking babies. Few accounts were backed with even the most basic evidence, and presenter Chris Packham was pretty brave in standing up and calling bullshit at the time, prompting the Daily Mail to deploy their worst insult against him: “BBC Man”.
At the time, it seemed that tabloids might have been playing up the stories in a bid to overturn the ban on fox-hunting. It’s hard to imagine a similar agenda at work here, though – Lord Fotherington-Smythe doesn’t spend his weekends on horseback chasing flocks of starlings as they pursue a frantic spider across the fields and meadows of southern England, and if he did I don’t think the activity would be under threat. At least not from animal rights activists – mental health professionals might take a different view. Nope, this is basic tabloid sensationalism, and we should point and laugh at it for the silliness it is.
Follow Martin on Twitter: @mjrobbins