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iSeeChange: Spiders

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It’s Halloween. Costumes are ready, the candy is bought, and houses are decked out with pumpkins and scary decorations. Some of those decorations include black cats, bats, and spider webs. In the last couple of months, residents on the Western Slope have reported to KVNF’s iSeeChange Project they’ve been seeing more spiders than usual this fall, particularly BLACK WIDOW spiders. Reporter Julia Kumari Drapkin has this story.

It was a DARK and STORMY night in Paonia!

Well, actually, it was rather warm September night without a drop in the sky. 

Suddenly, Sarah Sauter woke up in bed.

"And my shoulder hurt. And I thought, oh, maybe I slept on it wrong. But it really hurt!"

She noticed she developing a rash, "And that triggered a memory, a week ago I had seen a black widow on my bed."

The distinct red hour glass shape on the back of a black widow spider is hard to mistake. But Sarah Sauter is the kind of girl who doesn’t like to kill any spiders, even black widows. She thinks they’re good for insect control.  So she ignored it. If fact, she had just plain forgotten it had been there. Until now.

So Sarah did what any modern woman would do, she got online. A Google search for “Black widow bite” lists rash as the first symptom of the spider’s neurotoxin.

"I was very rational. I started Facebooking my friends. If I’m dead, I got bitten by a spider last night."

One friend was up and stayed with her via text messages as the real pain started, says Sauter.

"Pain started shooting slowly down my back and it was one of the most intense cramping feelings I had ever had. I couldn’t lay down, I couldn’t stand up! I couldn’t stay on the couch,  I was just wriggling around and writhing with pain."

Then came the burning feet and the shaking. Sauter had to be admitted to the hospital – TWICE.  

"The day I came home from the hospital, I think it was the first time. I found the spider on the side of my bed all shriveled up. So I don’t know if I rolled over it, or I decided to crush it with my shoulder, but I did find that there was a nest above my bed."

And another person Sauter knows found one in her bed, too, "A coworker! I think it was the very next night after I got bit, there was one under her covers CRAWLING on her!"

Now around September, residents on the Western Slope are used to seeing black widows. Fall is the season when spiders reach maturity, lay eggs, and die. But Sauter and a few others feel like there’s been more spiders than usual and that it might be due to the unusual weather.

"I’ve heard that black widows, scorpions, hornets,  all sorts of critters- LIKE the hot dry summers and that they're around in higher numbers right now. I hear a lot of stories about people getting bit and people getting stung.  So my question is - with the hot dry summers,   can we expect more interactions between venomous insects and humans??"

"Sarah, I don’t have a simple answer for your question."

Linda Rayor teaches spider biology at Cornell University. She studies the social behaviors of  social spiders and teaches spider biology at Cornell University.  She’s originally from Colorado, from Denver, but  says she doesn’t remember seeing black widows growing up

"But my parents tell me they have them in the garage at this point."

Linda says there’s a lot of factors at play when spider populations increase  and weather is often part of the equation.

"So on a hot dry summer basically there’s lots of insects, they’re doing well. As long as we’re not talking a complete drought and Dust Bowl, the insects are growing, they’re growing faster, so there’s lots of food for the spiders to eat."

And more food means, spiders have more energy. Black widows are famous for eating their males spiders after mating, but what’s really amazing to Linda is their rate of reproduction.

"A black widow starts reproducing when she’s about 3 months old. She produces on average 9 egg sacs in her lifetime and each of those egg sacs contains as much as 2,000 young per sac. I mean that’s crazy high numbers. And so if you’ve got a good summer where there’s lots of insect prey out there, then you not only have bigger, fatter, black widows and other spiders but you have bigger, fatter, MORE spiders."

And Colorado’s warm season--the period between April and September--was  the warmest ever recorded since records were kept, so it’s a safe bet that spiders were happy outdoors. As for indoors, Rayor says spiders may come looking for water or warmth if there’s a sudden cold spell. And there are plenty of structures for them to spin webs. But Rayor says she doesn't know about people’s beds.

"Generally adult females aren't wandering around, they’re staying in their web. I have no idea how they would be getting spiders into their bed."

But she does have an idea about venomous interactions.

"Basically there aren’t that many poisonous spiders. Most spiders are harmless to humans and are really cool and should be left alone."

While hypothetically more spiders in general could mean more bites, spiders release venom only only half the time, says Rayor.

"50% of time, they just don’t use the venom. So although people get bitten, it doesn’t do the damage."

In other words, Sarah Sauter was really unlucky. Still, Rayor thinks she should have gone ahead and gotten rid of the Black Widow when she saw it the first time.

"That was a mistake. You really don’t want black widows in your house."

And Sauter agrees, "If I ever see a black widow again in my life, I will grab the nearest shoe and take care of it."

But at least she says, she has a good scary Halloween costume this year.

Produced by Julia Kumari Drapkin, the iSeeChange project at KVNF is part of Localore, a nationwide production of AIR designed to accelerate transformation and extend public service media to all Americans.   KVNF was selected as one of  only 10 Localore stations across the country—learn more at airmediaworks.org. Localore is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Wyncote Foundation, the John T. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Interactive storytelling partner Zeega co-produced TheAlmanac.org with iSeeChange.

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