the hitchhiker   15 comments

Posted at 8:07 am in spiders

As you might guess, each day is now crammed with many errands and odd jobs as I move the last of my belongings into storage, clean up the house and yard, and marshal all of our gear for the autumn-winter trip. A couple of days ago, while my mom was out for a visit, I was showing her some feature on the back of my van. I happened to notice some webbing around the trailer hitch and decided to pull the plastic cover cap off of the square hitch opening. As I pulled at the cap, there was a surprising amount of tension and it was then that I noticed a stretchy piece of webbing with a couple of moths dangling from it. Being quite familiar with spider webs, the amount of tension in the web threads struck me as odd and unfamiliar, and then I thought of how messy the webbing around the hitch looked — and that immediately set me to wondering if there was some species of Widow (Latrodectus) spider lurking about.

The webbing snapped and I inspected the inside the plastic cover in my hand. Indeed, there was the spider, hanging prettily in a bit of webbing on the inside of the cap. I noticed she wasn’t quite as dark as the other Widow spiders that I’ve seen. This one was dark brown with curving lateral lines, with the typically bright reddish-orange hourglass pattern on the underside of the abdomen. Her long, hackled legs were a two-tone brown.

As most of you know, I’m not much for killing spiders — basically, I’m pretty much a live and let live person and only occasionally collect invertebrate specimens if asked to by a biologist friend. However, I decided that releasing this non-native spider would be rather irresponsible even if she couldn’t tough out our winter, so I dropped her into a vial of alcohol and will pass her along to someone who can make use of the specimen for a collection.

This morning, I did a bit of looking around online, and it seems as though this spider might be a Brown Widow (Latrodectus geometricus), commonly found in Florida – which is where my van came from back in May. So, my hitchhiking spider must have come up to Canada inside the trailer hitch opening. When I extracted the webbing inside the hitch, I found at least two or three exuviae tangled up with a variety of dead insects, so she appears to have done remarkably well stowed away beneath the van. In this factsheet from the Univ. of Florida, Sarasota, it is said of the distribution of the Brown Widow:

Since this article was first written in 2000, this spider has spread throughout Florida and people have reported sightings of it from Southern California, Colorado, Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. Complaints about its occurrence in cars and RVs indicate this spider will make it home in these sites. Cars, trucks, and RVs have probably helped to distribute this spider far and wide. Its rapid expansion in Florida in the late 90s may have been the result of the milder winters. However, the most important factor in its expansion has probably been transportation by vehicles. The Extension Office continues to receive complaints asking how to rid them from in and under cars.

It also quotes Dr. G. B. Edwards, an arachnologist with the Florida State Collection of Arthropods in Gainesville as saying, the brown widow venom is twice as potent as black widow venom. However, they do not inject as much venom as a black widow, are very timid, and do not defend their web. The brown widow is also slightly smaller than the black widow.

Sounds pretty much like this spider’s modus operandi of hitchhiking around on vehicles. No doubt, our winter would have finished her off, but it’s easy to see how such spiders have so easily dispersed across North America.

Written by bev on August 25th, 2009

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15 Responses to 'the hitchhiker'

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  1. Yikes! Good thing you’re sharp-eyed. If it’d been me, I’d be in the hospital by now.


    25 Aug 09 at 8:46 am

  2. What an interesting find, bev. That spider had come a long way, and was about to head to Arizona. That would have been another new state for it to expand its territory.

    robin andrea

    25 Aug 09 at 9:31 am

  3. Your combination of awareness, knowledge, and intuition will continue to serve you well on your journey. This is a good example of that.

    How easy it would have been, had you not noticed the spider and the eggs, to have brought them to Arizona and other warm places where you will be traveling. Amazing to learn how frequently Brown Widows nest in motor vehicles!

    Having grown up in California, where there are Black Widows, I recognized the spider’s hourglass immediately. It’s the only spider that I know by name.

    This is an active season for spiders, isn’t it? A few days ago, as I began washing dishes, I was startled to see a very large common spider in my sink. After capturing it with a clear glass, I put it out on my porch. As you know, I have learned to respond to spiders and insects in a live and let live manner (for the most part!) as a result of your blog.

    The reflection next to the Brown Widow looks to me like a cave drawing of an alert Caribou.

    Sending good wishes to you as the time to begin traveling with Sabrina and Sage approaches.


    25 Aug 09 at 10:27 am

  4. Holy shit! That spider looks scary!! Glad you noticed it and stayed out of danger!


    25 Aug 09 at 12:28 pm

  5. Happy Trails! Enjoy your new journey.
    Chris in WYoming

    Chris in WYoming

    25 Aug 09 at 3:22 pm

  6. Dave – I was musing about that aspect of paying so much attention to tiny insects. Probably a good thing!

    robin – Isn’t it incredible how non-native flora and fauna hitchhike around. It’s something that we all need to keep in mind during our travels.

    am – I’m truly glad that you’ve found that my blog has helped you to feel comfortable around insects and spiders. Over the past couple of years, I’ve received several notes from readers who have said much the same thing. How cool that you saw the caribou shape in the spider reflection. I first cropped this photo to omit most of the reflection, and then thought how interesting it seemed, although I didn’t notice the caribou until you mentioned it. You’re so right — that’s just how it looks.

    arvind – I assure you that the spider is much less scary in person. It’s not quite as large as some of the other Widow spiders I’ve seen, and certainly nowhere near as impressive as the large Pseudotarantula that I once found in a bath towel when camped in the redwoods near Garberville!

    Chris – Hi! So good to hear from you! I hope you’re doing well.


    25 Aug 09 at 4:28 pm

  7. spiders are amazing….and should be cared for….have a great journey…and be safe


    26 Aug 09 at 10:24 am

  8. I didn’t realize there were other kinds of widow spiders. We have what I consider the classic black widow here. In fact, we have lots of them everywhere around our house. I never turn over a stone or piece of wood on the ground without considering that there might be a black widow under it. Not to mention the occasional scorpion. I typically don’t kill them since they typically mind their own business.


    26 Aug 09 at 1:08 pm

  9. Bev – good sleuthing! A story that wouldn’t have been told if you hadn’t recognized the differences and identified the spider. I wonder what compels the species to seek out vehicles? Or maybe it’s an illusion and they’re much more common than we think, but in this case a little more adventuresome than their shy cousins?

    I’ve had to overcome mild arachniphobia – the route through photography and learning was a successful one. But black widows still give me the creeps – the arachniphobia comes back full force.


    27 Aug 09 at 5:42 am

  10. Bev, good catch on the Widow…I’m sure I would have taken it along for the ride. So, you’re off to Arizona now…how about a detour into Texas?!


  11. Oh Bev!

    I’ve not been here in soooo long and then to find this most interesting post!

    My. My. My. Live is endlessly fascinating.

    Much going on here with family members and aging bodies and I do so need to catch up with you.

    Thank you so much for dropping by my blog. It was reassuring to see you there as my mind and heart often touch on you, your pups and your journey to the center.

    Gentle Hug,


    31 Aug 09 at 11:54 am

  12. wayne – Thanks for the good wishes!

    Mark – This spider seemed like a “minds its own business” type as well. I had to change the tire on the van and worked under the hitch a couple of times to remove and replace the spare and no previous sign of the spider. If they were normally around my place, I’d be inclined to just leave them be as well.

    Wayne – Yes, I wonder if the roaming around on vehicles is actually peculiar to them, or if it’s just that they are plentiful and so looking for any place to hang out? I’ve never had much feeling of arachnophobia. I remember playing with harvestman and spiders when I was about four or five, so I guess I never minded them too much.

    John – if Texas were between Vancouver and Arizona, I’d probably be penciling in a stop along the way! I don’t know if I’ll make it there this year, but it may figure in next winter’s plans.

    Cathy – Great to see you dropping by for a visit! I’ve been wondering how everything is with you. I think of you often too. If you’re in Arizona this winter, do think of coming for a visit, okay?! (-:


    31 Aug 09 at 7:24 pm

  13. Interesting! I’m used to finding black widows in the corners of our garage and in our garden in Northern California, but when I visited my parents in Southern California a couple weeks ago, I saw one of these wrapping up a worm in its web. Unlike a black widow, however, it was hanging out in an exposed and very well-lit location on the wall of the house. Thanks for helping me to make the identification!

    Leslie M-B

    3 Sep 09 at 12:08 am

  14. Leslie – That’s a very good observation about the spiders that you’ve noticed hanging out in exposed and well-lit locations. That would certainly explain why this species is a little more mobile than the widow spiders we’ve become accustomed to in the past.


    6 Sep 09 at 8:06 pm

  15. This could still be a black widow spider. The hoglaruss is on the belly, not the back but even so, I’ve seen black widows in which the hoglaruss was broken or incomplete. On the back, I’ve seen various red, yellow, beige, and white markings, and even no markings at all on the back.


    5 Aug 14 at 8:26 pm

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