Free Ride: The Hitchiking Brown Widow

Kieran Lindsey

Kieran Lindsey | Jul 05, 2015

Human beings may be the most unintentionally generous species on planet Earth.

True, we also do more than our fair share of damage to the environment but when it comes giving a lift to fellow earthlings looking for adventure and international travel, people are downright neighborly.

(Matthew Field, Wikimedia Commons)

Take the brown widow spider.


Actually, you may have already done so.

Kissin’ cousin to the well-known femme fatale in the little black exoskeleton with a bright red hourglass corset beneath, the brown widow is a world-class hitchhiker. Thought to have originated in Africa, they found their way to South America, possibly as stowaways on slave ships. By the 1930s they had globetrotted via imported landscaping plants to Florida—a nice place for some R&R but these merry widows have a serious case of wanderlust.

By 2000, the little ladies were ready to see the USA, establishing a foothold in the Carolinas then moving on up the East Coast and west to southern California. Earlier this year there were sightings in Kansas and Oregon.

This widow is smaller and less aggressive than her inky relative. Color and markings variation, especially among young spiderlings, make this spider hard to recognize so the spikey egg sac is commonly used to make a positive ID.  By adulthood, though, all members of this sorority sport yellow-orange hourglass tats on their bellies.

"Thanks for stopping, I hope you have room for my luggage."

Bites are rarely fatal and are said to feel like a bee sting. You’re more likely to be bitten by a brown than a black, though, because they’re less secretive and becoming so common in urban areas—there’s talk they may even be running their kin out of town.

How does a ~½ in (1.25 cm) spider conquer an entire continent in less than decades? They love to go for a ride.

Specifically, they hang out underneath cars, trucks and RVs, and there’s speculation this habit is a major factor in the rapid expansion of their range.

According to an article in Pest Control Technology Magazine, when spraying a vehicle with pesticide it’s not uncommon to see 50 of these little ladies abandon ship.

(Thomas R Machnitzki, Wikimedia Commons)

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