Black widows are some of the few truly dangerous spiders that occur in North America. The venom of a black widow is a powerful neurotoxin that can cause intense muscular pain, nausea, fever, and in rare cases, complications leading to death. According to scientific literature, there are three distinct species including a northern variant that supposedly occurs in New England. Often, those that do arrive in NE are stowaways in produce shipped from west coast-specifically in table grapes. (I personally collected two widow spiders from this source while working at a supermarket during college.) Adult female widows are about1/2inch long, jet black in color with a velvety sheen and striking red hourglass markings on the underside. Variations of these markings help distinguish the different species. Adult male widows are much smaller, more variable in color and immature spiders may be yellow or white gradually darkening with each molt.
Widow spiders belong to a very large family known as comb-footed spiders (see the related House spider on our site). They build irregular webs in outdoor locations such as sheds, woodpiles, or under stones. Indoors, they can be found in normally quiet areas of the home such as basements and crawl spaces. Contrary to popular belief, female widows do not always kill the male after mating (if she’s not hungry) and he may live to mate again another day.