The Mirror has an article on a man who claims to have been so severely bitten by spiders that he can’t work. You probably don’t want to read it: it’s mainly lots of close-up, full-color photos of oozing, infected wounds full of pus, and it’s going to horrify and sicken most people. There is one photo of a large false widow, but there is no connection between it and the person’s injuries, and I have to suspect something else is going on here.

The man and his son have multiple lesions all over their legs…how? These are solitary spiders, mostly, and they have no interest in biting people. One bite, I could believe; if you rolled over in bed on one, crushing it, it might bite in self-defense. But numerous bites? This makes no sense. Ticks, bedbugs, that sort of nasty beastie that actually feeds on humans, I could see, especially since those kinds of bites are recurrent and prone to infection.

This is not the first time I’ve seen the UK tabloids freaking out about spider invasions. What’s going on over there? Is this a symptom of rising xenophobia? Can I expect US tabloids to start inventing lurid stories of evil spiders killing people in their beds?


  1. Emu Sam says

    The one is a subset of the other, though PZ may be trying to imply a correlation between hominid-based xenophobia and arachnid-based xenophobia.

  2. voidhawk says

    It’s a longstanding hobby horse of the tabloid press over here. Every other month there’s a story about a Black Widow hiding in someone’s bananas, or killer spiders sneaking in in packing crates or in people’s suitcases, or swarms of killer bees.

  3. says

    I don’t think anyone talks much about killer bees on this side of the Atlantic anymore. You need to remember the ’70s to find the term familiar.

  4. lochaber says

    When I was enlisted, there was constant fearmongering over the brown recluse. There were several people every year who were diagnosed with “brown recluse bites” that often involved cutting out chunks of flesh and packing the wound with bandages. I don’t think I’ve heard much of the brown recluse outside of my military experience, and have since come to think that it was just a boogeyman and scapegoat for whatever unexplained infection. Mostly because I don’t think I was ever stationed in, or did any training in the actual natural range of the brown recluse.

  5. lucifersbike says

    UK tabloids are aimed at a readership with an average reading age of 9 and under. Their combined circulation, although it has been falling for years, is a national disgrace – but our schools are set up to make quite sure most of us never learn to think critically.

  6. gregsneakel says

    “I have to suspect something else is going on here. ”
    Cranky Liberal Professor doesnt believe news.
    Last year two primary and two secondary schools were closed in Newham, England due to high infestation rates of false widows. Several different papers, with several political leanings all reported the same events with multiple students suffering bites.
    ” I have to suspect something else is going on here.” Yeah. i am starting to suspect something also. When something doesnt fit your world veiw, you start crying fake news. Congratulations PZ. You are turing into a conservative. Maybe you should personally study false widows to see just how aggressive they can be.

  7. jamesorpin says

    I think the comments on the article tell all. One in particular talks about this being more reason to close borders.

  8. says

    Ever hear of the windshield-pitting hysteria of the 1950s?

    I actually am studying false widows. They’re ubiquitous. Once you notice them, you find them all over the place, in basements and garages and hanging on your walls. We’re just now finishing a survey of false widows (and other spider species) in my area. That those two schools reported “infestation rates” just means someone noticed them, and without looking at all the schools in England which also have false widows, freaked out. Then of course every kid with a bug bite is evidence that they’re invading.

    Maybe you should personally study false widows to see just how aggressive they can be. Hilarious. Stop by the lab sometime, I’ve got a large colony of them right here.

  9. simonhadley says

    Sort of off/on topic: South East Colorado is having its annual tarantula migration right now. Come on out and see the creepy crawlies! Beyond that I know absolutely nothing about their habitats or activities.

  10. anchor says

    #13 – Yes. Almost certainly Fleas. I remember a story of an acquaintance who owned several cats. One day a couple of friends dressed in shorts and sandals happened to pay a visit and all three were standing in the middle of the carpeted living room in conversation. Within minutes they all began to scratch absently at their exposed legs and ankles. Finally they looked down and were horrified to discover their legs covered with thousands of tiny black flecks: fleas. The resulting welts tortured them for days afterward and sores took weeks to fully heal. One developed a serious fever in response. The entire house was tented and fumigated: the tiled kitchen floor adjoining the carpet was littered with countless dead fleas. The pest expert who performed the fumigation examined the carpet and reported he had never before encountered such a concentration of flea eggs. The owner had the whole house interior renovated at considerable expense.

  11. birgerjohansson says

    I see another arthropod got fired from the job of national security advisor. Tell me again, what is the usual fate of arachnid males when they have outlived their usefulness?

  12. says

    There I was, hoping to read about False Window Spiders, you know, the ones that scurry across your car’s windows when you’re doing 60mph down the highway.

  13. ardipithecus says

    @16 birgerjohansson

    The problem is finding a critter so vile that it would consider that particular specimen palatable.

  14. brucej says

    I’ve been reading through old “Popular Mechanics” issues from the 30’s on Google books and have run into numerous 1-2 paragraph long tidbits about how scientists are working on “taming the black widow menace”; who apparently killed dozens or hundreds of people and farm animals a year.

  15. brucej says

    @15 Yikes! We had a small infestation of cat fleas once, and they’re nasty critters once they get to chewing on you…fortunately our house has all hard floors not carpet or they’d have been impossible to get rid of.

  16. robro says

    birgerjohansson @ #16 — That was no arthropod that was fired today. I would liken it more to the refuse at the bottom of an outdoor John. Good riddance but I’m sure the others will find an amenable replacement soon.

  17. Liam Yore says

    as an ER doctor I can tell you that 99.99% of the people I see with abscesses/MRSA skin infections are convinced they were caused by spider bites and nothing will convince them otherwise.

  18. MattP (must mock his crappy brain) says

    I remember the time before topical flea treatments for pets existed and when flea collars were completely worthless. Every time we came back from a family vacation, we’d have to go through the house with loops of duck tape to reduce the outbreak on the carpets. One old cat became horribly allergic to them and was nearly put to sleep when the vet agreed to risk using the newly available dog flea treatment on the cat. Fleas were gone quickly and the cat lived comfortably for several more years.

    Had a recent outbreak where two different topical flea treatments were not working at all. Adam’s flea spray works pretty well at cutting off their development, but they would come back because the cat still carried some survivors even with baths. The bites I got were pretty annoying, but nothing compared to the cat’s suffering. After nearly losing all her hair and being covered in sores, tried the third/last available treatment and fleas were again completely eliminated from the entire house within 2~3 weeks. Had to get her an anti-histamine shot to let the sores heal and kept up topical treatment for a few months just to be sure the fleas were gone.

  19. M Smith says

    Full Disclosure: did not read the article but:
    1) Overhyped and under-researched is exactly what I’d expect from the Mirror
    2) False Widow spiders, while solitary, can occur in abundance in small spaces. A Biologist friend had about 30 in his conservatory (he relocated them once his daughter started walking), and I had a window that had a web of over 20 of them covering it (on the outside) over winter a few years back, so they can definitely “swarm” in the right conditions.
    3) That said, we’ve never once been bitten by them, despite them occurring in large numbers around us at this time of year. I think you’d have to be really unlucky for them to swarm and mass bite. My cat might have (she’s had wasp-like stings from chasing things under bushes) as a kitten, but was fine apart from pain and minor swelling.
    4) They are the most beautiful spiders in our part of the world and it saddens me that the rest of my family and neighbours would rather murder them than let them live nearby. I can sort-of understand, but still.

  20. eleanor says

    Our local (UK) paper is currently pushing a story about a woman who got itchy bites on her leg from something unidentified, overdosed on antihistamines, and called an ambulance for the resulting kidney pain, but insists on blaming the house spider she found in her bathroom the same day. Comments on the story are divided between “silly woman wasting doctors’ time” and, depressingly, “doctors don’t know everything! experts don’t know everything! trust your instincts, not the medical profession!”

  21. M Smith says

    Aaaand now I’ve read it (grim)

    I can believe it, unfortunately (a couple of spiders repeatedly biting someone in their sleep), but what I find interesting is the insinuation that it’s the council’s responsibility (the real reason this made the papers).

    My wife works on the phones for a housing association (not the one responsible for his house), and the council were right; it’s the tenant’s responsibility to deal with spider infestations. And unfortunately, some council housing tenants are pretty poor at home maintenance (for reasons from lack of home training to mental health issues), and expect the council/HA to step in and take care of everything.

    If the guy really was concerned for his family he’d go around and collect them up and move them/kill them, not waste his and the council’s time over a couple of spiders.

  22. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    I remember a recent episode of Dr Who that focused on a major Spider infestation taking over an old research facility. I remember few details except SPIDERS.

  23. eleanor says

    @28 “If the guy really was concerned for his family he’d go around and collect them up and move them/kill them” – I had to read that line twice…

    I can imagine that maybe if you’ve seen a couple of news stories in the past where, say, a school has been closed because of (overreaction to) false widow infestation and it’s been presented as a major deal, then perhaps your first reaction to finding the in your own home might be “shit, we need the people in biohazard suits here too,” not “I can solve this problem with a yard broom”.

  24. jamesorpin says

    “Several different papers, with several political leanings all reported the same events with multiple students suffering bites.”

    Multiple papers all reporting the same thing says nothing for a story’s veracity. Lazy journalism is a simpler explanation than truth.

  25. leerudolph says

    Liam Yore@24: “as an ER doctor I can tell you that 99.99% of the people I see with abscesses/MRSA skin infections are convinced they were caused by spider bites and nothing will convince them otherwise.”

    Twenty-odd years ago a necrotic patch appeared on my thigh at the end of the spring semester at my university of last employment. My physician (one of four or five general practitioners constituting the MD staff at a [Town Name Redacted] Family Medicine in my rural southeastern Massachusetts town—a long commute from the university) diagnosed spider bite and prescribed (as I recall) corticosteroids. The patch grew nastier. I developed a fever. His diagnosis did not waver; I forget what else he prescribed. Finally, about a week later, under the added stress of wearing an academic gown on a hot day, I nearly collapsed before abandoning graduation ceremonies and driving (unsafely) homewards. The next day my wife drove me back to TNRFM and insisted that the doctor test my blood for the then newly hysteria-inducing Lyme Disease. He was doubtful (my necrosis had not presented as a bullseye…), but did it. In a couple of days it turned out that I did indeed have it, and a short course of antibiotics cleared it up. I was the first person in our town (about 100 miles east of Old Lyme CT) to be diagnosed with Lyme Disease!

    I don’t think he ever apologized to the spider population, though.

  26. wzrd1 says

    The adult’s wounds look more like a bacterial infection, I can think of a half dozen species that would present with eschar lesions that are essentially identical.
    The child’s lesions look more like flea bites. Bedbug bites tend to go in lines as it moves to fresh sites to continue feeding. Have been bitten by both, in the case of fleas, my entire squad got nailed by fleas and we discovered a freshly deceased animal near where we were laying in ambush.
    Our ambush worked, despite the fleas ambushing us once the corpse cooled enough for them to decide it was moving day.

  27. wzrd1 says

    Oops, forgot to mention, I saw precisely one brown recluse bite over my career. That said, I also experienced a hobo spider bite, which turned out like a weak recluse spider bite, didn’t have much tissue sloughing, just a depressed dermal necrosis over an area around a quarter sized area. The only reason I know what type of spider it was was because it was crushed by my calf while I was sleeping.