Black widow spider hitches a ride to Juneau

Posted: Monday, August 12, 2002

Jim Douglas is frequently called upon to identify spiders, insects and plants. The Alaska Cooperative Extension agent has reassured scores of people over the years that the spiders they've captured are not poisonous. But last week it was a different story.

"It was the first case of a black widow spider I've seen in 18 years," Douglas said from his office. "It's still alive. I keep looking at it. It's definitely got the hourglass on the abdomen that says, 'I am a black widow spider.' "

The arachnid came to Juneau in a load of siding and was discovered Tuesday and recognized by workers sorting through the building materials on the job site at the Juneau Airport. Douglas called lumber stores last week, trying to track down where the siding came from.

The spider is no cause for alarm, he said.

"People need to understand that it's simply a transient," he said. "It's not anything we need to be worried about in the long run whatsoever."

Douglas said weed seeds and pests can come in when goods are transported, particularly when people move furniture and household goods to town.

"Joe Sixpack loads up a U-Haul and comes to Juneau, and nobody fumigates stuff when they move," he said. "Then he brings up something that lived in his old hometown."

Urban legend has tarantulas crawling out of banana boxes shipped to grocery stores, but in reality that kind of thing is rare. Ian Martin, produce manager for Super Bear supermarket, has been in the grocery business for 12 years, the past eight years in Juneau.

"I found a dead black widow spider in a banana case once, about four years ago," he said. "That's the only time I've ever seen anything poisonous. Sometimes you'll see a dead bug or a caterpillar, but it's a rarity."

Douglas is not an expert at identifying spiders, but he's good at determining what they aren't. Last week he had two spiders Paul Schmid captured in his bedroom after he was bitten in his sleep. Douglas examined the spiders through a low-power microscope and consulted his guide books and several Internet sites. People are most concerned about brown recluse and hobo spiders, and Douglas said he's yet to see either of those in Juneau.

Forest Service entomologist Mark Schultz said the spiders were not recluse spiders and looked like typical orb weavers.

Douglas said although an alien spider may make it to Juneau and possibly survive for a summer, he thinks the chances it could overwinter or reproduce are nonexistent.

"This is actually a harsh environment, maybe not to us, but certainly to insects that come from a drier, warmer climate," he said. "It's too cold and wet to be a prime environment for what they need. Even if they survive, they can't reproduce. We don't have the warm spring temperatures."

The brown recluse, one of six poisonous spiders in the United States, is native to the southcentral part of the country, with relatives ranging into the Southwest. It has a dark, violin-shaped mark on the head, with the neck of the violin pointing toward the bulbous brown abdomen. They are nonaggressive and bite only when disturbed.

The hobo spider is native to Europe, and scientists think it was introduced to the Pacific Northwest in wood products shipped through the Port of Seattle prior to the 1930s. Scientists are concerned about its spread, and it is suspected to be as far north as Prince Rupert, British Columbia. It is adaptable to moist, cool climates.

The hobo spider has distinctive mouth parts that extend in front of the spider, like an extra pair of short front legs or antennae. A Web site called hobospider.org offers pictures and information.

Douglas said the two common local spiders that he most often sees mistaken for hobo or recluse spiders are wolf spiders and the hackle banded weaver spider. Wolf spiders have elongated mouth parts, but not as large as those on the hobo spider.

Riley Woodford can be reached at rileyw@juneauempire.com.



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