False Widow Spiders Shut Down British School; Teen Still Recovering From 9-Month-Old Bite

By Ben Wolford on October 24, 2013 2:43 PM EDT

False black widow spiders shut down a school in England and bit a girl's leg.
False black widow spiders shut down a school in England and bit a girl's leg.

After a 14-year-old girl was bitten and a school was evacuated, some scientists think false black widow spiders are proliferating in the United Kingdom because of the rainy, hot summer weather.

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An Essex schoolgirl named Layla Benton had a scare in February when a spider in her bathroom sunk its venom into her knee, the Mail Online reported. Her leg ballooned with infections, and her mother rushed her to a hospital, where she remained for a week while doctors tried to figure out how to treat her. Benton is better now, but her knee still bears the scar of the spider bite.

"They contacted a tropical diseases hospital in London and they had some special cream couriered down," her mother, Wendy, told the Daily Mail. "But that made it worse and had to be washed off.

"It was awful by then with vivid orange stuff leaching from the wound. At that point they said she might need to have surgery to completely wash it out."

False black widows are one of eight species within the genus Steatoda. They appear vaguely similar to real black widow spiders (which are classified as Latrodectus), and they do bite, inflicting sometimes nasty reactions and infections. But the symptoms are less severe, false widows are actually brownish in color, lacking the bright iconic hourglass shape that appears on black widow abdomens. One other difference: False black widows sometimes like to eat real black widows.

After Benton got bitten, all of England seemed to erupt with sightings of false black widows, which are Britain's most poisonous spider. There was a soccer player in southwest England who got bit in his sleep. After an operation to surgically cut out the venom, he told the BBC that "I have never had pain like that before in my life. It's still very painful now. I still can't sleep properly."

And there was another 66-year-old man who told the Daily Mail that his false widow spider bite started shutting down his vital organs.

Then just this week a whole school shut down so that pest-control workers could come in and fumigate. But it doesn't seem like

Some scientists in England say all the media attention is blowing the actual danger of the buggers out of proportion. And they question whether all of these different symptoms are actually stemming from the same species. According to Penn State University, documented cases of false widow bites usually just lead to blistering and feeling sick for a few days.

"Some people are clearly having a reaction to something so the question is what is it?" researcher Sara Goodacre, of the University of Nottingham's Spider Lab, told the BBC. "If there is a problem we should investigate it further."

False black widows do appear in the United States, generally in coastal states along the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf of Mexico. But they're extremely prevalent in Spain and France.

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