South Africa’s Big Five of Dangerous Spiders

South Africa is home to over 3,000 known species of spiders, many of which are found in our homes, gardens and natural surroundings.
Spiders and spider bites in South Africa: What parents need to know:

South Africa is home to over 3,000 known species of spiders, many of which are found in our homes, gardens and natural surroundings. They're an integral part of our natural ecosystems and play an invaluable role in controlling pests. But that doesn’t mean that the mere mention of the dreaded ‘S word’ doesn’t strike fear into even the bravest of us. Therefore, knowing what these Arachnoid kings and queens are all about, how to identify them and what to do if you, or someone you know, get bitten makes all the difference. Especially with South African ‘spider season’ being upon us with spiders and spider bites in South Africa increasing during the warm summer months, it’s more important than ever to be aware and prepared!

Knowledge on spider and spider bites in South Africa is especially important when you have kids. Little ones tend to run around and explore all sorts of hideaways and hard-to-reach spots, thereby putting them at an increased risk of getting bitten by a spider. But that certainly doesn’t mean the rest of us are immune to this danger, children however have a higher risk of developing complications from a venomous spider bite, and extra precautions should thus be taken. . However, of all the spiders and spider bites in South Africa only a select few are harmful to humans. In order to equip you with the necessary knowledge on which South African spiders are venomous, namely the BIG 5 of dangerous spiders, we have prepared this spider and spider bite in South Africa guide to help you out.

South Africa’s BIG 5 of dangerous spiders:

While most of the spider species found in South Africa are harmless, there certainly are a few that are incredibly venomous. To minimise the risk, both for yourself and your children, it is extremely beneficial to know how to identify these venomous local spiders, what common signs and symptoms of these specific spider bites are and what do if someone is bitten:

1. The Sac Spider:

Not only is this night-dwelling spider considered by many experts to be South Africa’s most dangerous spider, it is also estimated to be responsible for nearly three quarters of all reported spider bites. This certainly earns the Sac Spider the number 1 spot on the big 5 spider list.

  • How to identify them: The Sac Spider is characterised by a black head, pale yellow body and large abdomen. The arrangement of the legs is also a distinct marker with two pairs directed forwards and two pairs backwards.
  • Type of venom: These spiders have a cytotoxic venom. Cytotoxic venom affects the tissue that is destroyed around the bite and can cause considerable tissue damage. The symptoms develop gradually and often the person is unaware that he/she has been bitten until the area around the bite becomes painful and eventually forms a large lesion. It is therefore important to regularly check your child for spider bites.
  • Signs & symptoms of a bite: Because Sac Spiders are night dwellers most people tend to be bitten in their sleep. The bite is painless and often two fang bite marks, approximately 4-8mm apart, is the only marker of a bite. The bite is known to form a ‘bull’s eye’ lesion with the surrounding area progressively becoming red and swollen. An ulcerating wound can often be formed.
  • Treatment: Majority of Sac Spider bites heal spontaneously. Treatment options are often directed at preventing any secondary infection with antibiotics or local antiseptics. The wound takes approximately 4 weeks to heal, however in severe cases it can take up to a decade for the area to recover.
  • Favourite hangouts: Sac Spiders are generally found outdoors but if they are indoors your curtains, clothing, bedding and tablecloths are some of their favourite hangout spots.
2. Black Widow / Brown Widow: AKA Button Spider:

This is probably the most well-known South African spider and can be classified into two categories, the deadly black widow or black button spider and the less venomous brown button spider. Let’s take a closer look at both of them.

  • How to identify a Black Widow spider: Shiny black body with a distinguished red spot, tear-drop or stripe on its round belly. The females are also much larger than the males, trumping them in size with a staggering 11mm compared to 4mm.
  • How to identify a Brown Widow spider: Their colour varies from cream, grey, and brown to pitch black. Brown widow spiders also have the same red spot marking on the belly.
  • Type of venom: Button spiders have a neurotoxic venom which affects the nervous system and bites are often accompanied by severe pain.
  • Sign and symptoms of a Black Widow spider bite: Black Widow spiders are far more venomous than Brown Widow spiders and therefore the bite is accompanied by an increased amount of pain. A bite from a Black Widow spider can also result in generalised muscle pain and cramps, limb pain, stiffness of the abdomen, leg weakness, profuse sweating, raised blood pressure and restlessness. These symptoms can also be exacerbated in small children, so keep a close eye!
  • Signs and symptoms of a Brown Widow spider bite: These symptoms are far milder and tend to be restricted to the bite site itself. You will experience local burning that may spread to the surrounding tissue. The bite site is typically visible and surrounded by a localised rash. This usually clears up within a day or 2.
  • Treatment: A Black Widow spider bite requires the person to be hospitalised and a close eye to be kept on the vital signs for 24hours. In severe cases the administration of an antivenom is the only effective treatment. But there is some really good news just before you start to worry, no deaths from button spiders have been recorded in the last 50 years, let’s be sure to keep it that way!
  • Favourite hangouts: These spiders are found all over South Africa, but typically reside in dark quiet places. Their favourite hangouts definitely are outbuildings and windowsills. So be sure to check your child for any bite marks after they’ve been playing around in these areas.
3. The Violin Spider:
  • How to identify them: These spiders are found across South Africa and can be identified by their brown, and sometimes reddish-brown ‘violin shaped body’ with dark markings. These spiders range anywhere from 8-19mm in size.
  • Type of venom: Violin spiders have a cytotoxic venom and therefore affect the tissue around the bite mark. It can also cause additional tissue damage.
  • Signs and symptoms of a bite: A bite from a Violin spider is usually small and painless and it therefore often goes unnoticed until the venom starts eating away at the tissue. As with any cytotoxic spider it is important to regularly check your children for bite marks as they often won’t present with any pain. As the symptoms are progressive it usually swells after a few hours and becomes discoloured, often developing a purple centre. This is further followed by blistering and peeling of the skin, often leaving an open wound.
  • Treatment: There is no antivenom for Violin spider bites, therefore treatment involves the surgical removal of dead flesh. The main focus is preventing any secondary infection from occurring once bitten. Untreated bites can result in additional infections, necrosis and septicaemia.
  • Favourite hangouts: The Violin spider can usually be found in grassland areas as well as caves with only one known species being introduced into houses. These spiders are nocturnal in nature and therefore often wander into your clothes, shoes and bedding at night.
4. Six-eyed Sand Spider:
  • How to identify them: True to their name the Six-eyed Sand Spider is a brown spider that is often covered in sand particles that adhere to their bodies. They are also often referred to having a ‘crab-like’ appearance.
  • Type of venom: The venom of the Six-eyed Sand Spider is both hemolytic and necrotoxic, causing leaking blood vessels and destroyed tissues.
  • Signs and symptoms of a bite: The venom elicited by the Six-eyed Sand Spider is believed to cause extensive local tissue destruction and may also result in serious internal haemorrhage. Bites can additionally cause blood vessel leakage and multi-organ breakdown.
  • Treatment: There have thus far been no reported cases of a human being bitten by a Six-eyed Sand Spider. If you do suspect that you or your child has been bitten, seek medical attention.
  • Favourite hangouts: You can find these notoriously shy spiders buried in the sand waiting for their prey to arrive. They are fond of sparsely-habited desert areas like the Namibia and Kalahari Desert. It is estimated that a Six-eyed Sand Spider can survive up to a year without food and water, so if you’re challenging these sand crawlers to a waiting game you’re guaranteed to loose.
5. Baboon Spider:
  • How to identify them: A sub-family of the tarantula, the Baboon spider includes more than 40 individual species in South Africa alone. These spiders are characterised by their large hairy bodies, pads on their feet and the distinct resemblance their 2 last segments on their legs have to that of a baboon’s fingers. The Baboon spider is also very popular in the Western Cape.
  • Sign and symptoms of a bite: A bite from a Baboon spider will cause a localised burning sensation at the site of the bite. You will also experience additional vomiting and dizziness. Not all species of the Baboon spider are venomous, and all of them are unlikely to attack unless they are provoked.
  • Treatment: A bite from a Baboon spider isn’t fatal, but it is important that you get checked out be a doctor to treat the secondary symptoms.
  • Favourite hangouts: These spiders favour dry shrub lands and often live in burrows.
Spider Big 5

Now that you know which spiders make up the ‘Spider Big 5’, here are a couple of extra helpful tips on spiders and spider bites in South Africa and what to do if your child does get bitten by a spider:

  • Wash the area with soap and water
  • Put a cool wet cloth on the bite site to relieve swelling and pain
Seek immediate medical care if your child:
  • Shows signs of an allergic reaction
  • Experiences severe pain or cramping
  • Develops any kind of rash following a spider bite
  • The bite site starts to show signs of infection (redness, swelling, warmth, pain, pus)
  • You suspect that your child has been bitten by a black widow spider and/or any other extremely venomous spider

Prevention is ALWAYS better than cure! Here are a couple of important preventative tips for spider and spider bites in South Africa that parents can implement to protect their children against spider bites:

  • Make sure your outhouses, garages, attics, windowsills, corners etc. are free of spider webs.
  • Make sure your child wears long sleeves and pants if they are playing around these areas.
  • Inspect the area your child is playing in and make sure there are no visible signs of spiders or spider webs.
  • Conduct a thorough inspection of your child after they have been playing in areas that are prone to spiders and spider webs. Remember, when a cytotoxic spider bites your child they might not feel any pain or be aware that it even happened.
  • Take extra precautions if you know a certain area is home to a large number of spiders.
  • As allot of these spiders are night dwellers, be sure to check your child for bite sites in the morning, especially if you are in an area that’s home to a large number of venomous spiders.

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Kevin Kolesky September, 2019

It is really dangerous...