Do you know how to spot a potentially dangerous spider? Learn about South Africa's venomous spiders and how to protect your family.
*Updated: 1 March 2016.
South Africa has an impressive 2,000 identified spiders, and in the warmer summer months, chances are good you will encounter some of them. We all know that spiders are our friends – they eat flies and mosquitoes and other bugs that we do not particularly like. But unfortunately, some of these spiders could leave a bite that is not as friendly.
South Africa's venomous spiders
Knowledge is key to protect your loved ones from potentially venomous spider bites – you need to know your local spiders, how to prevent bites and what to do when a bite does happen. Spider bites can be nasty, but rarely kill. But as with all venomous encounters, some people are more at risk for complications: the elderly, children, immune system-compromised and allergic people.
(Check out our spider gallery for some scary visuals!)
Button spider (Latrodectus):
This is probably the most well-known South African spider, which falls into two categories: the deadly black widow or black button and the less venomous brown button spider.
- Black widow spider (deadly)
These highly venomous spiders are black or dark brown with a red spot or stripe on the upperside of its round abdomen. The South African black widow does not have an hourglass marking (don't get confused: its equally deadly American and European button spider cousins do sport the hourglass). The egg sacs are smooth and round.
The brown button can be identified by the orange to red hourglass underneath its round abdomen, which can be anything from grey to cream to brown or black. The upper side boasts with beautiful patterns. The egg sacs are spiky or fluffy and bigger than the black widow's.
Button spiders are found all over South Africa, and they usually reside in quiet, dark places. They rarely wander into houses, and most bites occur when the spider are disturbed in its hiding place.
The button spider we tend to see in sheds and under windowsills is mostly the less venomous house button spider.
Button spiders have neurotoxic venom, which means that it attacks the central nervous system, but only the black widow's venom is potentially lethal.
Only female spiders have fangs large enough to pierce human skin. Black widow bites are very painful and symptoms will appear shortly after the bite: Sweating, raised blood pressure, muscle pain and cramps, pain and weakness in the limbs, the face becomes contorted, flushed and sweaty with drooping eyelids and swollen lips.
In severe cases the body will contort and shake uncontrollably. Button spider bites are usually treated in hospital with anti-venom and patients are usually well enough to go home after 24-48 hours. The good news is that no deaths from button spiders have been recorded in the last 50 years.
Violin spiders are found all over South Africa. They are normally brownish with dark markings on their bodies, as well as a characteristic violin-shape on the front part. Bites are rare, and usually happen at night when the victim is sleeping.
They have cytotoxic venom, which means it destroys tissue. Bites are small and painless, but after a few hours the site swells up and becomes discoloured, which is followed by blistering and peeling of the skin, leaving an open wound.
Untreated bites can lead to infections, septicaemia and necrosis – and surgery may be needed to remove the dead tissue. No antivenin is available for violin spider bites, and treatment is to prevent infection and promote healing.
Sac spiders are yellowish with a black head. It is an aggressive spider and is responsible for most spider bites in South Africa. They are notorious for the nasty bite they give, and most bites occur during the night when an unsuspecting victim rolls over on a roaming spider. Sac spiders have cytotoxic venom - the bite is painless and looks like a mosquito bite. After a few days it is swollen and painful and eventually forms a large lesion. No anti-venom is available, but antibiotics are needed to treat the lesion and prevent infection and tissue damage. The wound can take up to four weeks to heal, but in severe cases it can take up to a decade for the area to recover. Hospitalisation is not necessary, but plastic surgery is sometimes needed to remove damaged tissue.
Baboon spiders are generally not venomous, even though they can inflict a very painful bite. However, there are one species of baboon spider found in the Western Cape, Harpactira lightfooti, which has neurotoxic venom (similar to the black widow), causing severe symptoms such as pain, shock, vomiting, paleness and difficulty walking. They are frequently found in houses, but bites are fortunately very rare.
Six-eyed sand spider:
These spiders are rare – they are found in desert areas and basically looks like a crab with sand stuck to its body. No human bites have been documented, but studies on rabbits have proven that these spiders might be lethal to humans, their bites causing massive tissue destruction and internal haemorrhaging.
• Keep your backyard clean from rubble – spiders love to hide in rubble.
• Inspect the underside of windowsills often – button spiders are notorious for hiding there.
• If you regularly find spiders in your house, check your children’s beds before you tuck them in.
• Clear clutter from the floor – encourage your children to throw clothes in the laundry basket and pick their toys up.
• Regularly inspect curtains and night frills for sac spiders – they are usually found in a silky sac in the pleats.
• Check behind picture frames and dust regularly.
• Check shoes before putting them on. It is surprising how many people get bitten on their feet.
• Try not to leave clothes on the washing line overnight, and if you do, check them thoroughly before putting them away.
• If you have a serious spider problem, consider spraying a thick layer of Baygon Green on the inside of windows and door frames every 4 weeks. Unfortunately it will kill the spider, so please only do this in extreme cases!
When someone is bitten by a spider
- Keep calm. A spider bite does not mean instant death – in most cases you only need a painkiller, antihistamine and wound management. For button spiders, however, the patient should be taken to hospital immediately. Also, children should be checked out by a doctor as soon as possible after a bite.
- Try to catch the spider – this makes identification and treatment much easier.
- Wash the bite site with soap and water. Apply an ice pack.
- Wounds should be kept clean, and antiseptic cream applied regularly.
- All spider bite victims must go for a booster tetanus injection.
- If more severe symptoms appear, see a doctor immediately.
Take a look at our spider and spider bites gallery.
Have you or your kids ever had a close encounter with our eight-legged friends? Send your stories to firstname.lastname@example.org.