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The Spider Pharm

The Spider Pharm

Chuck and Anita Kristensen live on a pharm. Literally. These two arachnologists have dedicated their lives to keeping and caring for 75,000 spiders, scorpions, and centipedes to milk them for their venom. These creatures include the most venomous arachnids in North America: Black Widow Spiders (Latrodectus mactans) and Arizona Bark Scorpions (Centruroides sculpturatus).

A Southern Black Widow Spider (Latrodectus Mactans)                                    An Arizona Bark Scorpion (Centruroides sculptratus)

Just a tiny portion of the Spider Pharm. Each one of those tiny plastic cups holds an adult female Black Widow Spider, while the netting containers hold thousands of feeder flies.

 But why get the venom? The reason is for scientific and medical purposes. The venom of a spider or scorpion, such as a Black Widow Spider, can be modified to reverse the effects of the venom of the same species, creating an antivenom. Antivenoms are a hugely important discovery, because now if you are bitten by certain deadly venomous animals, you can receive this life saving solution at a hospital, instead of potentially dying. One example of this is the Sydney Funnelweb Spider (Atrax robustus). People in Australia used to die from bites from this highly venomous spider. But since the introduction of an antivenom for this species in 1981, there have been no deaths, even though 30-40 people are bitten by this spider every year. Pretty incredible, huh? 

But how is the venom extracted from the spiders safely? First, the spiders are knocked out with carbon dioxide. Then, it is picked up with tweezers and given an electric shock, which stimulates the spider to release a tiny droplet of venom, which is collected and put into a vial, which then goes in a special cooler. This process has to be repeated 50,000 to 100,000 times to produce a single gram of venom! Wow! You would have to have pretty steady fingers and a whole lot of nerve to do what this couple does!

Learn more at the Spider Pharm website: www.spiderpharm.com

Black Widow Spider

The Black Widow Spider probably takes the gold medal for worst reputation, at least in North America. There are three species of Black Widows in North America, the Northern Black Widow (Latrodectus variolus), the Western Black Widow (Latrodectus hesperus), and the Southern Black Widow (Latrodectus mactans), but today we will be focusing on the Southern Black Widow. These spiders are relatively small, with females reaching only around 1 1/2 inches in legspan, while the tiny males can be up to 4 times smaller. The females are easily recognized by their shiny black carapace and red hourglass shape on the underside of their abdomen. The males, however, look very different. They have brown and black legs and a brown cephalothorax with an orangish abdomen covered in white and red blotches and an orange hourglass shape instead of red. The males strongly resemble Brown Widow Spiders, which are related to Black Widows. Immature Black Widows have the same coloration as the males. Although they are not aggressive and only bite humans in self-defence, Black Widows have very potent venom. The venom is a fast-acting neurotoxin powerful enough to be potentially lethal to those with very weak immune systems, such as babies, or the very elderly, but rarely causes deaths among those with strong immune systems. If you believe you have been bitten by by a Black Widow, collect the spider and seek medical attention immediately. The Black Widow gets its name from the myth that the female always eats the male after mating. Although this does sometimes occur, it is not very common. Black Widows spin tangle webs, which means there is no real patten to the placement of the silk strands. When a prey item, such as a cockroach, touches these strands, the spider swiftly descends to the position of the prey and proceeds to wrap it up with sticky silk, before moving in for a killing bite. Despite their reputation as the most venomous spiders in North America, Black Widows are extremely beneficial, since they kill and eat plenty of pest insects, such as cockroaches, termites, and mosquitos. Black Widows are fascinating creatures, and should be understood and respected.