Hey Spiderman, Here’s What Really Happens When a Spider Bites You

In The Amazing Spider-Man, Peter Parker’s well-known story feels like déjà vu all over again: Radioactive spider bites outcast teen. Powers grow. Tragedy befalls. Responsibility and heroism ensue.

But Pop Omnivore would rather look at the spider than the man. No arachnid, no matter how special or nuclear-infused, will help a person scale walls and spin webs. But what can a real spider bite do to a real human being?

To find out, we asked Dana DeRoche, an arachnid specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, which spider species have the worst—and weirdest—bite.

The Brazilian Wandering Spider
“The Brazilian wandering spider [lives] in large swaths of South America,” says DeRoche. “It’s just about as big as a tarantula, but it’s not as robust and a little less hairy. It’s the color of a mouse, and it’s very aggressive. Usually creatures try to run away from you; this one won’t. It behaves like a scorpion. A lot of poorer folks have a roof and three walls instead of four, so [the spiders] come right in. If you get bitten by one of these and you don’t go to the hospital, you’re dead. It will kill you.”

Black Widow

“Usually not fatal,” says DeRoche, “but small children, the elderly, the sick—they might have a real problem.”
With black widows, it’s usually the female that’s dangerous. They have larger venom glands than males, and more potent venom. Still, black-widow bites rarely kill, especially if medical treatment is found immediately. Typically a bite will result in severe pain, which sets in after about 20 minutes and can last for several days, though the worst of the pain is typically in the first eight to 12 hours. Cramps, dizziness, and nausea may occur. In the worst cases, the bite causes a dangerous rise in blood pressure.

The Brown Recluse

“A bite from a black widow doesn’t give you a huge sore,” says DeRoche. “But a brown recluse’s will. It makes the skin and tissue around the bite die. You usually don’t realize you’ve been bitten because it doesn’t hurt at the time, and then you see the effects. Sometimes people have to get plastic surgery. It’s usually (90 percent) not fatal.”
So even without medical treatment, the recluse’s victims tend to live, albeit with a crater-like indentation radiating from the bite mark.

Honorable Mention

Australian Redback

“It’ll bite you quick,” says DeRoche, “and it’s poisonous.”
Though redback bites haven’t killed in a person in more than 50 years, they can result in excruciating pain and intense swelling around the puncture wound. In exceptional cases—usually when the victims are very young, very old, or very sick—the bites can cause nausea, infection, and even seizures.

Of course, these are all physical changes. Are there any spiders whose bite can change your state of mind or mental capabilities?

“[Spider bites don’t have a] weird effect like if you eat mushrooms or something,” explains DeRoche, “but maybe, if you’re really sick, you might experience [delusions] with some of these. It might also be possible for some of the neurotoxins to give you continuing health problems. It may depend on where you’re bitten, or how long it takes to go to the doctor.” Putting ice on the bite can help while waiting for medical treatment, which could comprise anything from a tetanus shot to anti-venom, depending on the size and type of the spider.

– Kastalia Medrano

Human Journey