Black Widow or False Black Widow?

some kind of widow spider

I have a family of widow-type spiders living in my outdoor worm bin. I like spiders and all they do around the garden, and have a no kill policy toward them in general. This particular situation, however, has had me a teeny bit nervous. They hang out on the underside of the lid of the worm bin for the most part, though I’ve seen them on the surface of the worm compost once or twice. Obviously my concern is that I will touch one when opening or closing the bin, or while burying my kitchen waste.

Believing these spiders to be black widows, my options have been either to be very attentive while around the worm bin–or to roll out the vacuum. So far I’ve opted for being careful.

The thing about these spiders is that they lack the identifying spots on their abdomens, but I remembered being told somewhere that not all types show the red marks, and that males never do. Was this true? Were there other types of spiders that looked like this? After weeks of tip-toeing around the worm bin, I finally got around to doing some research. My conclusions are not conclusive, so I’m coming to you, dear readers, for help.

Wikipedia’s entry confuses me a bit:

Not all adult black widows exhibit the red hourglass on the ventrum underside or top of the abdomen — some may have a pair of red spots or have no marking at all. Female black widows often exhibit various red markings on the dorsal or top side of the abdomen, commonly two red spots. However, black widow young are believed to have at least some sort of marking on their abdomens. Adult male black widows are half the size of the females, and are usually gray or brown rather than black and red; while they may sometimes have an hourglass marking on their ventral abdomen, it is usually yellow or white, not red. Variation in specifics by species and by gender is great; any spider exhibiting a red hourglass or a pair of large red round spots on the ventral abdomen with an otherwise black shiny body is an adult female black widow.

Here is how I read this: Not all adults display an hourglass…but females often display some sort of red mark. Young and males may or may not have some kind of mark, but not red…but be careful! Variations by species and gender are significant. If you see a black spider with red markings, be very, very afraid. That there is definitely a female black widow. But really, there’s no guarantees here that other less flashy spiders aren’t some kind of dangerous, either.

This is not reassuring.

But then on the handy page Frequently Encountered Spiders in California, I learned about the False black widow.

Another European invasive, this spider seems to be displacing our native black widows in urban areas.  This spider is roughly the same size and shape as a black widow, but is brown with a faint purple sheen.

I like this false black widow option a lot. The false widows don’t have a dangerous sting.

The spiders in my box are pretty shy, but insofar as I can tell, they are all sort of an eggplant color–not that true, bad-ass black of a classic widow. Nor have I seen any red marks. (That doesn’t mean that big mama with her red marks isn’t hiding somewhere.)

So, from this not-so-great photo, can anyone tell me if this particular spider might be a false widow, Steatoda grossa, or a male black widow, Latrodectus hesperus? It’s about 1/2 inch in size.

UPDATE 5/10:  After reviewing the evidence, I believe this is a false black widow. However, my trouble are not over, because it turns out that they do have a venomous bite, apparently somewhat like a mild black widow bite. Here’s the bite intensity scoop according to UC IPM: black widows: obviously bad; brown widows: mild; false black widows: moderate.

Root Simple Media Frenzy: Bees, Chickens and Road Kill

kpfk

Rob McFarland of Honey Love on KPFK.

I was on KPFK this week along with Rob McFarland from HoneyLove (a great organization that is helping legalize beekeeping in Los Angeles among many other projects). We were on to talk about why bees are dying off in the Central Valley and about keeping chickens in the city. You can listen to the interview here. I really enjoyed being on this show–we all sat around talking for an hour after the taping.

I was also on an internet news show called The Point chatting about eating road kill (something I know nothing about) and Ed Begley Jr’s reality TV show (guess I burned that bridge). You can watch this show here.

To each hen her own egg

Barnavelder Auricauna cross eggs

As of June we’ll have had our new hens for a year, and we’re very pleased with them. They’re unusual hybrids. They’re a cross between a Barnevelder, a pretty utility/show breed named after the Dutch town where it was developed, and the more popular Ameraucana.  We got them from our friends at Winnetka Farms, who raise Barnevelders and tried this cross as an experiment.

They’re very nice hens. Pretty. Mild-mannered. Quiet. There’s never any squabbling or pecking. And then are prolific layers of big eggs with big yolks. And here’s what’s interesting: Barnevelders lay brown eggs. Ameraucanas are known for their blue to green eggs. Our “Winnetkavelders” each lay a distinct color egg.

We posted about this when they started laying, but as the hens got older, their eggs became even more distinct, so I thought it worth another mention. All four hens look the identical, but their eggs are different, each expressing different aspects of their parentage. One is classic Barnevelder brown, one is speckled, one is light olive green and the other dark olive drab. The picture doesn’t capture the olives at all.

It’s useful to be able to associate each hen with her egg, so you know if there are any problems with her laying. Unfortunately, these four ladies look so much alike–and tend to visit the nesting box in pairs–so we haven’t been able to ID their eggs yet. Closer surveillance is required!

Continue reading…

Is Urban Homesteading Over With?


It seems that we’re back in a period of irrational exuberance. I know because I keep hearing about people lining up to buy crumbling 1,000 square foot bungalows in dodgy Los Angeles neighborhoods for $1,000,000. History tells us that during these periods folks ditch their chicken coops and vegetable gardens and head to the mall to shop.

I hope I’m wrong, that during our next economic bubble people will be more sensible. And the fundamentals have not changed, specifically the uncertain future of fossil fuels. I’m not trading my trips to the feed store for a shopping spree at Hot Topic anytime soon.

So I thought I’d plug a few search terms relating to urban homesteading into Google Trends to see what is going on. This is, of course, highly unscientific–Google Trends may just reflect media generated interest, not what people are actually doing. Here’s what I found:

Backyard Chickens

Many urban homesteading activities are seasonal–in spring people start searching for information on chickens and vegetable gardens, so you’ll see upward spikes towards the end of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. Judging from the results on “backyard chickens,” it looks like that it’s a trend that is growing in popularity. Some of this activity may be related to legalization efforts, but I’d like to think that it reflects a growing dissatisfaction with our industrial agriculture system.

Gardening

It seems that searches for gardening of all kinds–I tried “vegetable gardening,” “vegetable seeds,” “rose pruning” and “lawn care,” are down. I think this may reflect a demographic shift–an older generation dying off. We need to get young people gardening!

Bread Baking

No wonder I can’t seem to offer enough bread baking classes.

Bicycles


Cycling is down, but I’m sure this reflects disenchantment with Lance Armstrong and professional cycling.

Searches for “bike commuting” are up slightly.

It’s inevitable that media interest in home ec topics will decline when the stock market is up. Just remember how quickly vegetable gardens and chicken coops were abandoned in the 1980s. But I have a good feeling that the lessons of the last few years will stick better than they did in the 1970s. What do you think?

How to Remove Bees From a Tree

bees in a tree

The Los Angeles Fire Department responds to the North Hollywood bee incident. Photo: LAFD.

First let’s cover how not to remove bees from a tree. My beekeeping mentor Kirk Anderson described an incident that took place this week in North Hollywood,

What happened was a HUMAN was cutting his tree down. It came down alright, with the bees that were in the tree. The bees didn’t expect or enjoy the trip to the ground. The home owner ran with the bees right after him. The bees found the neighbor’s dog and figured it was the dogs fault. The dog died of bee stings. The homeowner called 911 and the fire department came and foamed the bees. He then called a exterminator who sprayed the bees with some kind of poison. The exterminator told him he had to clean everything up because every bee with in 50 miles was coming to his backyard for breakfast in the morning. The homeowner caused this problem.

Kirk concludes by quoting George V. Higgins who said, “Life is hard. It’s harder when you are stupid.” Amen.

So how could this have been prevented?

  • Preventative tree maintenance. Hire an qualified arborist to keep your trees healthy.  A large cavity filled with bees is generally a sign of a diseased or damaged tree. The bees may be the least of your concerns. You could be looking at a large limb crashing down on your house. Judging from the news footage the tree the idiot homeowner decided to cut down himself appeared to have codominant stems. This probably caused a crack leading to disease which, in turn, led to a cavity to form. Perfect habitat for bees! This was entirely preventable with judicious pruning.
  • Leave the bees alone. If they are way up in the tree and not bothering anyone, take a chill pill.
  • Hire a beekeeper to remove the hive. What Kirk has done with tree hives is to come at night when all the bees are in their hive and wrap a screen around the entrance so they can’t get out. Next day he comes with a chainsaw and saws off the limb with the bees in it. Then he gives the log filled with bees away to someone who wants to put it in their garden.
  • Hire a beekeeper to do a “trap-out.” This is harder to do and takes at least six weeks. The beekeeper comes after dark and installs a one way exit for the bees. Next to the exit the beekeeper places a hive box with some brood comb (baby bees) in it. The worker bees leave but can’t get into their old home. They take up residence in the new box and make a new queen. If all goes well the beekeeper comes in six weeks and takes away the box. I took bees out of a kitchen vent this way and wrote about it in a blog post.
  • Know the difference between a swarm and a beehive. Swarms are how bees reproduce. Often they will land on a tree branch temporarily while they search for a permanent home (like a diseased tree). Swarms are usually harmless and will take off within a few days.
  • Lastly, if you enjoy poisoning and killing things, I suppose you can hire an exterminator. Just don’t try to do it yourself with a can of raid.

On the Difficulty of Finding Pastured Animal Products

chickens on pasture

Chickens on pasture. Image by MentalMasala.

I was hoping to bring some good news this morning, specifically about a non-profit animal welfare rating service that I found out about at the National Products Expo. There were two animal welfare rating organizations at the Expo, one I decided not to write about because I considered their standards too loose–specifically they do not mandate pasture. The other requires pasture and I was looking forward to recommending them.

This morning, however, I decided to look at some of the farms they have certified and was surprised to come across one that I’ve actually visited. By no stretch of the imagination does the farm in question give their livestock the access to pasture that I was under the impression the rating organization required. Now I’m fully aware that my own backyard chickens would not meet these standards–my yard is simply not big enough and my hens are in a coop/run arrangement all day. But I was hoping for a higher standard from this non-profit rating organization–specifically eggs and meat from a farm that looks like the one in the picture above.

I’m hugely disappointed. And I wish I could be more specific but I don’t want to end up in a lawsuit. Let’s just say that at this point I’m not aware of any animal welfare rating service that I consider adequate. Let’s not even talk about the joke that is the USDA.

I do think there is a entrepreneurial opportunity here for someone to start a reliable third party rating organization. How about we use some 21st century technology?  Just think about how cool it would be to make use of webcams so you could trace and see the farm your food came from.

How To Capture a Bee Swarm With Kirk Anderson

Swarm season is here in Southern California and will arrive elsewhere in North America with the coming of spring. In this video, beekeeper Kirk Anderson shows you how to catch a swarm. It’s the best way, in my opinion, to get bees to start your own hive.

Why? Swarms, unlike packaged bees, are free. They are also local, meaning the bees know how to deal with your micro-climate. To capture a swarm you:

  • Spray the swarm with a mixture of white sugar and water–this keeps them busy cleaning themselves while you . . .
  • Knock them in a nuc box (a cardboard box that holds five frames–get one at your local beekeeping supply shop).
  • Take the nuc box home and let them settle in for a few weeks. Then you can transfer the frames to a permanent hive box.

That’s just about it. Bees tend not to be aggressive when they swarm (they have no honey to protect).

To see more how-to videos featuring Kirk visit the video page of the Backwards Beekeepers.

Toilet Paper Roll Tower for Cats

cattoiletpaper

Photo: FourWhitePaws

At the risk of turning into one of those people who does nothing but post cute cat pictures to Facebook–oh wait a second, I’m already that person–here’s a tip from a friend Christine on how to keep cats busy with toilet paper rolls.

Christine sent me a link to the FourWhitePaws blog on making a toilet paper tower that you put treats in. She also sent a link to a stock photo service that is, oddly, selling a photo of a slightly more aestheticized version of this idea.

Looks like many hours of entertainment for our feline friends. And to think I’m a former doberman owner . . . what has happened?

Nesting Box Plans in SketchUp

SketchUp is a free and easy to use 3D modeling program. And users have created a library of 3D models you can download. Up until recently most of these models were not particularly useful to DIY urban homesteady types. Enter SketchUp model contributor Rick whose collection of models includes the chicken nesting box above, raised garden beds and a couple of other useful projects.

I’m really looking forward to seeing more open source project models like this and hope to contribute some myself. If you know of any other useful 3D models, leave a comment.