Northern Widows at QUBS

Posted by Mark Conboy

Photo is by Philina English.

Eastern Ontario has its fair share of interesting and charismatic spiders. There are the argiopes (Argiope spp.), whose webs are decorated with an ultraviolet-reflective stabilimentum, presumably to attract insect prey; there are the enormous and parentally-minded pisaurids (Dolomedes and Pisaurina spp.) which carry their eggs with them in a bundle of silk to keep them safe from predators and parasitoids; there are also the beautifully marked jumping spiders (Salticidae) whose leaps propel them many times their own body length, and for safety sake always tether themselves with a string of silk. But among the most exciting spiders in our region is the highly venous and exceeding beautiful northern widow (Latrodectus variolus). I’ve found not one, but two northern widows at Queen’s University Biological Station this year; perhaps the first year this species has ever been documented there.

The northern widow is a close relative of the better known and often maligned black widow (L. mactans). Black widows are typically confined to the southern United States and their distribution does not normally include Canada. Occasionally black widows (and other charismatic subtropical invertebrates) arrive in Canada on shipments of produce from the southern states but probably do not survive long outside of buildings. Northern widows however are native, though they seem to be fairly rare throughout most of Eastern Ontario. In southwestern Ontario they are a little more common, with several large localized populations. Throughout much of their range though they are patchily distributed and not often encountered. Many people are not even aware of their existence in the province.

The first of the two females at QUBS was found below a black light at Ironwood Cottage on QUBS Point. She had constructed a nest and egg sac under a cinder block. She preyed on a mixture of insects attracted to the black light including June beetles (Phyllophaga spp.) and medium-sized moths. The second female was underneath a flat rock on a rock barren at the Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre. The only prey item found in this female’s web were parts of a Pennsylvania woodroach (Parcoblatta pennsylvanica). This female also had an egg sac.

According to most sources northern widows can produce painful and potentially dangerous bites, but apparently no fatalities have been reported from the bite of this species, at least in Ontario. Widows in general are retiring spiders that typically only bite humans during accidental interactions. Their neurotoxic venom can cause pain and breathing difficulties and in the case of the black widow, can be fatal to young children or the infirmed. Northern widow bites should be taken seriously and a physician should be seen if you are unlucky enough to be bitten by one.

Next summer year I’ll be on the lookout for more northern widows across the rock barrens and inside the various abandoned buildings at QUBS. It’s impossible to say if we’ve always had a small and cryptic population of this species that’s just gone unnoticed, or if northern widows have only recently arrived here. The presence of eggs sacs clearly shows that whatever the history of widows at QUBS was, there is currently a reproductive population.

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Recommended Field Guides and other Reference Materials for Queen’s University Biological Station Users

Posted by Mark Andrew Conboy

With thousands of species of plants, fungi and animals at QUBS, putting names to the organisms encountered at the station can be a daunting task. Correctly identifying the organisms we come across in the field is the first essential step to understanding the diversity of nature around us. You need excellent field guides in order to do that. I am constantly asked about which field guides are the best ones for researchers to bring to QUBS. The following list is comprised of the books and other documents I most highly recommend for a broad range of taxonomic groups. In addition I have included a few other useful reference materials such as checklists, websites and dichotomous keys. For lists of species which occur at QUBS see our website.

Birds
•    Sibley Field Guide to Birds by David Allen Sibley
•    Identification Guide to North American Birds: Part 1: Columbidae to Ploceidae by Peter Pyle
•    Peterson Field Guide to Birds’ Nests by Hal H. Harrison
•    A Field Guide to Nests, Eggs and Nestlings of North American Birds by Colin Harrison

Mammals
•    Mammals of the Great Lakes Region by Allen Kurta

Fishes
•    ROM Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes of Ontario by Erling Holm, Nicholas E. Mandrak and Mary E. Burridge

Reptiles and Amphibians
•    ROM Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of Ontario by Ross D. MacCulloch

Insects (General)
•    Insects: Their Natural History and Diversity by Stephen A. Marshall
•    Bug Guide

Butterflies and Moths
•    The Butterflies of Canada by Ross A. Layberry, Peter W. Hall and J. Donald Lafontaine
•    Le Guide de Papillons du Quebec by Louis Handfield
•    Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America by David Beadle and Seabrookie Leckie
•    Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner

Damselflies and Dragonflies
•    Damselflies of the Northeast by Ed Lam
•    Dragonflies and Damselflies of the Algonquin Provincial Park and the Surrounding Area by Colin D. Jones, Andrea Kingsley, Peter Burke and Matt Holder
•    Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East by Dennis Paulson

Orthopterans
•    Field Guide to Grasshoppers, Katydids and Crickets of the United States by John L. Capinera, Ralph D. Scott and Thomas J. Walker

Beetles
•    Field Guide to Northeastern Longhorn Beetles (Coleoptera: Cerambycidae) by Douglas Yanega
•    A Field Guide to the Tiger Beetles of the United States and Canada: Identification, Natural History, and Distribution of the Cicindelidae by David L. Pearson

Hymenopterans
•    Ants of North America: A Guide to the Genera by Brian L. Fisher
•    The Bumble Bees of Algonquin Provincial Park: A Field Guide by Nathan G. Miller

Spiders
•    Spiders of Ontario: A Guide to the Identification of Common Species.

Millipedes and Centipedes
•    Illustrated Keys to the Families of Terrestrial Arthropods of Canada: 1. Myriapods by D.K. McE. Kevan and G.G.E. Scudder

Crayfishes
•    Ontario Crayfish by Bishops Mills Natural History Centre, Ontario Nature and the Metro Toronto Zoo

Molluscs
•    Identifying Land Snails and Slugs in Canada: Introduced Species and Native Genera by F. Wayne Grimm, Robert G. Forsyth, Frederick W. Schueler and Aleta Karstad
•    The Freshwater Molluscs of Canada by Arthur H. Clarke
•    Photo Field Guide to the Freshwater Mussels of Ontario by Janice Metcalfe-Smith, Alistair MacKenzie, Ian Carmichael and Daryl McGoldrick

Animal Tracks
•    Peterson Field Guide to Animal Tracks by Olaus J. Murie

Plants (General)
•    Plants of the Kingston Region: 1996 by A. Crowder, K.E.J. Topping and J.C. Topping
•    Update of Plants of the Kingston Region: 1996 by A. Crowder

Wildflowers
•    Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide by Lawrence Newcomb

Trees and Shrubs
•    Trees in Canada by John Laird Farrar
•    Shrubs of Ontario by James H. Soper and Margaret L. Heimburger

Ferns
•    Ferns and Fern Allies of Canada by William J. Cody and Donald M. Britton
•    Annotated Key to the Ferns of the Kingston Region, Ontario, with Special Reference to Occurrences in the Vicinity of Lake Opinicon by Jim S. Pringle.

Fungi
•    Mushrooms of Ontario and Eastern Canada by George Barron
•    Field Guide to North American Truffles by Matt Trape, Frank Evans and James Trappe

Lichens
•    Lichens of North America by Irwin M. Brodo, Sylvia Duran Sharnoff and Stephen Sharnoff