An arachnid expert has appealed for people to stop exterminating spiders because of misplaced fears about the false widow spider.
Greg Hitchock, who works at the Kent Wildlife Trust as a conservation officer and has been a member of the British Arachnological Society for 14 years, contacted this newspaper calling for calm after apparent sightings of the toxic spider across south London and Surrey were reported in the local press.
The qualified ecologist, who has a Masters degree in Zoology, said many of the spiders identified in the articles are not actually false widows, but are common house spiders which are now paying the price as worried residents batter them to death.
He said: "Psychology plays a role. The more scared you are of spiders, the more likely you are to exaggerate their features.
"There are 650 different types of spiders in the country. Identifying them off the internet as everybody is doing is not helpful.
"False widows are fairly hairless, although they do look very much like black widows in that they are very dark.
"They have a pattern on their abdomen described as looking like a skull, but that’s a story which has gone along with its ‘deadly’ reputation.
"Lots of people said they have been absolutely sure that the spiders they have seen are false widows, but they’re not at all. It’s not that straight-forward."
Mr Hitchcock said some of the spiders identified have been "very common types of spiders which almost everyone will have, especially in suburban and rural areas".
These include the Zygiella x-notata, known as the silver-sided sector spider, and the Nuctenea umbratica, known as the walnut orb-weaver spider.
The expert also said that false widows - a relative of the deadly black widow - are not "deadly" - in fact, he said, no one in the UK has ever died from a spider bite, let alone one by a false widow.
He said false widows, which "build irregular webs", can be found in dark places, such as sheds or garages - where ordinary house spiders can also be found - because they are looking for food.
Mr Hitchcock added: "Because of the press coverage, people are going out and looking for them and they will find these spiders. It does spiral out of control.
"False widows are getting a very bad press.
"They are no more dangerous than eating a peanut. But quite often alarming headlines are used to draw people in."
He added: "Females bite in defence. There have never been any reports of males biting.
"They were first recorded in the South West in the 1870s. The numbers of them have increased in the last couple of decades due to climate change.
"But they don’t ‘spread’ or travel huge distances.
"These spiders are only dangerous if you’re allergic, so are essentially no different to bees, wasps or peanuts.
"What may cause harm is all the people now spraying pesticides liberally around their houses to kill spiders that may or may not be false widows."
Advice on how to deal with false widow spiders:
"Don’t panic. It’s not likely to be a false widow, even if it’s in the house.
"Females are only likely to bite if they feel threatened.
"If it is a false widow then, as with other spiders, get a glass and a piece of cardboard and take it outside. If you find one in a web, then just clean it away with a feather duster.
"If somebody is bitten by a false widow, don’t panic.
"You treat it just as you would a wasp sting, for which people usually take anti-histamines available over-the-counter at a pharmacists.
"Keep an eye on the symptoms though. If you have any swelling or pain that doesn’t stay localised, then go and see a doctor."