I'm sure that South Africa has a few deadly spiders, but I can't say I've ever seen one of them. Apart from the perpetual Daddy Long-legs in every corner of my South African garage, and the occasional rain spider giving me a heart attack because of its sheer size and hairiness, I had never had to contemplate something that small being potentially deadly.
We moved into our new house a few weeks after arriving in Australia, and I walked into the garage early one morning to be confronted by Mrs Redback hanging from the door. I immediately knew what it was by the distinctive red stripe on top and red hourglass on the bottom. We discovered many more of the clan, in the garage, and hiding under the garden furniture, which had been left behind by the previous owner. I can now say that the local pest control man is one of my closest friends!
The redback spider (Latrodectus hasselti) is common Australia-wide. The male spiders are less than 5mm in length, and are too small to bite people. But the female is bad news, and about 10mm in length. The spiders are smooth, shiny and very black, with an hourglass-shaped red marking on the underside, and a red or orange stripe on top, and long, thin, black legs.
If you do get bitten, you won't feel any pain for about the first five minutes. Thereafter, pain and a burning sensation may develop and a variety of other symptoms may be present, including: Sweating, stiffness, tremors and muscle weakness. Symptoms do vary, so it's best to just head off to the doctor as soon as possible. Anti-venom for the redback spider was developed in 1956, and no deaths have been recorded since, but around 13 people are known to have died from redback spider bites before then.
Redbacks are common in urban areas, and will quickly move into an untreated house, so it's always a good idea to be on first name terms with your local “pesty” and have your home sprayed annually. This will also ensure that other pests such as ants and cockroaches keep away. Redbacks are not aggressive spiders, so if you find any about they are quite easy to relocate with an old jam jar, if you have the stomach for it. Alternatively, a good blast with a bug spray will do the trick!