Arachnids in their home and native land

Remember that poem about Little Miss Muffet and the spider that made her run away? The story seems to have some parallels to our own relationship with spiders here in Ontario, with the media sensationalizing news stories about the rise in black widow spiders found in table grapes imported from California.

Listening to the radio one day, I heard the announcer tell a story about a woman who found a black widow lurking in some produce in her fridge. The announcer then went on to say that because of these backpacking arachnids, there are now up to six strains of black widows living in Ontario when they were not native here previously. She failed to mention how these one and a half-inch, glossy black, red hourglass-bellied spiders are actually native to Ontario, so people really shouldn’t be all that surprised that they are stumbling across them.

The black widow is native to North America, and can be found in warmer climates including the northern United States and southern Canada. While they are the fourth-most venomous arachnid in the world and are 15 times more poisonous than a rattlesnake, people shouldn’t worry about getting bitten. Their bites are lethal only for children or those with compromised immune systems. Even then the fatality rate of the black widow is less than one per cent.

Sightings in Ontario are rare as these spiders prefer to live in more secluded areas, like under bushes and woodpiles. The black widow only bites when they feel threatened, and are generally very timid spiders that will avoid humans at all costs.

Cameron McGregor, a fourth year Concurrent Education student at Laurier Brantford, once worked for a company where he was required to catch the eight-legged terrors to be tested to find out if they are venomous. (Due to a confidentiality clause, McGregor was unable to name the company.) The company was worried that the imported black widows were breeding with local non-venomous spiders to create a kind of hybrid. If they were breeding, they would spread quickly. Most spiders lay anywhere between 50 to 100 eggs, which all hatch and go on their merry way to make even more spiders.

So why the sudden media attention to these timid little things? With reports of findings in Guelph, Newmarket and Mississauga, the media is jumping all over the incidents, making the spiders out to be deadly monsters. There are many misconceptions around how the black widow got to Canada and how they get into fruits, specifically bags of grapes that are brought into Ontario from California. Generally, it is very rare to find any kind of spider in your produce, but if you do, it is more than likely a black widow. These spiders are known for hanging around vineyards because they feed on the pests that damage the grapes and vines; vineyards provide the perfect spot for black widows to make their triangle-shaped nests.

When the grapes are first harvested, farm hands do all they can, from rinsing the grapes off and shaking out the bunches, to make sure no spiders are roosting in the bushels. The preventative methods are, unsurprisingly, imperfect. If there are any spiders left hiding, they are immobilized when the grapes are sent to be chilled before and during the packaging and shipping process. From the time they leave the vineyard until they arrive to the consumer, grapes are kept cold, keeping the spider dormant. When the grapes are taken out of the fridge and left to warm up, the spiders wake up and scare unsuspecting consumers.

I asked a friend of mine, Matt Anderson, a third-year Journalism student who works in the produce section of a local grocery store, if he had ever come across any bugs while putting out produce.

“I haven’t. My manager found a big [spider] in the bananas,” he says.

With the risk there, I assumed it would be logical for the employees to receive training about what to do if they come across one of these little things. But, at least in Anderson’s case, that assumption is wrong, meaning they may be at risk of a bite as well.

“The extent of the so-called ‘training’ was [my manager] telling us how he trapped a huge spider in a pineapple container and then found out it was very poisonous,” Anderson explains.

“I felt like it was kind of dangerous that this sort of thing can happen and they didn’t bother training us about it.”

Spiders have been found in produce worldwide, from Canada and the U.S. to Britain. The sudden increase, with four sightings between September and October of 2010, may be related to the ban on pesticides used to ward off spiders. The ban was enacted in Ontario in 2010 and disallows the use of cosmetic pesticides. The government says exposure to the chemicals is unnecessary and can cause illnesses in small children and pets. The pesticides were used to ward off insects and weeds but may cause some forms of cancer. This means humans are the only way to fight off these arachnids. Some vineyards offer bounties to willing participants to go hunt these spiders and bring them back for a cash reward.

As it turns out, the spiders that McGregor had been hunting weren’t poisonous. There’s no need to worry that we will be infested with a whole new strain of black widow spiders, at least not venomous ones. To avoid an unfortunate run-in with these little beasts, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency suggests washing grapes in warm water before setting them in the fridge or on a table, as this will awaken any little critters. If you do find a black widow or any spider hiding in your produce, they say you should kill it by washing it down the sink or “squiwordsshing” it (my own term). The spiders do not harm the grapes or make them poisonous, so they are safe for eating.

But I didn’t hear any of this from the short radio report. Just as books can’t be judged by their cover, the spiders often squashed by them can’t be judged by their coverage.

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