. . . that set off a new tale of horror
The terrified folk
Couldn’t take a wee joke
When their grocer left fauna on flora
Why the limerick? You’ll soon see.
Tip o’ the hat to the supermarket chain Tesco, which calmly handled a customer’s complaint of finding a spider egg sac on a banana, and then actually identified the spider as harmless. This, as any news junkie knows, never happens. The untrained banana-buyer’s warrantless identification of the egg sac as belonging to “the world’s deadliest spider” is brayed far and wide by the media. Then the story, like the spider, dies. We never find out what happened when moonsuited pest techs descend on the humble cottage with their flamethrowers and collect the banana or the egg sac or more rarely an actual spider—all of which are bruised and mushy, like the story itself.
In the latest case, in Limerick, Ireland, the family, not knowing quite how to react, actually baked the banana and its egg sac in the oven for an hour and a half at 250 degrees (see photo). That is one goth recipe for bananas foster.
I’m half frustrated by this story, still, because the Irish media stopped at conveying Tesco’s reassurance that it was all about “a harmless spider.” That’s definitely the phrase to highlight if you’re serving the public. But inquiring minds also want to know . . . which harmless spider?
The banana-spider scare is a perennial: one of the few ways spiders regularly make the news. (Another is the neverending saga of the Invisible Spider, a baddie not-seen on every continent, which gets blamed for every nip and sore regardless of whether the victim is a prisoner, an athlete, or a hardcore, liver-abusing rock god.) You wouldn’t know it from the tabloids, but spider scientists have been devoting attention to the banana story, too, from both a pest-control and a research perspective.
Not every wandering spider in South and Central America is the same. There are species of medical concern (most notoriously Phoneutria, of which several species are of minimal concern and one of greater) and several others that are indeed harmless.
Now, harmless doesn’t always mean small and cute, like that dancing jumping spider with the rainbow afro that you saw on Facebook—the one its discoverer nicknamed “Sparklemuffin.” (Call off the unicorns, please. Sure, jumping spiders are literally tiny kittens, but let’s not get carried away.)
Harmless might mean big and fast, like the tropical spider Cupiennius. Or big and fast like huntsman species, which live all around the world and like to skitter about walls and ceilings and doorways.
(I learned something fun about Heteropoda (huntsman spiders) in Australia. They do bite. That’s not the fun part. Someone carried out a thorough study of when people in Oz are actually bitten by spiders, and the number one circumstance for the huntsman was “when catching the spider.” I come from a family of five brothers, I savor knuckle-headedness.)
All of the above (not Sparklemuffin) will occasionally show up as “banana spiders.” Studies like this indicate that the harmless or less-harmful species are the ones most likely to pop up in British (and now Irish) fruit bowls. The Vetter paper I just cited suggests that’s because Phoneutria fera, the one whose bite is most troublesome, lives far from the banana-growing regions that export the fruit to Europe and North America. Concerned mums and dads shouldn’t be so quick to panic.
And it’s worth repeating: when all one sees is an egg sac, there’s no risk whatsoever. The wee ones, even if they hatch, won’t survive that far from home and they can’t bite anyone.
There’s another spider amidst the fruit salad: the black widow. It’s grapes the widow hides in, not bananas. She’s in there to catch insects and gets accidentally caught in the harvest. Despite the well-known toxicity of their venom, I don’t know of any case in which a black widow lurking in a bunch of grapes ever injured anyone. (Do you? Tell me.) Unlike wandering spiders, which are fast, black widows are slow and clumsy; you’d have to stick your finger right into one’s face or web to be bitten, and even then she’d be desperately trying to escape.
Some people think there have been more spider sightings in fruit in recent years because of reduced pesticide use. I don’t know if either of those things is true. If anything, you’d think grocery stores’ fumigation would be getting even better at keeping out critters. And even organic bananas are subjected to some pesticides.
The number of spider reports? Naw, they’ve always been out there. But now that we can all share a shriek with folks as far afield as Limerick or London, the tales (rhyming or not) have a better chance of racing round the world. As they do.