Charlotte is a black widow spider found by Iona Simon of St. John’s earlier this month in some grapes she purchased.Contributed by Iona Simon

Original Published on Jun 27, 2022 at 05:41

By Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

When Iona Simon decided to put some grapes in with her granddaughter’s lunch a couple of weeks ago, she first gave them a quick rinse under the tap, holding them in the palm of her hand.

She wrapped them in some paper towels to dry them off, then opened them up again.

That’s when Charlotte made her debut.

“I’m like, ‘Oh my God, what a big spider!’ Then I dumped everything in the sink and then took all the grapes and threw them out in the garbage,” she said.

“I was shaking because she was big. I didn’t, at the time, think that she was a black widow.”

Despite her shock, Simon had the presence of mind to grab a mason jar and coaxed the eight-legged visitor into it. She punched some holes in the top and put it aside, not saying anything to her granddaughter.

When her daughter’s boyfriend was heading into work, she showed it to him.

He had the same reaction and said he’d do a little research on it that day.

All Simon had to do is post a video of it on the Insects of Newfoundland Facebook page to learn just about everything she wanted to know about the arachnid. A few people asked her to photograph the belly to see if it had the tell-tale red hourglass marking.

It did, so she posted that photo as well.

“It went viral after that,” she said in an interview from her St. John’s home.

Simon had posted on the insect group page before, and adds she would have posted on the Spiders of NL site instead if she’d known there was one.

Nonetheless, several people showed interest in taking the spider off her hands. When she called the Newfoundland Insectarium near Deer Lake — her hometown — they even suggested she send it to them by mail.

She wasn’t keen on that.

By this time, Simon had developed some affection for the interloper, and even considered keeping it as a pet. Her granddaughter suggested the name Charlotte, from “Charlotte’s Web.”

“I said, ‘One thing is for certain. If I know you’re going to kill her, you’re not getting her. I’m not giving her to anybody who’s going to kill her.’ She’s beautiful. She’s a beautiful specimen,” she said.

“Nature is perfect, right?”

But other members of her household felt differently.

“My daughter said, ‘Mom, if that’s in the house tomorrow, we’re all moving out,’” she said, laughing.

In the end, a couple of biology students came and collected it. One of them pins and labels insects as a hobby, but assured her they’d keep it in a safe habitat for observation until it died naturally.

Happens occasionally

The grapes had been purchased at Costco the week before, and Simon had already used some of them for a baby shower last weekend. She only rinses what she needs because she finds fruit goes bad faster after it’s washed.

The coolness of the fridge likely kept the spider dormant, which is why Simon didn’t notice it until she took a batch out to wash.

It’s not the first time a black widow has hitched a ride on imported produce. At least three people across the island have reported finding them over the past few years, almost always on grapes.

The spiders reach an average size of about four centimetres and Charlotte looked to be all of that.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) singles out the phenomenon of grapes and black widows on its website.

“Black widow spiders are occasionally found in imported table grapes, especially those imported from California during the fall harvesting season. Spiders have always been in and around grape vineyards. They eat insect pests that are found on grapes.”

Simon says her grapes were imported from Mexico.

The agency says the spiders don’t damage or poison the grapes.

Even though grapes are carefully inspected before packaging, the spiders are sometimes missed. Once refrigerated, they’re even harder to detect.

There are several varieties of black widows, and none are native to Atlantic Canada. A few can be found in the southern regions of provinces from Ontario west to B.C.

They are poisonous, but they only bite when they feel threatened, and it’s rarely fatal to a healthy adult.

“In most cases, the symptoms of a black widow spider bite are a sharp pain followed by localized swelling and redness,” the CFIA says. “In some cases, severe symptoms may appear within 30 to 60 minutes. These symptoms may include muscle cramps and spasms, chills, fever, nausea, headache, hypertension, and abdomen or chest pain.”

The spiders are named for their peculiar habit of cannibalizing the much smaller male of the species after mating, although this doesn’t always happen.

According to the Nature Conservancy of Canada, some studies show the males can sense hungrier females by using scent receptors in their feet on the female’s web. They can then opt for a less voracious mate.

This item reprinted from The Telegram, St. John’s, Newfoundland