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My lunch-time encounter with a black widow spider

Everyone loves grapes — apparently even venomous spiders. I made that unpleasant discovery firsthand when I found a live one in my school lunch.

I found out recently that venomous black widow spiders seem to like grapes, too.
Photo by Aaron Hathaway

Everyone loves grapes: toddlers, adults — and me. I found out recently that venomous black widow spiders seem to like grapes, too.

I made that unpleasant discovery firsthand earlier this month when I found a live black widow in the grapes I got for lunch at Mounds Park Academy in Maplewood. At first, I didn’t even know it was a black widow — I had sifted through the grapes and eaten all the appealing ones, leaving only a couple mushy grapes sitting on my tray.

Then I noticed movement in the tray’s grape compartment. What I had previously dismissed as a smaller, dark grape actually had eight legs and was beginning to move about.

I jumped out of my seat and yelled in alarm, but I soon calmed down and used a spoon to move the spider to an empty compartment. In doing so, I flipped the spider over, revealing the iconic crimson hourglass, and immediately realized what type of spider I had encountered.

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My friends, who also knew the danger this spider posed, reacted with surprising calm, even chuckling at the unusual circumstances. But they also took a collective scoot away from the arachnid.

 I’m surprised I remained as level-headed as I did and thought it was sort of funny in a surreal sort of way.

From a quick Google search, I learned that I’m a rarity — one of only about 10 to 15 Americans to find a black widow in their food within the past year. While it’s true that the black widow is rarely deadly and more formidable spiders exist, the black widow is the classic “dangerous” spider.

To find out more about the risk of black widow incidents in Minnesota, I contacted the Mayo Clinic’s Dr. John Wilkinson, but he’d never heard of any such appearances here. He did offer valuable advice for anyone bitten to do whatever he or she can to positively identify the spider to assist Poison Control staff in treating the bite.

Meanwhile, the situation in the lunchroom had escalated with a growing crowd of kids gathering around to gawk at the spider. That drew the attention of MPA staff.

I informed Randy Comfort, head of MPA’s Upper School, of my discovery. He in turn notified a dining service staff member, who took my tray away (but not before offering me the rest of my lunch, which I politely declined).

Later that day, the school followed up with an email from him to all students, staff and families. Comfort explained that MPA’s grapes are purchased from a supplier in Chile, and that the spider, as well as the shipping container it came in, had been turned in to the supplier for inspection. In the email, he wrote, “the spider appeared to have been nestled deeply in the grape bunch.” That’s apparently why it avoided detection during the usual cleaning process.

Given the rarity of hitchhikers like this, it wouldn’t be worth devoting extra time and resources for additional washings and inspections on the off-chance that this occurs again.

Afterward, I was curious how the spider ended up in the shipment and did a little research. It would appear that the reason lies in pesticides. Because of health and environmental concerns, farmers worldwide have cut down on pesticide use in their produce.

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It’s not just the Chileans from whom we get our grapes — growers across the globe have all hopped aboard this movement, especially those marketing organic or naturally-grown produce. These crops in turn have seen an increase in small insects, which provide a veritable buffet for predatory spiders such as the black widow.

A 2003 USA Today article explains: “Grape growers and grocers say their efforts to use fewer or softer chemicals are to blame for more bugs reaching consumers.”Although the lack of pesticides may be to blame, the alternative is much more dangerous, the newspaper said, noting that “some chemicals have been shown to contribute to such health problems as cancer and birth defects.”

Given the rarity of such a spider incident, I’ll gladly risk that in exchange for a healthier grape.

Aaron Hathaway is a senior at Mounds Park Academy in Maplewood.