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from Metro West Daily News (Boston, MA)


Black widow spider found in grape bag

By Andrew Sabine / CNC Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 18, 2002

A Maynard woman got a shock recently when she grabbed a bunch of grapes and found a black widow spider scurrying around the bottom of the bag.

Doreen Leblanc, 51, a research firm manager, thinks she bought the red seedless grapes at a Stop & Shop in Acton, although she has purchased grapes at different stores. She was on alert for spiders after seeing a news story about a family that bought grapes in a Revere supermarket two weeks ago and discovered a black widow in them.

When Leblanc saw the spider in her grapes, "I just stared in disbelief. I was more flabbergasted than frightened."

The move toward fewer pesticides might be the cause.

"We're seeing more and more of this kind of thing," said Richard Berman, an entomologist with Waltham Services Inc., a pest control firm. He said reports of black widows in bunches of grapes, especially those grown domestically, have been on the rise in the last year.

After several black widow surprises, New Zealand banned California-grown grapes last December.

"It's the consequence of the new organic movement in agriculture," Berman said. "Growers are shying away from pesticides, encouraging spiders of all kinds to flourish" as a kind of natural pest control.

"It's a positive sign -- fewer chemicals on our produce," he said.

The black widow may strike fear in the hearts of many, but Berman said its bad reputation is unfair and exaggerated.

In his 33 years as a bug specialist, he said he couldn't recall anyone dying from a black widow bite.

"They're quite common in other parts of the country, where they co-exist with humans in harmony," said Berman. "But in New England, where they're relatively rare, people react to them as if they'd seen a cobra."

Although symptoms of a bite can be severe -- swelling, nausea and fever -- the black widow, which shies away from humans, usually bites only when handled or threatened.

The concentrated neurotoxin in its venom sac isn't strong enough to kill a healthy adult, although children and the elderly could be at risk if bitten.

A soon as she saw the spider, LeBlanc sealed the grapes and the spider in a plastic bag and drove them to the Maynard police station.

From there, squeamish officers ferried the bag to the Board of Health office in Town Hall, where health inspector Gerry Collins, noting the distinctive crimson hourglass marking on the spider's underbelly, confirmed that it was a poisonous female black widow. Males are harmless and are sometimes eaten by their mates.

News of the spider's arrival spread quickly, prompting some black widow humor at Town Hall.

"Feel like some grapes, Janice?" DPW Superintendent Walter Sokolowski asked his cringing administrative assistant. "It's the kind with big teeth."

Because the grapes are suspected to have come from the Acton Stop & Shop, the Acton health inspector is heading the investigation, alongside Collins and the state Department of Public Health.

A manager at the Stop & Shop said she was not aware of any spiders found in grapes sold at the store.

The health officials will trace the journey the grapes made from produce aisle back to the farm to determine where the black widow sneaked in.

"It's not hard to see how this could have happened though," said Berman. "Usually insects make their way into a shipment while it's still in the fields. Harvesters leave their containers on the ground as they pluck fruit from vines.

"From there, the fruit goes right into a truck and then into storage. Within a day or two it's being sold as fresh produce literally anywhere in the U.S."

In spite of her close encounter, Leblanc said she will continue to eat grapes, but will be cautious when handling them. She did say several of her friends might swear off grapes.

"I know at least a few ladies who tell me they swing wide at the grape aisle now," Collins, the health inspector, said with a laugh.

"Even I've been giving my grapes a second look," Berman admitted.

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