The season of grape harvesting is upon us, but as you rush outdoors with secateurs to snip off a sweet ripe bunch, it might just pay to wear your gardening gloves. Grapevines are a favourite hunting ground for spiders which prey on the many insects that seek out grape leaves and the ripening fruit. The situation is made worse because grapes are typically organically grown so aren’t exposed to the kind of insect sprays that many fresh fruits and vegetables are. Nor are they likely to have been washed before reaching you as water can damage the fruit.
In commercial situations, when the fruit is picked and packed, the spiders hide between the individual grapes, sometimes disappearing into silk retreats built inside the bunches’ hollow stems. Although grapes are usually chilled while being transported, the lowered temperature only puts the spiders into a semi-dormant state. When the fruit is unpacked into the relative warmth of the supermarket, and later into a bowl on your bench, the spiders become active and often try to escape from the bunch.
While your garden grapes are unlikely to go through a chilling process, it’s still quite common to find spiders nestling within the bunch, and if one of those spiders happens to be the increasingly common white-tailed variety, you could find yourself in trouble.
If you don’t encounter our poisonous Australian import while pulling your bunch of grapes apart, or in the bottom of the fruit bowl or the chiller of the fridge, you may come across it in the folds of bedding and towels. White-tails are also partial to hiding in shoes left at floor level.
The bite of a white-tailed spider is said by some to be innocuous but for others, it’s a painful experience, not necessarily at the time of the bite itself, but a few hours after. Skin around the affected area begins to turn a deep red and then purple, and if the bite is on a finger, the entire hand can swell. Antihistamines can help in some circumstances but most people find a visit to the doctor soon becomes necessary.
As white-tailed spiders become more noticeable around the home, several householders have suggested deterrents in the form of essential oils including peppermint, citronella, and tea tree. It is also claimed that the spiders steer clear of eucalyptus and lavender.
Of more use, however, given that white-tailed spiders come inside to hunt other spiders, is a policy of removing spiders webs as soon as you see them. Keep the outside of your home spider-free, too, by water blasting (resist the urge to have your home spider-sprayed as this method kills insects with poison that is then ingested by our beautiful native birds and fed to their young). Instead, plant shrubs and trees that will attract birds into your section so they feed on spiders.
And when it comes to handling bunches of grapes, do so with gloves, and wash the fruit carefully in a solution of salt and water before rinsing it clean and leaving it on a clean dish towel to dry.