Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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If you’ve never heard about wasp spiders, neither had I until recently but geez, the females are freakingly large beasties. I’d say about the palm of my hand in circumference, legs and all. In truth, they looked like overgrown wingless wasps when a 9-year-old little girl spotted a couple of them on her legs. Her family and mine were foraging blackberries in the south of France. Obviously, she freaked out and ran away. Seconds later, she screamed and we rushed her to a chemist.
Since that unfortunate encounter, I’ve learned a lot about wasp spiders and discovered that they’re actually increasingly common. They are a highly adaptive species and global warming helps them spread north. A strikingly colorful type of spider, wasp spiders are worth knowing a bit about–if not by botanical curiosity, at least to avoid wasp-spider family drama with sweet little girls.
Let’s start with the beginning, a very sweet beginning indeed. In the south of France, blackberries are the perfect ending to every summer and every month of August sees my family out with plastic containers at our usual blackberry patch. Most of the time, it ends in off-the-bush snacking and wild blackberry jam. This year, we had friends visiting in Beziers–my friend Kazz from A Year in Fromage and her family. Their girls are my girls’ age and their youngest daughter shares with my youngest daughter a passion for wild berries.
In fact, just the day before, they both went on a wild raspberry rampage in the French Alps. I couldn’t wait to take them blackberry picking.
As soon as we hit the blackberry patch, the girls were all over the place.
“They’re so yummy!”
“Best blackberries ever!”
They were unstoppable. We were lucky as this year brought just the right mix of rain and sun to cover the brambles in plump and juicy sweet blackberries by early August. For hard-to-reach fruit, our enthusiastic young crew resorted to climbing on their parents’ shoulders to pick some gorgeous specimens.
All of a sudden, I leaned forward to pick a larger-than-life blackberry and quickly withdrew my hand. Right in front of me, blending quite nicely in the blackberry bush, was a large striped spider in the middle of a web.
Wasn’t that the biggest spiny black-and-yellow arachnid around? I’m not a big fan of spiders but my oldest daughter once petted a tarantula and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. In front of the wasp spider, I was a lot more reserved and loudly warned everybody around me. HERE BE A GIANT SPIDER.
The kids came straight away for a peek.
“What a freak!”
The adults came for a peek too.
“Dear me, what a beast. Who knew?”
And so everybody had a turn admiring the giant spider with a blend of fascination and horror. The little girl’s dad bent over and noticed that the spider held something wrapped in silk on her web–a fly, probably long dead and ready to be blood-drained like all victims of the Great Spider in The Lord of the Rings. This was turning into a nature documentary without sound, as we knew nothing of the wasp spider.
Following a sweet anise smell, I climbed a hill and found a field of wild fennel all ready for the foraging. Cretan wild fennel pies! Wild fennel roast pork! Wild fennel tea! My mind was already checking off all the food possibilities. I noticed that the blackberry pickers in our group had found a particularly “juicy” patch around the back of a big bush (if you squint, you’ll see a head with a red shirt and a head with a white shirt between the hills).
As you can guess, my wild fennel expedition didn’t last long. I had barely lost sight of the blackberry gang when I heard the poor little girl. It went like this.
And several more of the same. I rushed downhill. Her mom was already there and her dad as well. The poor thing kept stomping her leg like she was trying to shake off something. Only the thing wasn’t there anymore. Or the things, since she was bitten by two spiders through her leggings. What was it? It looked like a wasp. Where did it fly away? It didn’t fly. How big was it? Very. Her leg was red and she was crying all the tears of her body, shaking as hell. We rolled up her leggings and I got the car to rush to a local chemist.
On the way, her dad soothed her while examining her leg and assessing the situation. There were 5 tiny holes on her left calf, four in pairs. The pairs of holes (rather than the single hole) clearly pointed to an arachnid rather than a flying insect, but who was responsible for that single hole? A slacker spider, probably. Sadly, any allusion to the “mystery beasties” (for we didn’t know what they were yet) or the bites sent the poor little girl into hysterics as she relived the scene with more and more details on the prickly attackers. Ten minutes later, I parked the car in front of the local pharmacy which, I knew, always had at least two if not three chemists on duty. Surely, they would know what to do.
As it turns out, the chemists had no clue what the spider was (even with my pictures), but they had a back room with everything needed for insect bite emergencies. Bonus: they had white coats, reassuring faces and the pharmacy was air-conditioned. They disinfected the leg once. They sprayed it with more disinfectant. They applied anti-histamine ointment. They gave our little friend pain-killers. And homeopathy too, a real treat as it’s all sugar and a little bit of something else you can’t t taste. They also talked in a calming voice.
Little by little, our young friend calmed down and stopped crying. It’s only then that we all noticed the shade below her eyes. My oldest daughter recently discovered make-up as a hobby and plainly, the mascara she had used on her friend was not tear-proof–well, not for 30 minutes of crying at any rate. It ran below her lovely eyes in black smudgy semi-circles a la Blade Runner. The effect was a fittingly dramatic and startling addition to the spider incident.
Meet Wasp Spider Girl. [Ominous music. Close-up on eyes.]
Anyhow. At the end of the day, the treatment was a mix of pain-killers and anti-inflammatory drugs to prevent itching and swelling. We expected some swelling, perhaps even blisters, but none of that happened. As soon as we got home, her dad and I looked at my pictures and with a local wildlife guide identified the spider as Argiope Bruenicchi. Online research ensued and tons of naturalist facts.
It was a common and large Mediterranean spider that was not poisonous but whose bite could pierce human skin, causing a reaction slightly less painful than the sting of a wasp. Talking of the devil, the name wasp spider comes from the black and yellow stripes on the spider’s back.
By the evening, our little friend’s leg was still a darker shade of pink but she didn’t seem to be in pain. In fact, she was quite jolly until bedtime when we discovered that she had an unusual black bump on her thigh. A tick!
She broke down into tears once more.
You should also read the little girl’s mother’s account of the day, with a cheese tie-in in Everything but a Bee in her Bonnet. She writes great stories that always have a French cheese tie-in and if you’re a cheese lover, her blog is a must-read. She also has a great sense of humor, which doesn’t hurt.