Wednesday, Dec 08, 2010 06:00 am
Staffers at St. Albert’s Gemport had a surprise customer last week: a black widow spider.
Store co-owner Joan Guillemette says she bought a bag of grapes for last week’s Snowflake Festival and had asked her staff to wash them Friday. An arachnophobic staff member spotted the spider floating in the sink while she was washing the fruit. “She came screaming out and told Luc [Joan’s husband] to come get it.”
The centimetre-wide spider was secured in a pair of plastic cups before being sent to local nature photographer Al Popil. Popil and Edmonton arachnologist Robin Leech later identified it as a western black widow from California.
Black widows are an uncommon guest in shipments from the southern U.S., says Peter Heule, who runs the Bug Room at the Royal Alberta Museum. They frequent regions that are dry, warm and irrigated, such as grape farms.
The western black widow is native to southern Alberta, Leech says. The shape and colouration of this one suggests it is male and one moult away from adulthood.
“There’s no other spider in the world in the immature form that looks like a male latrodectus,” he says, using the arachnid’s scientific name. Junior widows usually have wild colours and stripes on their bodies, and often lack the red hourglass most associated with black widows.
Although considered one of the world’s most poisonous spiders, the black widow isn’t much of a threat to people, Heule says. “We have more people struck dead by lightning every year than we do by spiders,” he says, and no Albertan has died from a black widow bite in 25 years. Male widows are especially harmless — their teeth are too small to break human skin.
Anyone who finds a black widow should capture it alive and call the museum to retrieve it, Heule says. The museum gets about eight widows a year this way.
The Guillemettes have no problem with spiders, Joan says, and are impressed by this one’s resilience. “He made it all the way up in a container from California, went outside in the cold and made it through a swim, so he’s pretty tough.”
Popil, who has the still-living spider, says he plans to give it to Leech for his collection.
Conservation alliance dissolves
A seven-county conservation alliance that included Sturgeon County will be gone by the end of this month.
Mike Hittinger, conservation co-ordinator for the North West Alliance Conservation Initiative (NWACI), announced this week that his organization would dissolve as of Dec. 31. The group has promoted sustainable agricultural practices throughout the Sturgeon, Parkland, Strathcona, Westlock, Thorhild, Athabasca, and Lesser Slave River regions since 2001.
The group decided to break up several months ago, says president James Leskiw, prompted by a change to how the province funded sustainable agriculture programs. “The group was getting too big. It was hard for two people [the NWACI staff] to service seven municipalities.”
The counties have now split into several groups to promote sustainable agriculture, according to spokespeople. Thorhild and Smoky Lake have teamed up, while Lesser Slave River, Parkland, and Strathcona are going it alone.
Sturgeon County will join Athabasca and Westlock to form a new group this January, says agricultural services manager Quentin Bochar. “We’re still trying to come up with a catchy little name,” he says — maybe the Highway 2 Conservation Partnership, he jokes. It would be similar to the NWACI, but would focus more on the Water for Life Strategy.
Hittinger, who plans to head back to his farm near Clyde, says he’s proud of how the group popularized eco-friendly techniques like solar-powered water pumps and integrated pest management amongst local farmers. “When we started doing this, summer calving and swath grazing were few and far between.” Now, both are commonplace. (Swath grazing is where a farmer leaves hay in a field instead of baling it, reducing costs and giving cows outdoor exercise in the winter.)
Any questions on NWACI or sustainable agriculture should go to Bochar at 780-939-8325.