Sunday, November 7, 2010

The spider conkerer: Wogan started it... now families all over Britain turn to horse chestnuts to stop creepy-crawlies


On the rise: Arachnaphobes are on high alert this autumn as damp warm conditions encourage spiders to come out of hiding

For generations, the humble conker has been associated with autumnal playground games.

Now, however, families across Britain are using the shiny horse chestnuts for a more practical purpose - to keep spiders out of their houses.

They are thought to work because they contain the chemical saponin, which may keep spiders at bay.

Online retailers have even got in on the craze by selling a ‘Spider Stop’ repellent containing conker extracts, which can be sprayed around doors and windows. But traditionalists say conkers should be fresh to be effective.

This year’s damp, warm autumn has left arachnophobes on high alert because, according to experts, the conditions have encouraged spiders to come out of hiding in search of mates.

The use of conkers to frighten spiders was highlighted on BBC Gardeners’ Question Time.

A member of the Radio 4 audience said her friends put ripe conkers by their doors or on window ledges to keep spiders out.

Panel member Bob Flowerdew said: ‘Conkers have very high saponin levels. They are natural soaps. It may be they are gassing off, something like that, and the smell would keep things away.’

The debate spilled over on to BBC2’s wildlife show Autumnwatch, with presenter Kate Humble saying she almost broke her neck at the home of a friend who had put conkers all the way up her stairs and behind furniture.

Her comments have sparked a fierce debate on the internet.

Repellent: It's thought the chemical inside the humble horse chestnut is an insect repellent

While some message posters on the programme’s website expressed scepticism, scores said their homes had been free of creepy-crawlies since they placed conkers near their doors and windows.

Many said they had tested the method after Terry Wogan first promoted it on his BBC radio show.

Even comic Dom Joly has tried out the theory, building conker ‘barricades’ on his windowsills to keep spiders at bay.

He said: ‘It seemed to work but it might have just been a fluke.’

Experts say there is some evidence that the saponin in conkers not only gives the seeds a bitter taste but also gives off a unique smell that could act as a natural insect-repellent.

Saponins are contained in a range of plants and are often used in detergents because they form soapy lathers when mixed with water.

A paper by German chemist Hartmut Foerster described the chemical as ‘toxic’ to insects.

However, many scientists still dismiss the claims that conkers can deter spiders as an old wives’ tale.

The Royal Society of Chemists, which ran a contest last year to see if there was any scientific foundation to the ancient belief, said it had found no conclusive proof.

Indeed, it awarded a £300 prize to schoolchildren in Cornwall who cast doubt on the theory by placing spiders in boxes with conkers. They found most of them climbed over the conkers.

Spiders were also placed in a water tank with a choice of escaping across a bridge made of wood or conkers, and most chose the conker route.

Natural History Museum spider expert Stuart Hine said the belief that conkers scared spiders was ancient, but he remained deeply sceptical.

source: dailymail

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