Mythconception: you eat 8 spiders every year

Do we really snack on arachnids while sleeping?
24 January 2017

Interview with 

Kat Arney, The Naked Scientists


In this week's myth Kat Arney takes a look at the science of the midnight feast, but not in the way you might think…

Kat - The land of nod is a mysterious place, and we are blissfully unaware of most things that are happening to us while we sleep. It’s common knowledge that one of the things we do is eat spiders - a remarkably precise eight every year. So where did this idea come from?

Topically, given the current media discussions about fake news, it was made up by a journalist back in 1993. According to the myth-busting website Snopes, Lisa Holst wrote an article for the magazine PC Professional, highlighting the way that emails packed with ridiculous made-up facts were being circulated by the gullible and credulous - how times have changed, eh? As part of her piece, Holst presented her own list of totally made up stats, including the one about eating eight spiders. In turn, she got it from a list of common misconceptions about insects in a book published back in 1954. However - and this must be pointed out with some irony - there’s no independent confirmation that Snopes’ story is true either.

So let’s think about the likelihood of snapping up a spider in your sleep at night. According to Scientific American, which spoke to several spider experts in search of an answer, spiders are more likely to run away from a sleeping human than start exploring us. They’re scared off by vibrations, produced by our heartbeats, breathing and especially snoring, and people are likely to be woken up by the sensation of something crawling on their face before the spider gets into their mouth. However, there are plenty of anecdotal stories of people being bitten by spiders in the night, and also biting back, reporting finding bits of legs between their teeth in the morning. So although we probably do eat the odd spider during a lifetime, it’s impossible to know for sure, or how many. The only way to find out would be the film many people asleep, night after night, then carefully watch the tapes to spot any spiders crawling their way into an open mouth. Not only does that sound like a very boring research project, it’s also more than a bit creepy in itself.

If you’re worried about eating spiders or other insects, you’re far more likely to have chomped on them when you’re wide awake, as they’re often found in processed food and one estimate suggests the average person unintentionally eats about half a kilo of insects every year. There are even legal limits on the amount - for example, the US puts a limit of 60 insect fragments per 100 grams of chocolate, in case you’re wondering why your fruit and nut bar is extra crunchy. Finally, rather than worrying about accidentally knocking back a few spiders at night-time, some cultures even make a point of eating arachnids. Fried spiders are a popular street food in the Cambodian town of Skuon, where a species of tarantula the size of your palm is mixed with sugar, salt and garlic and then fried in oil. Apparently, they are crispy on the outside and soft in the middle, tasting a bit like a cross between chicken and fish. Proof - if ever it was needed - that anything can be made edible if you fry it with enough garlic. And while I may never know exactly how many spiders I’ve eaten by accident, I think I’ll give these ones a miss.




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