Do Conkers Really Deter Spiders?

I saw someone say on social media that putting a horse chesnut into “every corner of your room” would “repell spiders” and this, I felt sure, wasn’t true. Rather than doing any research, or engaging in a fruitless online debate with a stranger, instead I turned to ChatGPT and asked it to write me a brief essay on the subject… see below, for the robot’s opinion.

Every autumn, as the leaves turn golden and the air gets crisp, conkers – or horse chestnuts, as they’re scientifically known – begin to fall from the trees, carpeting the ground with their shiny, rich brown treasures. For many, these glossy seeds awaken a nostalgic urge for classic games of conker battles, but for others, they serve a different purpose altogether: that of a natural spider repellent. But one has to wonder, is there any truth to the claim that conkers deter these eight-legged creatures, or is it all just an old wives’ tale? Let’s untangle the web around this intriguing belief.

The belief that spiders have an aversion to conkers is widespread. According to folklore, placing these seeds on your windowsills or at various points around your home will keep spiders at bay. While the exact origin of this notion is unclear, it’s an idea that many people swear by, even today.

But what does science have to say on the matter?

The evidence supporting the spider-repelling properties of conkers is, unfortunately, rather sparse. While there is a plethora of anecdotal support, scientific research on this specific topic is not as prevalent. The lack of evidence doesn’t necessarily disprove the theory, but it does suggest that caution should be taken before accepting it as fact.

One explanation proposed for the potential effect of conkers on spiders involves the presence of certain chemicals. Horse chestnut seeds contain a compound known as saponin, a natural insecticide that protects the seeds from being eaten by pests. Some have hypothesized that this chemical could be unpleasant or toxic to spiders, causing them to avoid conkers.

However, controlled studies examining this phenomenon are few and far between. One small-scale study conducted by the Royal Society of Chemistry involved surveying schools across the UK to place conkers in different locations and observe spider activity. The results were inconclusive, with no significant evidence to show that the conkers had any real deterrent effect on the spiders.

From an observational standpoint, another reason for skepticism is spiders’ behavior and physiology. Spiders taste and smell through their legs, and there is no conclusive evidence showing that compounds found in conkers are indeed repellent to these arachnids. They are also not known to ingest substances harmful to them in their environment, which casts further doubt on the theory.

So, where does this leave us on the conker-spider debate?

While it’s an endearing notion and a harmless practice, the belief that conkers can repel spiders lacks robust scientific backing. It’s possible that other factors, such as seasonal changes in temperature and humidity, have a more significant impact on spider activity in homes, leading to misattributed credit to the humble conker.

For those looking for assured methods of keeping spiders at bay, it may be more effective to rely on proven measures. These include keeping your home clean to prevent attracting the bugs that spiders feed on, sealing cracks and crevices in walls and windows to limit their points of entry, and using spider repellent products that have undergone scientific testing to verify their claims.

In conclusion, while the tradition of using conkers as a deterrent might not be scientifically sound, it certainly adds another layer of charm to these iconic autumnal seeds. It’s a reminder of the quirky and fascinating ways in which folklore can weave its way through generations, capturing imaginations with a blend of nature and narrative. Until conclusive evidence emerges, perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to place a conker or two on the windowsill, if only for the comfort of tradition.

So no, then. They don’t.

Some Spider & Conker FAQs (based on comments or search phrases!)

Why do Spiders not like conkers?

According to the “urban legend” or “old wive’s tale” about spiders not liking conkers, they give off a ‘noxious chemical’ that spiders detest. This has never been proven, or is, in other words, entirely untrue!

Why do they call conkers conkers?

The name “conkers” for the horse chestnut game is believed to have originated in England. The term “conker” is derived from the dialect word “conker,” which was itself derived from “conch,” a word that originally referred to the shell of a sea snail. Over time, the term evolved and came to be associated with the horse chestnut, used in the game of conkers. This game involves stringing up the hard seeds of the horse chestnut tree and then taking turns to hit the opponent’s “conker” until one breaks.

The use of horse chestnuts in this game dates back to the 19th century, but the origins of the game itself may trace back further and possibly used other nuts or seeds before the horse chestnut became popular. The horse chestnut seed’s hard and durable nature makes it ideal for the game, and this association likely solidified the use of the term “conkers” for both the game and the seeds used in it.

Do they have horse chestnut trees in countries other than the UK?

Yes, horse chestnut trees (Aesculus hippocastanum) are found in many countries outside the UK. Originally native to a small area in the Balkans, these trees have been widely cultivated across the temperate regions of the world for their ornamental value and shade.

In Europe, they are common in parks, gardens, and along streets. The trees have also been introduced to North America, where they are often planted in urban and suburban areas. Similarly, in parts of Asia and Australia, horse chestnut trees can be found in similar settings.

The popularity of the horse chestnut tree in various countries is due to its large, showy flowers and the dense canopy it provides. However, it’s important to note that while they are widespread, these trees might not be as culturally significant or used for the same purposes (like playing conkers) as they are in the UK.

Do they have other local names for horse chestnuts around the world?

Yes, horse chestnut trees (Aesculus hippocastanum) are known by various local names around the world. These names can differ depending on the region and language. Some of the common names for horse chestnuts in different countries include:

North America: In the United States and Canada, they are typically known as “horse chestnuts” or “conker trees.” Sometimes, they might also be called “buckeyes,” although this term is more commonly associated with the related species, the American buckeye (Aesculus glabra).

Germany: In German, they are called “Rosskastanie,” which directly translates to “horse chestnut.”

France: The French name for horse chestnuts is “marronnier,” which is distinct from “châtaigne,” the word for sweet chestnut.

Spain: In Spanish, these trees are known as “castaño de Indias,” which translates to “Indian chestnut.”

Italy: In Italian, horse chestnuts are called “ippocastano,” again translating to “horse chestnut.”

Netherlands: The Dutch refer to them as “paardenkastanje,” which is similar to the German name.

These local names often reflect cultural associations, historical uses, or physical characteristics of the tree. However, the term “horse chestnut” is widely understood in many parts of the world due to the spread of English. It’s also important to distinguish between the horse chestnut and other species like the sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa), which is a different species entirely and more commonly used for culinary purposes.

Why is it a “horse” chestnut? What is the horse bit about?

The term “horse” in “horse chestnut” is believed to originate from several historical uses of the tree and its seeds that were related to horses. The name does not imply any botanical relationship with true chestnuts (of the genus Castanea). Here are a few theories behind the “horse” prefix:

Medicinal Use for Horses: One of the most widely accepted explanations is that the tree’s seeds, leaves, or bark were once used as a remedy for respiratory illnesses in horses. The name might have originated from this medicinal application.

Horse Markings: Another theory suggests that the name comes from the scar left on the twig after the leaves fall, which resembles a horseshoe complete with nail marks. This distinctive mark could have led to the association with horses.

Comparison with True Chestnuts: The “horse” prefix might also have been used to distinguish these trees from sweet chestnuts (Castanea), which are edible and were a valuable food source in Europe. The “horse” prefix might imply that the horse chestnuts are an inferior or inedible variety, suitable for animals like horses but not for human consumption.

External Application for Horses: It’s also suggested that the crushed seeds or leaves were used externally as a sort of poultice for treating sores and swellings on horses.

Despite these theories, the exact origin of the name is not definitively known and might be a combination of these factors – I can’t speyk as to why they are called “horse chestnuts” I can only surmise some reasons this might be the case. It’s important to note that horse chestnuts are toxic to humans and many animals if ingested, so their use is mainly ornamental and for recreational purposes like the game of conkers.

About Robin Scott

I'm Robin Scott, a WordPress Consultant and WooCommerce expert developer who, along with three other people, runs a business called Silicon Dales Ltd remotely, from a base in the North of the UK. I enjoy using my talents for programming to track and interpret sporting, political or retail data - and therefore you'll see me posting some content in these spaces in this, my personal website. If you're interested to talk about leveraging this for your business (in sport, entertainment, retail, etc) please contact me.

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