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Conked Out
September 11, 2012 12:09 PM   Subscribe

Last year the RSC [Royal Society of Chemistry] launched a huge public investigation into a matter of national importance: are spiders afraid of conkers? A tale of ancestral folk wisdom, natural insect repellents, and surprisingly well-designed school science experiments. Particularly worth it for the 5-minute documentary produced by the kids of Roselyon School.
posted by ZsigE (21 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
Up next, the American Academy of Arts and Science tackles the question "What the fuck is a conker?"
posted by Horace Rumpole at 12:27 PM on September 11, 2012 [10 favorites]


Turns out it's a horse chestnut.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 12:28 PM on September 11, 2012


Oh no! I rely on conkers to stop the wold spiders! I don't want to read it and find out this isn't true!
posted by chapps at 12:34 PM on September 11, 2012


This is something sexual isn't it?
posted by blue_beetle at 12:50 PM on September 11, 2012


Ah, the old chestnut old chestnut!

Rather begs the question of where 'old chestnut' came from, doesn't it?
posted by jamjam at 12:52 PM on September 11, 2012


I'm kind of surprised that the only person to propose that horse chestnuts might repel insects and the spiders shuffle off to look for food elsewhere is the very last commenter.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 12:58 PM on September 11, 2012


Like seriously what is it with the British and conkers? These things litter the ground here in northeast Minneapolis and no kid gives a shit about them more than any other bit of tree litter. The discriminating issue is apparently the playing of a game where you hit a nut... with another nut. Are you all still playing mumbelty peg over there all the time? Huckle buckle beanstalk? Push ha'penny? Devil among the tailors? Did video games not make it "across the pond"? What is it with conkers still being a "thing"?!
posted by nanojath at 1:00 PM on September 11, 2012 [6 favorites]


It's not the conkers as such, it's when you shout for stampsies they quite sensibly make themselves scarce.
posted by Abiezer at 1:18 PM on September 11, 2012


This is something sexual isn't it?

Those conkers aren't going to stop my spider, old bean.

yellow card
posted by nanojath at 1:18 PM on September 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm kind of surprised that the only person to propose that horse chestnuts might repel insects and the spiders shuffle off to look for food elsewhere is the very last commenter.
posted by Kid Charlemagne


Especially since this is all but explicitly stated in the first link:
A response to my blog post at the time really caught my interest. Cheryl Osborne had recently written a dissertation for an MA in Textile Conservation. As she wrote in the comments:
Some conkers had been found in an old trunk filled with ceremonial furs and costume and had seemingly protected the contents from attack. My research found many interesting anecdotal stories of a past custom to collect and distribute conkers in drawers and cupboards every autumn to protect contents from insect larva damage…

…The brown skin of the conker contains the triterpenoid saponin, which is a natural insect repellent. Horse chestnut extract is often used in products such as shampoo. The chemicals known as terpenes, are also found in essential oils such as lavender, widely used to repel insects.
Or is this the comment you refer to, KC?

This does answer the question of where 'chestnut' came from, which I find highly gratifying.

And it also tends to show that the old chestnut old chestnut is not an old chestnut, but could well be true!-- and there are some plausible theoretical grounds for thinking that anyway, since, unlike many nuts, the shell of the chestnut is quite thin, and would probably be much easier for insects to pierce, possibly necessitating additional chemical defenses.
posted by jamjam at 1:43 PM on September 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


For some reason the word "conkers" is just adorable to me.
posted by SassHat at 1:54 PM on September 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


So a horse chestnut is a conker but a road apple is not exactly straight from the horse's mouth? Got it.
posted by poe at 2:29 PM on September 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Like seriously what is it with the British and conkers?

Conkers are an awesome British kid tradition. it's like ye olde medieval mini Robot Wars because you not only have to get out therr and scout for select good battleworthy cookers, you have to craft the perfect string and play around with top secret special treatments ( chemical, metallurgical etc.) of the conkers when you weaponize them. It gets really exciting when you have a champion one which has killed many others.
posted by Bwithh at 2:34 PM on September 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's like Pokémon, but with added chance & uncertainty. You've got to search for and collect the best of the best, carefully prepare and husband them, learn the best strategies for playing each one, and even then your strongest can suddenly crack under the pressure of battle.

It's microcosmic metaphorical lesson for so many things in life…
posted by Pinback at 3:46 PM on September 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'd really prefer not to think this way, but here we have the Royal Society for Chemistry, whose donors and members must surely include pesticide manufacturers and the chemists they employ, holding a huge collective investigation/PR event involving children and schools, and concluding with great fanfare that a traditional, apparently widely credited and used alternative to pesticides does not work, whereas in fact, the materials and references they have gathered and published themselves seem to suggest instead that it certainly could-- and I think probably does-- by the mechanism Kid Charlemagne suggests of driving away the spiders' food and thereby keeping the spiders away, and that the investigators barely even bother to glance at much less explore, even though it's sitting right in front of their faces.
posted by jamjam at 4:56 PM on September 11, 2012


Rather begs the question of where 'old chestnut' came from, doesn't it?

The origin of the phrase is uncertain.
posted by jedicus at 6:06 PM on September 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thanks, jedicus, that's good to know, and interesting for its own sake.

I don't find the possibility behind your link as plausible as the OED did, but my main intent in saying "rather begs the question of where 'old chestnut' came from" had to do with the fascinating way 'begs the question' has fairly abruptly switched from meaning 'argues in a circle' to 'cries out for an explanation'.

Whenever something like that happens, it soothes my ruffled feathers (916 hits compared to 11 for 'smooths my ruffled feathers') to be able find uses for the phrase in question in which it can be taken either way, but I've had very little success with 'begs the question', and calling an old folk belief about chestnuts "the old chestnut old chestnut" seemed to offer the best opportunity I'd seen in quite a while.
posted by jamjam at 7:42 PM on September 11, 2012


Are these what us western US folks call Buckeyes?
posted by BlueScreen at 9:46 AM on September 12, 2012


Don't know. Are these buckeyes?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 2:39 PM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Maybe not.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 2:41 PM on September 12, 2012


Are these what us western US folks call Buckeyes?

I think pretty much yes. There are a lot of trees called buckeyes in the US which include common horse chestnut trees. So I'd say U.S. horse chestnuts are definitely buckeyes but possibly not everything that might get called a buckeye would be a horse chestnut.
posted by nanojath at 9:05 AM on September 13, 2012


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