Tuesday 24 August 2021

The Best Spider Ever 22nd August 2021

A tweet posted just over a week ago by Cliff showed some very nice images of a Wasp Spider he had seen near his home in the West of England. I have always wanted to see a Wasp Spider as they are a spectacular  and very large member of the spider family, the patterning of yellow, black and white bands on the female's body is a striking combination of colours.

I resolved to contact Cliff, a very nice and helpful person to ask if he would be happy to tell me where to find them but then fortuitously before doing so, another birding colleague,Wayne, posted a picture of a Wasp Spider he had found at Radley, just twenty minutes from my home in Oxfordshire. 

I sent a text to Wayne asking if he would be happy to divulge the location of the spider and he was kind enough to send me specific directions as to where it was.

Unable to go until Sunday morning I set off at 8am with strict instructions from my wife to be back by noon as we were going out to lunch. A pleasant, sunny but cool morning found me parking my car at Radley and walking to the site. I was a bit apprehensive about finding the spider, after all it was a tiny arachnid that I had never seen before, hidden amongst an awful lot of habitat but Wayne's instructions were precise and I located it within seconds, hanging in its web, low down in the grass and yellow heads of fleabane.

The web itself is fascinating, being what is called an orb web with a noticeable pale zigzag pattern running vertically down its centre called a stabilimentum. When young the spider  creates a  very fine web of a circular zigzag design but as it matures it only creates a more obvious vertical zigzag which reflects ultraviolet light to attract pollinating insects such as flies, bees and moths.

What a superb spider they are, the colourful females are truly spectacular when you examine  one closely.The web too was a masterpiece with long filaments, like guy ropes, holding the intricately spun web  between the stems of flowers and grass with the spider hanging in the middle, its black and yellow banded body plump and oval.It was positioned perfectly in the centre of its web, the eight legs spreadeagled in classic pose and sensitive to any vibration of the web.

The Wasp Spider in the centre of its web showing the distinctive vertical zigzag in the web

I wasted no time in getting out the camera but on preparing to kneel on the grass a tiny insect  blundered into the outer edge of the web and the spider reacted immediately, traversing the taut filaments of its web by a bouncing progress I can only liken to a combination of trampolining and tight rope walking,  to envelop the insect and inject it with venom.For the next minute it proceeded to wrap the immobilised insect in silk, effectively cocooning it, presumably to be eaten later. 

I was dismayed because the classic shot I was anticipating looked now to be an impossibility as I assumed the spider would eat the insect but I was mistaken.No sooner had it immobilised and cocooned the insect than the spider bounced its way back across its web to the centre and resumed its spreadeagled pose

The Wasp Spider making its way back to the centre of its web after cocooning its prey-top right

Much relieved I took its picture from all angles. What an exotic looking creature it was, a perfection of evolutionary creation, mimicking a wasp so as to deter predators. The bold colouring of black, yellow and white bands are striking and bring a sense of the exotic which is quite apposite, as this spider originates from the Mediterranean and began colonising the southern half of England in the 1920's, subsequently slowly speading northwards

The bold colouring and large size of this particular spider, almost 1.5cms long, told me it was a female as males are a third the size and brown. The males also have the dubious privilege of being eaten by the female after mating unless they are quick enough to make their escape.

Underside of female Wasp Spider's body

Upperside of female Wasp Spider's body

I was there for half an hour, secluded in an area infrequently encroached by humanity and was reluctant to leave but time waits for no one and I had to be home. I left the spider hanging in silent perfection on its masterpiece of silken threads.

So taken was I by this spider I returned a few days later for another look as I do not know when I will encounter another. With more than a little trepidation I made my way to the spider's web strung between blades of grass, a matter of inches above the ground. Would something have destroyed the spider and its web or would it still be intact? Thankfully it was the latter and there was the spider busily dealing with another fly that had blundered into her web.She had already paralized it with venom and was now, with infinite slowness and movements imperceptible to my eyes, cocooning the unfortunate insect in silk.

I left, once again marvelling at this example of the natural world and its infinite variety that is out there for all to discover, if we only take time to look.

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