Love and death in the long grass
A lifelong arachnophobe, I’ve had my head turned by this brightly patterned arachnid
I’m a lifelong arachnophobe, so I never thought I’d say this, but I’ve fallen in love with a spider. I met her on the South Downs and, hypnotised by her beauty, I spent hours lying in the grass, staring lovingly into her eight eyes.
The wasp spider’s rotund abdomen is delicately patterned with exotic black, yellow and white stripes. Every wasp spider looks subtly different, as if each has been individually handpainted. Their eight legs wear stripy black and white stockings – the sort favoured by the Wicked Witch of the East. This stripy, waspish appearance has given the spider its name and is used as a defence mechanism to ward off predators who equate this colouration with being stung.
They’re a relatively new resident in England. The first British wasp spider was found near Rye in 1922. Since then they have slowly spread across Sussex and you can find them in any area of grassland. Here, inside their grassy lair, they weave their silky circular webs, which – like all spider webs – are a masterpiece of arachnoid architecture. As if proud of her accomplishment, the wasp spider autographs her web with a unique silken squiggle. The actual purpose of this thick zigzag flourish (the ‘stabilimentum’) is a mystery; although some believe it reflects UV light, luring in pollinating insects who mistake the web for a flower.
Male wasp spiders don’t have it easy. Physically, they lack any snazzy patterning and are just 5mm long, a third of the size of their hulking female counterparts. During mating, the female will try to turn her lover into lunch. So, as she lies enticingly in her web, the male approaches with understandable trepidation. It’s all about timing. After she slips out of her old exoskeleton and into something more comfortable, her fresh
Sussex Wildlife Trust, Woods Mill, Henfield, West Sussex BN5 9SD, 01273 492630 body is temporarily soft and so are her jaws. This is the male’s opportunity to jump in, do his business and get out before being eaten – but he also has a trick up his eight sleeves: he can detach his sexual organs, leave them inside the female and scarper. I always assumed that jettisoning his genitalia allowed the spider to survive but mating almost always ends in death for the males – it’s kamikaze copulation. But it’s also highly effective, both fertilising the female and blocking other males’ attempts at mating. The spider sacrifices his own life to ensure he becomes a father – what a way to go.
Nwww.sussexwildlifetrust.org.uk Wildcall 01273 494777