By Jess Price
As the wild flowers of summer begin to fade there is still one bright and colourful creature lurking in the undergrowth which may catch your eye: the female wasp spider with her distinctive bold yellow and black stripy legs and abdomen. These impressive arachnids can grow up to 17mm, but despite their size and colour they are not dangerous. In fact, their bright colours act to deter predators.
It is only the females that are wasp coloured, the males are much smaller at only 4-5 mm and are pale brown. Unfortunately mating is a dangerous game for these would-be Romeos, as the females have a tendency to eat them after mating. To improve their chances of avoiding an untimely end, the males wait at the edge of the female’s web until she has moulted into her adult form, and then take advantage of her jaws being soft at this time to rush in and try their luck.
Female wasp spiders can be seen in Sussex hanging in their large orb-shaped web in grassland from April to October. They also use the grasses as a nursery, where they attach their silk egg-sacs. The web is usually built low to the ground in areas of long grass so they can trap their favourite prey - grasshoppers and crickets. The web always has a thick white zigzag shaped stripe running down the middle called a stabilimentum. Scientists are still unsure of the purpose of the stabilimentum. Some suggest that it makes the web more stable, whilst others think it may help to attract insects or possibly deter birds from flying through large webs.
Although they are now common across the south of England, wasp spiders are actually native to Mediterranean areas. This species was first recorded in the UK in the 1920s although it is possible that the spider was here before then. It has since spread quickly in the south and is now thought to be moving north due to our warming climate. Please do let us know if you see a wasp spider when you are out and about in Sussex: www.sussexwildlifetrust.org.uk/record