It's the most wonderful time of the year! At the start of August you'll find me crawling around my front lawn - my wildflower meadow. I've been waiting all year for this day to arrive.
The spring and summer days of flowers, butterflies and bees and thousand other insects have passed and the colours of the meadow have started to fade.
But, at the end of the summer, a very colourful animal emerges and takes up residence in my wildflower patch.
As strange as it may seem I’ve fallen in love with a spider. And coming from a lifelong arachnophobe that’s quite a claim. Whereas every other spider species sends me screaming in utter terror, the Wasp Spider has melted my heart.
(Photo: Bob Eade)
I can't explain it. How can I be terrified of every spider species, even the smallest money spider, and be so obsessesed and enamoured by the Wasp Spider? It just highlights how odd and irrational my arachnophobia is.
Over the past few summers we have had Wasp Spiders living in the front lawn. I have been hypnotised by their beauty and have spent hours lying with them in the long grass, staring lovingly into their eight eyes.
I love them so much that the whole front lawn has become a Wasp Spider reserve. The entire management regime of the lawn is based around them. At the end of the summer the female leaves her eggs in a marble-sized structure that looks like a delicate striped pot made of papier mâché and then, her job done, she dies. In September you will find me on all fours, crawling through the long grass with a pair of scissors. I gently remove each and every egg and place it somewhere safe so that her offspring don't get damaged when I scythe the lawn.
(One of last summer's Wasp Spiders with her stripy egg sac)
A few months ago I saw a mass of tiny spiderlings at the bottom of the hedge - just where I had carefully put some of the Wasp Spiders egg sacs.
I was squealing with excitement and my heart swelled with paternal pride as I thought these black and yellow spiderlings could be the Wasp Spider babies I saved with my scissors last September. But when I did some research it looks like these spiderlings could belong to some of the other orb spider species that live in the lawn in the summer. And the moment I discovered that...I was instantly terrified of them. If there are any psychologists out there I'm available for your research.
Wasp Spiders are drop-dead gorgeous. Their rotund abdomens are delicately patterned with exotic black, yellow and white stripes. Every spider looks subtly different – as if each has been individually hand painted. 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.
(Photo: Bob Eade)
They’re a relatively new resident in England. The first British Wasp Spider was found near Rye Harbour in 1922. Since then they have slowly spread across Sussex and you can find them in any areas of grassland. Here inside their long-grass 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.
(In this photo by CR Matthews you can see the zig-zag stabilimentum below the spider)
Male Wasp Spiders don’t have it easy. Physically they lack any snazzy patterning and at 5mm are a third of the size of their hulking female counterparts. And when it comes to spider sex, she dominates the male too. During mating she turns her lover into lunch. So, as the female lies enticingly in her web, the male approaches her with understandable trepidation. It’s all about timing. After she slips out of her old exoskeleton her fresh body is temporarily soft – and so are her jaws.
This is her Achilles heel and an opportunity for the male to jump in, do his business and get out before being eaten. This sort of pressure would affect any fella’s performance, but the male Wasp Spider 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 escape and survive, but almost every sex session still ends in death for the males; a kamikaze copulation. Scientists have found that after this self-imposed castration, the spider’s sexual organs keep on fertilising the female and block other males’ attempts at mating.
So it's the opposite of what I thought - the spider is sacrificing his own life to save his todger and ensure he becomes a father. Wow, that's commitment for you.
(Couldn't work out the focus on these photos from the lawn last August...so here's both of them)
So, there's my confession - my love affair for a spider that's just out of this world.
In fact it's almost like these Wasp Spiders come from another planet.
Damn, that really was a clumsy link into today's song (here)