I’m fascinated by insects but spiders give me the willies. I found this strikingly coloured example a couple of weeks back while practicing my grasshopper identification skills in Winchester, Hampshire. It’s a female Wasp Spider Argiope bruennichi which is a species of orb spider.
Initially believed to be a Mediterranean species it has been recorded in small numbers on the south coast since the early 1920s. However, it has started to spread slowly northwards and has recently been found at Lakenheath Fen in Norfolk. Here in Wiltshire it was first recorded in 1999 but is still a relative rarity as it only becomes established where long grass is not regularly managed. To survive wasp spiders need warm summers and mild winters, so with global warming they may become a far more common sight.
Be warned though, although non-poisonous if mishandled she can bite and her fangs are certainly strong enough to pierce human skin.
The female which can reach 15-16mm spins her web at dawn in long grass or low vegetation just a little above ground level. The strong web can be identified by its characteristic zig-zag band of brighter silk in the middle called a stabilimentum, the purpose of which is not entirely certain. Prey is mostly crickets and grasshoppers, but flies and other insects are also eaten. Once caught they are tightly wrapped in silk and then injected with a paralysing venom and protein dissolving enzyme.
The male is pale brown and tiny in comparison, averaging only 4 or 5mm, and can often be found near to the web waiting for her to complete her final moult. When she does not only will she be ready to mate but more importantly for him her jaws will be soft which means he may avoid being eaten. That said, after mating she will often wrap the male in silk and eat him later.
For a male spider, sex is a dangerous business.