When I set out to turn an area of my garden into a wildflower meadow, I had certain wildlife in mind that I hoped would benefit. I wanted it to host breeding grasshoppers and a range of meadow butterflies such as Meadow Brown and Common Blue, and I hoped to see bats hunting above.
Well, the meadow was sown and prepared in autumn 2017, the grasses and meadow perennials have grown wonderfully, and almost all my target species have arrived and set up home. It just shows how quick nature can move in once you create the right conditions.
However, one creature I forgot to include on my wishlist was what is surely the most dramatic of all our spiders - the Wasp Spider Argiope bruenichi. The drama is all to do with its appearance, or at least that of the female. She has a large body up to 2cm long which is brightly patterned with stripes of yellow and black as the name suggests. However, the coloration is just bluff - she is harmless, to humans at least!
The Wasp Spider was first recorded in the UK almost a hundred years ago, in East Sussex, and remained very much a rare creature of the south coast for many decades, but it is now spreading its way north, and is widespread south of a line from the tip of Cornwall through to Norfolk. And it is very much a spider of rough meadows. The female spins an orb web (the flat, spiral web we so associate with spiders) slung in tall grasses, where her favourite dinner is any grasshopper that might blunder into her trap.
So, as you can gauge, the stage was set in my garden for this spider, but would one manage to arrive in my suburban oasis? That's the problem in our fragmented world - how do small creatures manage to navigate over such large areas of unsuitable and dangerous terrain such as roof tops, roads and urban sprawl to get to our little refuges?
But nature is enterprising, so as I wandered through the meadow one day this week (it sounds rather idyllic, but just to explain it is only about ten steps from one side to the other!), I was stunned to find that not only had a Wasp Spider arrived, but she had totally settled in.
You can see what a beautiful web she has made, and what is very characteristic of the Wasp Spider is the thick zigzag of silk which you can see just to the right of her. It is called a stabilimentum, and there is some debate about its function. Is it to strengthen the web? After all, a grasshopper is quite a strong insect to trap. Or is it to draw attention away from her, a distraction technique? Or both?!
What you are seeing in the photo above is her underside, so I went around the other side to see her in her full glory. Take a look at this!
I hope that even arachnophobes will admit how beautiful she is. As I say, you need have no fear whatsoever - she doesn't want to bite you, or get in your clothes or hair. She just wants to sit there in her web.
However, you would need to be frightened if you were a male Wasp Spider. There are only a quarter of the size, and are not strikingly patterned. When they approach the female to mate, she is more than likely to wrap him in silk during the process and, yes, she will then eat him. It rather claws at our human sensibilities, but for the female Wasp Spider is it valuable protein that gives the male more chance that his offspring will survive.
She then spins a surprisingly large urn of silk, hidden in the grass near her web, in which she lays her eggs. She herself will then die with the onset of winter, and the spiderlings won't hatch until spring...but they won't hatch at all if the meadow is mown.
And there is the quandary that greets everyone who turns their lawn into a meadow. When should you cut it - and indeed should you cut it at all?
The solution I recommend is to leave some of your meadow uncut each year - maybe a quarter or so. I do it on a rotation rather than leaving the same area each year. That way, the uncut section doesn't get too rank.
This year, my uncut section has effectively self-selected - I will leave a square around my Wasp Spider, leaving her to sit proudly in her orb until autumn. Hopefully, a male has also found its way into my garden and done the honorable deed, and I'll have a new generation of this wonder-species to admire next summer.
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