Sunday, 3 August 2014

Wasp Spider: New at Paxton Pits

Trying to hide.
I first encountered a wasp spider (Argiope bruennichi) in the Loire Valley, thirty years ago. It was a female, hanging face-down in her web at eye-height in a field of sunflowers. You could not miss her because of her bright yellow stripes. Later I found more in Germany's Mosel valley on grape-vines that were trained along wires between stout posts.

This spider needs pretty large prey and so it is most plentiful around the Mediterranean where large crickets, grasshoppers and locusts abound. Like many other species, it is moving north to cash in on our warmer summers that may produce more big prey items. It arrived in London and the South-East first. I saw one at the London Wetlands Centre about seven years ago, but have lost touch with them since, but all the while they have been heading towards us, reaching Duxford in 2012 and Biggleswade in 2013.
Top view. You need a strong web for nbig grasshoppers.

I was not aware that we had any chance of seeing one at Paxton, so it came as a great surprise to found that Grainne Farrington had found one next to the permissive path between the Ouse Valley Way and the Dragonfly Pond. She reported it to our local "Spider Man", Ian Dawson, who found quite a few on Thursday.

Of course I went for a look myself and plodded all over our neighbour's set-aside field, losing my glasses and scratching my legs to bits in the process. I found one shy one, hiding from me by stretching out vertically behind a grass stem. And that was that.  

Fortunately, I was able to get contact with Grainne through our visitor centre and get a more detailed description of where to look. That's how I found a plump female guarding her web that she had slung low between thistles. As I approached, I drove a horde of grasshoppers before me, much to her delight.

Later I returned to look (unsuccessfully) for my spectacles and, with one of our regular visitors, we found several more spiders within a couple of feet of the path.
Female underside.

Now this spider has to be the most spectacular beastie that you will see this year. Go and look for it and remember that you do not have to leave the path to find them. Ask me for more details if you need them.

All of the was spiders that we are seeing are females; that's because the males are tiny and not easy to find. In fact, they are only active in July and they often fall prey to their own mate, once they have ceased to be useful.

Sadly, we do not own the field that it is in, and the management is outside our control. Hopefully, the spider will sporead to our hay meadow next year. Mewnshile, I will make sure that the owners, Oxford University, know that it is there.