Wasp Spiders and other mini-beasts

Wasp Spiders and other mini-beasts
October 5, 2011 Adrian Walters

With the arrival of October the distinctive odours of autumn should be in the air but apart from misty mornings the first few days of the month were a throwback to the summer temperatures that we should have had during August. In spite of the fine weather the pastures no longer hold any value or nutrients to maintain the cattle in good form and the time for them to leave is fast approaching.

Whatever the weather might bring it is worth remembering that it will always be a ‘bonanza’ year for some species. It is easy to dwell on what has not been seen or not done so well but what about the successes of 2011. Quite apart from the orchids and barn owl chicks, on a wider scale some insects have done very well indeed.

In recent years the Harlequin ladybird has become established in Britain from continental Europe where it was introduced as a pest control species. It was predicted that this Asian species would wipe out our smaller native ladybirds. This year, however, it is the seven-spot ladybird that has had a fantastic season and few people could have failed to noticed them as they seemed to be everywhere during the late summer.

The other insect that has been around in large numbers is the earwig. Although this insect does not have the charisma or popularity of the ladybird the oft-quoted endearing trait that is associated with it is the maternal behaviour of the female. She looks after her eggs before they hatch and feeds and cares for her young in the first days of their lives. Although earwigs generally hide out of sight during the day their numbers have been very noticeable.

Last winter proved to be the coldest on record for a century or more so it could be expected that some of the recent additions to our wildlife might have disappeared until a more favourable run of seasons encouraged their renewed northward colonisation. So it is interesting and surprising that these creatures continue to consolidate their hold in areas of suitably managed countryside.

One such beast is the wasp spider. This species received national press coverage during the summer of 2007.  On the Sudbury riverside it was also a new arrival but present in very low numbers so a hard winter might have wiped them out. Yet occasionally here and there the bright coloured female spiders have been giving away their positions in long vegetation.

The female spider spins an orb web and she rests at the centre waiting for insect prey to be caught up in the web. In common with other spider species she wraps the prey up to immobilise it and injects venom to paralyze and an enzyme to dissolve the body proteins. The male which is much smaller and less obvious will lurk at the web margins waiting for the female to moult before attempting to mate. In this was he just stands a chance of avoiding being eaten.