Wasps and spiders

Posted: Wednesday 28 September 2011
by Richard Jones

There are several spider webs amongst the ivy flowers, and some rather fat-looking and obviously overfed garden spiders...

Araneus diadematus spiders courtingIt’s life and death out there on the ivy at the moment. The far corner of our garden is a sheltered sun-trap, and the fence is now smothered in ivy flowers. The air is thick with the heavy scent of the blossoms, and the lazy buzzing of insects.

Only one butterfly graces us today, but what a beast it is; the red admiral is a truly regal creature, with its inky black splashed with red and white insignia. Even its mottled and camouflaged undersides are beautifully marked and always remind me of cut marble or polished granite.

But, as ever, it is the wasps that are making more than their fair share of the humming. And it is also they that are being killed. There are several spider webs amongst the ivy flowers, and some rather fat-looking and obviously overfed garden spiders, Araneus diadematus, are sitting in stately plumpness in the centres.

Dead wasp in a spider's webSeveral of the webs already have dead wasps stored in them, all spun around with silk. I am always slightly amazed that spiders are able to subdue such large and dangerous prey, even the occasional heavy bumblebee.

Not everything goes according to plan, though. As I watch a wasp becomes stuck against some sticky silk strands. It struggles, quite literally, for its life. The spider trots up to see what is disturbing its slumber, but it does not make the final pounce. Instead it stands back, testing the web wires with its front feet. Spiders kill their prey with venom, and it’s pretty powerful stuff, but they are always in danger of being damaged themselves from the wild thrashings of their larger victims. The wasp may have been aware of the watching spider and it redoubled its wild antics. I could see its sting protruding from its tail, just itching to have a stab at anything it could. And its large jaws were going too. The spider was right to be cautious.

In the end nothing came of it, and no real contest ensued. After less than a minute, the wasp broke free and flew quickly away.

In another web, there was different tussle going on, this one the battle of the sexes. A diminutive male Araneus was courting a well-upholstered female. Balancing precariously on just a couple of strands, he was holding tight with first, third and fourth pairs of legs, whilst testing her mood with his long second pair. He kept tapping or quickly stroking her curled legs. Occasionally she twitched and he drew his legs back in again instantly. Then tried again. They went on like this for several minutes, but he never seemed to get any further.

Again, he was right to be cautious - spiders are a thuggish bunch and there is always the danger of cannibalism. Although, in this case I don’t think he had too much to worry about. I think she’d probably already eaten too many wasps.

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Talkback: Wasps and spiders
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Gardeners' World Web User 28/09/2011 at 16:29

On Sunday I threw a vine weevil into a harvestman web. Thinking it would escape (following your blog from eons ago), I watched as the spider pounced and wrapped its prey in a thick silken cocoon. There was a slight struggle, then the weevil appeared to give up. An hour later the spider unwrapped its lunch and tucked in. K x

Gardeners' World Web User 28/09/2011 at 19:42

Kate, I'm guessing you mean the daddy-long-legs spider, Pholcus phalangioides, since harvestmen do not make webs. Pholcus is renowned for its aggressive behaviour, its long powerful fangs and its supposedly very toxic venom. It regularly attacks and eats other spiders, often those much bigger than itself. Despite the vine weevil's tough carapace, it does not surprise me that Pholcus should make short work of it.

Gardeners' World Web User 28/09/2011 at 20:08

This is the time for spiders to be in evidence in the gardener's world. My friends are forever picking them off my sweatshirt. I am fascinated by them and they seem to like me too.

Gardeners' World Web User 28/09/2011 at 21:07

Garden spiders fine, beautiful and I can cope with - but large spotted house spiders that are now appearing YUK. I get my hubby to remove them with glass and paper. If I do it they either end up dead or with fewer legs.

Gardeners' World Web User 29/09/2011 at 11:38

I watched a Pholcus phalangioides feeding on a wolf spider at least 4 times its size! I wouldn't have thought a web would've stopped a wolf spider that big. It's legs exceeded the palm of my hand and I have big hands.

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