Tag Archives: spider

The Mouse Spider, for those who are worried

A few people have been asking me about the Mouse Spider, following a scary story in the media this week about a British man who was bitten by one which had somehow climbed into his bathrobe. The man had an allergic reaction causing his back to swell up, and it was because of his own knowledge of spiders he was able to identify the spider as a Mouse Spider (Scotophaeus blackwalli). The media went into overdrive, some reporting that the Mouse Spider is a close relative of the deadly Australian Sydney Funnel-web spider. This is a mistake – there are a number of species of spider in Australia known as Mouse Spiders, and they are related to the Sydney Funnel-web, but they are no relation to the much smaller European Mouse Spider. Here is a photo I managed to take of the European Mouse Spider in May 2015 – I haven’t seen one since then:

The common name for this species comes from the fact it has mouse-coloured hair on its abdomen – it is nowhere near as large as a mouse, and, in fact, appears quite a bit smaller than the so-called Giant House Spider (Eratigena atrica) which terrifies so many people in the autumn, when big long-legged males enter houses cruising for females. Here is one of these harmless terrors I photographed a few weeks ago:

The Mouse Spider is a stocky, slow-moving spider which is native to Northern Europe, including the British Isles, and widespread but very rarely encountered by ordinary householders. It tends to like bark and stones to live under, and will wander around at night, hunting small invertebrates by sneaking up on them. The female has a reputation for biting if handled, but it is a shy species and definitely doesn’t go looking for trouble. The body of the female would be about as large as the body of a female Giant House Spider, but the legs are far shorter and it is, in many ways, more handsome. The bites are usually harmless although definitely noteworthy, but an allergic reaction is always possible with any creature capable of biting or stinging.

The best way of keeping spiders out of your house is to not leave doors open at night, in the morning or approaching darkness, and to check outside before opening windows. Also, do clean your home regularly to prevent them making themselves comfortable.

Embracing Autumn in Wicklow

This year autumn really feels like autumn. Since the Equinox the weather has seemed markedly cool, although there’s been good sunshine too. There’s a lot of rain about also, though. However, there are still some very interesting things to be seen. All across the landscape there are the big, beautiful, shimmering webs of the Garden Spider (Araneus diadematus) slung between bushes and trees, and occasionally buildings too:

  These webs are mostly made by the females, which reach full size at this time of the year. They are extremely pretty spiders, almost jewel-like, and very ungainly on the ground, so they almost never leave their webs. There are mainly two variations – a common, boldly-marked one with strong brown and white markings; and a pale, almost golden variety, which you can see here:

The presence of these large, stout spiders attracts insectivorous birds. Spiders are extremely nutritious, on average about 40 times more nutritious than a fly of similar size, and also relatively easy to catch in comparison to flying insects. As a result, this is one of the best times of year to see bird species such as the Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea), which are much less shy than they usually are during the majority of the year. Usually they hunt along riverbanks, and specialise in catching semi-aquatic insects, such as mayfly or stonefly:

   Many people assume, when they see one, that they are looking at the Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava) as this one has so much yellow on it, but the Yellow Wagtail is actually almost completely yellow, whereas the Grey Wagtail has quite a lot of grey on it, although it’s not so noticeable when one of these birds flies across the path in front of you. Although spiders are easy pickings, birds have lots of flying insects to hunt too. The past summer was a bumper year for Comma butterflies (Polygonia c-album), and you can see a second, even more brightly-coloured generation this autumn, if you keep your eyes peeled. Here is one I came across at the weekend:

However, this is the end of the time of the Commas, and very soon this second generation will also be gone into hibernation. They live to re-emerge in the springtime when they breed.

Besides butterflies there are also many moths to be seen, and one very interesting species which is attracted to the lights of windows, is the Feathered Thorn (Colotois pennaria). The ‘feathered’ title comes from the shape and size of the male’s antennae, which do look like miniature feathers. Here is a very handsome specimen which I photographed on a wall by a window the night before last. It’s a male, but unfortunately its antennae are folded beneath it:

   Autumn is only beginning, and there are many interesting things to be seen, and still more to come.

Killer Flowers

In spring and early summer many trees and shrubs come into bloom, and many are so heavily in bloom that they are like the terrestrial equivalent of coral reefs, absolutely teeming with wildlife of all kinds, shapes, sizes and colours. Take the blooms on this massive shrub in my garden for example, a Wedding-Cake Viburnum, which blooms from May to June in good years like this one, and which is as old as I am. It looks like a giant icing-covered cake:

A whole city of flowers, and one-tree habitat and my favourite of all.
A whole city of flowers on a one-tree habitat which is my favourite garden tree of all.

Anyhow, as you look over this wonderland you might see something strange. You might see a bee perched on a flower with its head jammed into the petals, as this small solitary species is. Bees do get drunk on pollen, but usually fall off flowers when this happens. What is it doing?

A solitary bee looking a bit odd.
A solitary bee looking a bit odd.

And then you might see something stranger than that. You might see a big drone fly, a species of hoverfly, doing a head-stand! How?

A big bee or fly doing a headstand on a flower is not as unusual a sight as you might think - but what on earth is it up to?
A big bee or fly doing a headstand on a flower is not as unusual a sight as you might think – but what on earth is it up to?

This is the same area of blossom two days in a row – clearly something is amiss, but what? We need to see the same petals without the yogic insects. Do you notice anything odd?

There's something funny about these flowers...
There’s something funny about these flowers…

Have you noticed anything? Don’t worry if you haven’t, it’s not easy to see. But there is something hidden among the petals. In fact, you might actually be looking at it and thinking it is a petal. It is in fact our largest species of crab spider, the Flower Crab Spider. It’s an ambush specialist and to make sure it can’t be seen by its insect prey is can even change colour, but not to any colour. Just some. It doesn’t make a web, it just perches on a suitable flower and waits for an insect to come down to feed. Can you see it now in this next photo?

If you can't see it let me tell you this, it's looking right at the cameras and waiting to grab it.
If you can’t see it let me tell you this, it’s looking right at the cameras and waiting to grab it.

Okay, maybe you can see the spider now, but are finding it a little difficult to make out the details, so I’ll make it a little clearer. Check this out:

Here it is, as clear as day, with long forelegs outstretched to snatch prey when it comes to land.
Here it is, as clear as day, with long forelegs outstretched to snatch prey when it comes to land.

This is a female Flower Crab Spider. She is much larger than the male and has a smooth shiny body with bright yellow eyes. She can almost turn green but is usually bright white or bright yellow. These spiders get their name because they hold their long forelegs out like crabs claws. In fact, they generally stand on their four short back legs and hold out their four long front legs, and when they walk they scuttle sideways. The venom is not known to be harmful to humans, but it is so powerful to insects that it kills them instantly, preventing them from escaping the spider which has no web to aid it. The small male is very thin and coloured like bird-droppings, and will usually deliberately perch on bird droppings splashed on leaves. The female is not gigantic, but its cushion-like body can reach almost the width and length of a human thumbnail.

So now that you know what it is for sure, go back and look at those other photos and see if you can recognise the spider clearly among the petals. But the story doesn’t just end here…