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Heather crab spider hiding in flower
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Wasp spider catches dragonfly
Like them or not, we live surrounded by spiders. Spain enjoys a particularly high diversity of these arachnids, with nearly 2,000 species, compared with 600 in the UK. The spiders in our midst come in an assortment of sizes. They can fill the palm of your hand or require a magnifying glass to be seen. Some are brightly coloured, changing their tones according to their background, chameleon-like. They can exhibit extraordinary behaviour: some will fly through the air clasping a butterfly, others execute snappy dance routines or excel at motherhood.
Encounters with spiders often leave a lasting impression, especially if you suffer from arachnophobia. This irrational fear is extremely common, and I have suffered from it as long as I can remember. But over the years, my horror of spiders has been eroded by fascination. Instead of running away screaming, I can now approach and observe. You could say that in my case exposure therapy has had good results. Particularly memorable for me was a chance meeting with one of Europe’s largest species, a wolf spider, who crossed my path in Collserola about two years ago.
I’d noticed something dart rapidly out into the open and then suddenly freeze in its tracks. As I approached, it scurried forward again. This time I was quicker and intercepted its trajectory before it could disappear into the undergrowth. It was an impressively big spider (about six centimetres across), with robust legs and a bristling back. But amazingly, on closer inspection, the bristles turned out to be a tangle of tiny legs: the dutiful mother was on the move with her brood of spiderlings.
As their name may suggest, wolf spiders don’t spin webs, but instead go roaming in search of their prey. So without a web to act as a nursery, the female carries her egg sac attached to her spinnerets, the appendage spiders have for producing silk. To stop the sac dragging on the ground, the abdomen has to be kept raised, quite a burden for an active hunter. When the time is right, the mother will chew open the silken bag to free her young, and wait till they have all climbed on board and are securely clinging to her bristles. After riding piggyback for about a week, the spiderlings moult and disperse.
I got down to ground level for a better view. The image of tender motherhood was temporarily forgotten when confronted with the wolf spider’s fiercely staring eyes, positioned directly above venomous fangs. As well as legs, spiders are liberally endowed with visual organs. Instead of the two large compound eyes displayed by insects, spiders usually have eight single-lensed eyes, variously arranged. In the wolf spider they are all prominently to the fore, with the central two especially large. You can pick them out at night, glinting reflectively in torchlight.
But it’s the jumping spiders who boast the sharpest arachnid vision of all. These sprightly, diminutive hunters can be found on any sunny wall. Montjuïc castle, with its cracks and holes, is alive with them and there’s a good chance they live on your balcony, too. What you notice first, if you get really close, is a row of four bright eyes, which darken as they focus on your looming face. The other four are somewhat unsettlingly embedded on the spider’s back. Their excellent vision gives jumping spiders deadly accuracy when pouncing on prey, and also plays a role in their courtship. In rhythmic displays, legs are raised to flaunt bright colours. The males’ dancing seems to mesmerise the female and keep her predatory instincts at bay. Job done, the spider springs away with a wave of its ticklish palps.
Other spiders prefer to live among plants. While out walking in spring and summer, you might notice a bee or butterfly strangely quiet on its flower, apparently undisturbed by your approach. The usual explanation is that they’ve fallen into the clutches of a crab spider, who will be tucked underneath, sucking its victim dry. Small and unobtrusive, the crab spider’s strength lies in its outsized forelegs, reminiscent of the seashore crustacean, and of course, its paralysing venom. Like a dentist’s anaesthetic, this sometimes takes a while to take effect, and the spider can be carried away for a mystery flight until it does.
As ambush predators, crab spiders rely on camouflage and can change colour to match the flowers where they lurk. Once I found a heather crab spider in a purple pitch trefoil flower, its raspberry-ripple ice cream tones blending in smoothly. For further invisibility it had arrayed its legs like a Hindu deity, in line with the petals. A similar species, the Napoleon crab spider, comes in red or yellow varieties, but can be immediately identified by an uncanny black marking on the abdomen: the silhouette of Napoleon in his bicorne hat.
Though not web-weavers, all the spiders mentioned so far produce silk: to make egg sacs, transfer sperm or abseil away from danger. For those species that use silk to trap their prey, often a rough tangle will do, but others construct sophisticated symmetrical structures. These are the orb spiders.
One of the most spectacular is the yellow and white, dynamically -striped wasp spider. At the end of last summer, several of them had slung their webs alongside Vallvidrera reservoir, low-down in the grass, close to the water where dragonflies patrol. It was a sign of the strength of their webs that they could handle such large prey, who were tightly bound in white silk, their immense eyes dulled.
Another orb species was encountered in a spooky underground cellar deep within Collserola’s woods in the grounds of Can Cata, which are open to the public two Sundays a month. I shone a torch into the pitch darkness and became aware of movement. Spread-eagled in their nearly invisible webs hung a colony of red-brown cave spiders. Here in the dark, they use sensitive bristles to pick up the least vibration. When I brought a friend to see them, she laughed, having expected something at least the size of a tarantula from my description. The long shadows of hairy legs cast on the cellar wall had distorted my memory.
I’ve made considerable progress since the days when even the sight of a green spidery tomato stem would make me jump out of my skin. I now realise that spiders have a beauty of their own. But some of the irrational dread obviously remains.
One summer night, some friends and I were out walking at the edge of the city. We’d stopped to identify some fox scat, as amateur naturalists like to do, when, just in time, we noticed a large spider suspended across the path, precisely at nose level.
The narrow path, a convenient clearing in the otherwise dense scrub, turned out to be a favoured hunting ground for the common but imposing garden spider. Web after web blocked our way. Impressively, they build these intricate structures at record speed each night, and then pack up in the morning, ingesting the silk. Dodging, crawling, we had a long, slow walk back in the dark.
Lucy Brzoska runs nature tours and writes for the website www.iberianature.com.