Category Archives: Spiders

Spider captures wasp (in my lab!)

Earlier today I heard a loud buzzing noise in my lab here at the Turkana Basin Institute in northern Kenya. There are a number of wasps who make their home in the lab. These wasps construct nests from mud, which they then stock with paralyzed caterpillars or spiders as food for their larvae.

Today however, the tables were turned and one of the Potter Wasps that had been coming/going from its’ nest had become entangled in the loose webbing of one of the long-legged spiders that lives under my desk.

Potter wasp gets caught!

Potter wasp gets caught!

 

The spider had to handle the wasp carefully as she can sting, and the spider did this by using its long legs to spread its sticky silk over the wasps’ body.

Ensnaring the wasp with silk

Ensnaring the wasp with silk

 

The wasp struggled fiercely, but was slowly overcome after the spider leaned in and delivered a venomous bite:

Once bitten, the wasp struggles less...

Once bitten, the wasp struggles less…

 

A few minutes later the spider dragged its prize to the sheltered space between my desk and wall where it lives. On looking closer I could see many tiny spiders (including their recently shed skins), who were no doubt thrilled that their mother had brought them such a feast…

Dinner for the spiders!

Dinner for the spiders!

Sometimes you don’t have to travel far to find ‘dudus’ doing interesting things!

More from the world of bugs soon!

 

The Spider and the Ant

Dear All – having been weighing and counting ants on the Whistling Thorns for some research work related to my PhD. There are a few alates around – these are the winged reproductive forms of ants… Each colony produces many hundreds, even thousands of alates that take off into the sky as part of a synchronised mating flight. Female alates become future queens, they are larger than the males. Male alates only live for the day of the mating flight – they have one chance to mate. They can never return to their colony once they depart. All of them will die within a day of departing on the mating flight…

Here is an illustration of the alates of the three common ant species on the Whistling Thorn trees in East Africa:

Alates - winged queens and males of the Whistling Thorn ants

Alates - winged queens and males of the Whistling Thorn ants (the black bar is for scale - it represents 1 cm or 1o mm)

Most of the them don’t make it and end up as food for birds, other ants and spiders.

I found this Jumping Spider eating a freshly captured young foundress queen…

Jumping Spider with Acacia-ant alate (winged queen)

Jumping Spider with Acacia-ant alate (winged queen)

The spider lives among the ants and dodges them by constantly keeping on the move, occasionally nabbing one of the hapless ants for a snack! Jumping Spiders are ambush predators that use their athletic skills and fantastic vision to capture prey. They have more than two pairs of eyes (in fact 4 pairs in total, with two pairs facing forward that are very well developed…)

How many eyes can you see on the spider?

How many eyes can you see on the spider?

Can you spot the interloper?

Dear All

More from my travels in the bush. At a spiny succulent euphorbia in Laikipia the other day I was looking at some Groove-winged Flower Beetles. These are tiny beetles who feed on flowers, often in groups. Here are a couple pictures of the beetles – and what I took to be a happily visiting fly as well. On peering closer I noticed the fly wasn’t really moving even when I accidentally bumped the plant. Then I looked closer (as one always should with insects) and guess who was sitting there !?

Can you spot the interloper in the pictures below?

Groove-winged Flower Beetles and someone else - can you see her?

Groove-winged Flower Beetles and someone else - can you see her?

Here's a closer view - now can you see her?

Here's a closer view - now can you see her?

Yes – this was an amazing flower spider beautifully camouflaged to look just LIKE the  euphorbia flowers!

The flower spider with her lunch!

The flower spider with her lunch!

Even more amazing – the fat yellow one is the female, she is much larger than the male, who rides around on her back – you can see him here – the reddish brown one sitting on her! This difference in sizes is not unusual in spiders where females are typically the big beefy ones and males are tiny and weak…

Close-up: you can see the tiny male sitting on her back!

Close-up: you can see the tiny male sitting on her back!

More from the wonderful world of bugs soon!

Incredible!

Dear All – many thanks for the kind comments and I will respond to some of the questions soon. I just found and photographed the most incredible ‘creepy-crawlies’ in my house this evening.

 

 

As I was brushing my teeth, I noticed someone watching me quietly from the corner. The area around my sink is fairly sheltered and there are several regulars who hang out there: a cave cricket, moth flies, darkling beetles and a large wall spider. This evening I noticed someone new. It took me a while to register that there was someone there watching as the interloper did not move much.

 

I took at closer look and the little eight-legged fellow that peered back at me simply blew me away. Right there in from of my eyes was one of the most elusive and remarkable spiders in the world.

 

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Everyone will be familiar with the typical spiders that construct webs and trap prey in them. This particular spider does things a little differently. This spider is commonly known as the Net-casting spider. Unlike most spiders who are simply content to sit and wait in their webs for some hapless bug to fly into it, these amazing spiders take the web strategy a step further. They weave a flexible net-liked web which they hold with the front legs. They do this dangling from a twig or some other promising perch. They support themselves using a scaffold of taut non-sticky silk that they lay down first. You can just see the lines of this scaffold in the corners in some of the pictures.

 

Enjoy the pictures of the Net-casting spider and I hope that you will be as amazed as I was…

 

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When an insect wanders by, the Net-casting spider then throws the net over the prey! Truly, truly one of the most amazing spiders on the planet. 

 

 

Big female, tiny male…

Big female, tiny male!

On a recent walk through one of the coastal forests I came across this amazing example of ‘sexual dimorphism’. This is where there are striking differences in size, shape, colour and other features between males and females of the same species. In this case it is a striking example of size-based sexual dimorphism with a gigantic female and a puny dwarf male.

Orb-weaving spiders are common in the coastal forests – among the more striking are these magnificent Nephila, who hang their massive webs, often over a metre in diameter, along forest paths. These spiders are incredible creatures. They are not just large and colourful (this one here was about 7 inches from toe to toe!), but also highly intelligent.

I have actually seen some of them gather up their webs when they see a person or a large animal approaching. After you’ve passed, they drop the web back down into place. This means that the spider doesn’t have its web snagged every time some large bumbling mammal walks by.

While taking a closer look at the spider’s magnificent web and beautiful colours, I noticed that there was another creature clinging to the web beneath her. On closer inspection I realised that this was a male. These Nephila spiders have really tiny stunted males in many species.

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The reason behind this is thought to be female aggression. The female Nephila are famously aggressive (even as I watched her from a safe distance she rotated her fangs at me like a pair of macabre bicycle pedals!). Males have gotten smaller and smaller through evolution so that they can sneak into the webs and mate with the females without getting eaten.

Males do compete for access to females, and therefore there is a trade-off: you need to be big enough to fend off the other boys, but not too big or else the female will notice you and take you for an intruder and despatch you before you can mate with her!

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In many cases the males still get eaten after they mate with the female. In fact in some spiders the males actually somersault onto the females jaws after mating with her! Notice how in this pair of would-be lovers the male is keeping to the opposite side of the web until the female yields to his charms. Just in case he needs to make a quick escape! Talk about living life in the fast lane!

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Many thanks to everyone for the kind comments. More from the wonderful world of bugs soon!

Unexpected Diversity

This Saturday I visited the Kibera Slum in Nairobi with Paula of
WildlifeDirect and her remarkable sister Su Kahumbu, one of Kenya’s
most passionate organic farmers who is working very hard to raise
awareness about organic farming and other issues related to good
farming practices.

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Isaak, a partial hearing child attached himself to me immediately

The Kibera Slum is probably not the kind of place you would ever
expect to hear about on a conservation blog. Many people associate the
slum with images of violence and chaos especially in the recent
violence that erupted in Kenya. However, given that a third of the
population of Nairobi lives in the slum (estimated at nearly 1 million
people!), the needs and hopes of the people who live there need to be
part of the big issues addressed by conservationists.

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To those who livet here, garbage is just a part of the landscape. It is dumped in any open spaces, and is the unbelievable playground and hunting area for young children.

We went to look at a wonderful project that is literally, just taking
root, with a local Youth Group. A group of former prisoners are
cleaning up and restoring a piece of land that is basically a garbage
dump on the edge of the railway tracks. This piece of land is being
turned into an organic farm.

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After one week the garbage had been cleared from the dump and neatly piled for erosion control, and soil prepared for planting

What impressed me about this project, apart from the incredible joy,
hope and determination of the people involved, was the way that life
itself – biodiversity – has made an unbelievable comeback on the land
being restored.

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Sorrel and other plants grow wild here – the seeds come in the garbage

Negotiating the open sewers clogged with plastic bags and refuse, eyes
smarting from the fumes from endless fires burning everything from
dried fish to old batteries, one would be forgiven for thinking that
life barely survives here. But nothing could be further from the
truth. Given just a little breathing space to heal, Mother Nature has
begun to bounce back with vigour.

One of the first things was to restore the natural processes of decay
and nutrient cycling to the soil. And of course who better to do this
than those tireless soil-making machines, our dear little friends the
earthworms. In beds fed with scraps, the earthworms have been
established and are rapidly increasing in number (they are
hermaphrodites and can mate multiply!).

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These children have hardly been exposed to natural vegetation or animals. On being introduced to worms the first child thought they were snakes and the first worm was hurled onto the railway tracks – the little boy believing he’d rescued us from a deadly bite!

As I walked over the soft, fragile soil, carefully raked clean of
debris, a brief rapid fluttering caught my eye. Intrigued, I followed
the tiny grey fleck as it whirled through the air. Finally, after
several frustrating minutes, it settled on a piece of paper lying on
the ground. I peered closely and was very pleasantly surprised. This
was a Woolly Legs – a strange and wonderful butterfly whose
caterpillars are carnivorous and feed on scale insects and other
similar pests! This makes them a useful insect and a cherished friend
of farmers who need to control scale insects on their crops.

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Later, as the sun warmed the red soil, another flash of colour swirled
around coming to rest on a rock. Here was a newly arrived Painted Lady
– a migrant species, that has come to the tiny patch of land to start
a new generation of butterflies. She sat sunning herself on the rocks
in between the freshly dug furrows. Her choice of this spot also
indicates that the land is healing and welcoming to living things. The
herbs now allowed to sprout freed from the suffocating piles of
rubbish will bring in more and more insects. We saw 15 different
species of butterflies on the farm over the rest of the day –
absolutely amazing and wonderful.
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Butterflies were not the only creatures making a comeback. We saw five
different kinds of bees, including honeybees, feeding from the small
patch of flowers at the edge of the little farm. These will be
important pollinators once the crops are established. A number of
dragonflies were also patrolling the area. They too are friends well
worth having as they feed on pesky flies and mosquitoes. Even the pile
of plastic bags raked out of the plot, piled up and planted on as an
erosion barrier was beginning to attract creatures – several small
spiders had taken up residence here.

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As the land continues to heal and more and more plants are established
the numbers of creatures is bound to grow and I look forward to
visiting again and seeing who else has come back to live on the farm
and help the farmers keep the land healthy and productive. This also
goes to show you that life can thrive absolutely anywhere – we just
have to give her a chance!

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The children were absolutely amazing, funny, happy and healthy! They have been incorporated into the project for future generations. They had the privilege of being the first to plant seeds in the seedbeds.

A phantom in the forest

The flanks of the Kerio Valley are draped with forests strewn about plunging waterfalls and headstrong streams. Narrow tongues of forest snakes their way down the steep escarpments clinging to the courses of the rushing, life-giving streams.

The forests along these water-courses are relatively tiny, yes, but incredibly rich in different kinds of birds, frogs, insects and spiders. They are a pleasant place to stop and rest after a long day of chasing energetic butterflies.

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In one forest patch, with the low-slung late afternoon light is streaming through the trees and pale delicate translucent butterflies – aptly named ‘the forest-haunting white’ – are drifting aimlessly about. The light is dappled, and I am day-dreaming, not really paying attention, slowly climbing a steep path.

Suddenly, I am face to face with large black spider. She wriggles her legs, twitching to let me know, as if she is saying: ‘Please don’t walk into my web!’ At first glance it seems as if she is floating in mid-air. A closer look reveals that this is a clever ploy. I marvel at the cunning with which she has sewn her trap. It is, for all intents and purposes, utterly invisible! And of course this is how she has planned it – not to snare unsuspecting naturalists, but for wary insects who will be fooled into thinking they are flying into an open space only to be caught.

As a slight breeze stirs the strands of her web, they catch the light and glisten softly, appearing, then vanishing again. Spider silk, as delicate as it seems is actually stronger than steel would be if stretched so fine – and to think that this is spun fresh each day from her glands at the tip of her abdomen!

The double act

Another bright, sunny morning in the Kerio Valley – and still on the trail of the elusive Giant Cupid butterfly. I’ve been searching for caterpillars among the buds of various wildflowers. This year has seen incredible rains that have gone on and on, well beyond the normal ‘long rains’ that should have petered out in June-July. Blessed with the extra moisture the red of the valley has responded with an exuberance of blossom everywhere.

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The sins of overgrazing by goats have been covered by crocheted blankets of creepers and eroded gullies are draped with thickly-woven blankets of pointillist greens: olive green of the succulent Cissus and Cyphostemma, pale viridian from the Kalanchoe, the sombre, speckled leaves of aloes and a myriad of herbs and grasses shot with bronze, purple, rose and pink.

I am seated on the ground poking gently through buds of a sweetly-scented herb. This is one of the places that I suspect the Giant Cupid butterflies might be laying their eggs. After several hours work, all I’ve managed to find are a tiny green cricket and an infinite variety of ants, visiting to imbibe nectar from the fat glands that are found below the flowers.

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Looking towards a new stand of herbs, I see a small, blackish form waving gently in the breeze. It seems for all intents and purposes to be a spider. With dark spindly legs sticking out at all angles. However, these spiders don’t move, they are fixed to the stem of a short, stout succulent plant. It looks like a species of Caralluma. These are succulent plants, like small cacti, found in the drylands and deserts of Africa.

I peer closer at the flowers – they are exquisite, and unusual, with dark fingers and hairy fringes. Then suddenly, among them I notice a tiny bubble; bright and colourful. Is this a flower bud? Oh! – it moves! It wriggles along the stem and edges out of view. I lift the flowering stalk and gently tease the creature back up to where I can see it. Yes, it is a ‘flower’ – but one with eight legs! This is a remarkable flower-mimicking spider.

Amazing how nature plays with form. For perched here on flowers that resemble spiders, sits a spider that looks just like a flower!