A Morning of Spooky Spiders

Posted: October 13th 2018

by Andy Bloomfield, Warden

Alopecosa barbipes, a sand dune species found at Holkham
Alopecosa barbipes, a sand dune species found at Holkham

With the October half term holiday and Halloween nearly upon us a series of events for children have been arranged around the estate. One new addition we will be co-hosting with our education team in the new Lookout at Lady Anne’s Drive from 11am until 1pm on Saturday 27th October is an introduction to the world of Holkham’s spiders. This will involve a brief illustrated talk followed by a short trek out into the woods and dunes to search for some spiders accompanied by Norfolk’s spider expert and County Spider Recorder Pip Collyer. With the aid of collecting pots we will be scouring leaf litter, looking under bark and in amongst the marram grass of the sand dunes to see what we can find. Once we have collected we will return to The Lookout to examine the spiders more closely with the aid of microscopes. Hopefully for a subject as misunderstood as spiders it should also be an event that adults can learn from too!

The Large House Spider, a species that commonly inhabits houses
The Large House Spider, a species that commonly inhabits houses

Spiders create many mixed feelings amongst the general public and most of that revolves around fear. Many children and indeed plenty of adults simply cannot bare even the thought of spiders, yet really in this country there is no need for such a reaction. Most of the 670 species of British spiders are really tiny; the largest ‘Large House Spiders’ may reach 1.6 cm in their body length with a leg span that has been known to reach 7.5 cm yet most species are below 1cm and many only 2-3mm long. Nothing quite reaches the proportions of tropical tarantulas. So not only are most UK spiders very small, contrary to popular belief most are completely harmless. All we seem to hear about in the press these days is the dreaded ‘False Black Widow’. To keen arachnologists (spider enthusiasts) the species that gets all the bad press is correctly referred to by its scientific name Steatoda nobilis, and part of a family that are all similar and often called ‘false widows’. In truth these spiders are probably present in countless houses, sheds and garages in southern England and the chances of getting bitten is very slim, far slimmer in fact that getting stung by a wasp. Mostly a nip from such a spider will be nothing more, yet allergic reactions of course sometimes happen as they do with other plant of insect bites or stings, yet it is hardly a cause for mass panic. Treat them with respect and the chance of a bite is exceptionally low. Here at Holkham we have yet to see one on the reserve although they are not far away, living in our barn in the village and in Wells town.

The Noble False Widow, the controversial spider with a bad reputation
The Noble False Widow, the controversial spider with a bad reputation

So whilst there is an unwarranted fear among the general public of spiders there are also similar looks of horror and fear amongst many keen naturalists when spiders are mentioned. This however is for a very different reason. Spiders have in the past been deemed one of the most difficult groups of species to identify. Firstly they need to be seen very well and as most are so small this means looking at them under a microscope. Secondly spiders take varying times to reach maturity and sometimes the only sure way of identification is to examine adult spiders, they show marks and traits missing from immature spiders. This means seeing them at the right time of the year for conclusive identification. Thirdly specialist good books were not easy to come by or understand, so for the majority of naturalists spiders were a no-go area of natural history and goes some to way in explaining why many sites (even nature reserves) know little of what species of spiders they have.

Pirata piraticus, the aquatic loving 'Pirate Wolf Spider'
Pirata piraticus, the aquatic loving ‘Pirate Wolf Spider’, its egg sac attached to its abdomen

Here at Holkham I have made an effort in the last three years to understand a bit more about the spiders of the reserve. This all started really when I was doing some management work on one of the Natterjack pools. By chance I was pretty much inches away from one of our most beautifully marked species (a pirate wolf spider) sitting on some waterside vegetation. Was it the rare Raft Spider I had seen mentioned periodically in the press, known from only a few UK sites? I kicked myself for not knowing (but it was n’t!) yet from then I made it my business to find out. It has been quite a long journey since; many species were seemingly impossible to name whilst others were simpler than the books portrayed. Every time we do work on the reserve we find spiders, in all habitats, so I collect them in small pots for identification later. Following on from this we have also welcomed experts such as Pip to the reserve and in doing so we now have a growing spider list for the reserve of 180 species. Not bad considering only 30 odd species had previously been reported! We now have identified a diverse range of species, some nationally very rare. In short we have gone from an unknown spider ‘black hole’ with no information to a nature reserve with a very important array of species.

This damselfy soon came to an abrupt end when it went into the web of this Long-jawed orbweb spider
This damselfly soon came to an abrupt end when it went into the web of this Long-jawed orbweb spider

Taking the deeply scientific side of spider identification away for a moment, there is still much to revel and enjoy with just a slightly deeper understanding or even just cursory glances at spiders in the wild. For anyone with a curiosity in the natural world, spiders are hard to ignore. They are virtually everywhere. From the darkest nooks and crannies of your house, to the mountain tops of Scotland and every habitat in between there are spiders. How can we not marvel at the ingenuity of their silk production to build webs? But did you know some spiders however do not build webs? Instead they hunt on their eight legs, moving from place to place in search of prey. There are countless other interesting facts that make the study of spiders so fascinating. Spiders can colonize new areas quickly by ‘ballooning’, a habit shown by some of the smaller species where they climb up tall vegetation and wait for the wind to take them on their way. Some spiders carry their newly hatched youngster about on their abdomens whilst others have silken maternity webs which they guard from other predators. Some spiders jump, some live underwater and some even spit venom from their fangs to incapacitate their victims. There really is wealth of fascinating observations that can be seen by the average person and much of it can be seen inside your own house.

The intricate autumn web of a Common Garden Spider
The intricate autumn web of a Common Garden Spider

If this short blog has gone someway to provoke an interest in spiders or you would like to find out more about the spiders of Holkham please feel free to come along on 27th October. Not all spiders are quite as scary or spooky as the world of the press and the internet would have you believe !

Andy Bloomfield, Warden Holkham NNR

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