Living in the UK a fear of spiders may seem irrational, after all we do not possess any that can cause serious harm (the ‘exploits’ of the False Widow spider have been blown way out of proportion by the tabloid media) and although even I prefer not to stumble into the bathroom in the half-light and find myself confronted with a large, hairy house spider in the tub, spiders still seem to get a bad rep across the board. Maybe the remarkable Ladybird spider can change a few minds?
I posted a picture of this sublime arachnid on Twitter yesterday and it didn’t take long to blow up – within an hour it was the most liked and re-tweeted picture I’ve posted in the last six months. With that astounding and altogether positive reaction, I thought it only right to follow that up with a little bit more about this wonderful, endearing little creature and its amazing back-story.
The Ladybird spider, a vivid ruby-red jewel in our British arachnid crown was presumed extinct in Britain in 1906 when the last remaining spider was thought to have died in Bournemouth. Amazingly in 1980, 74 years later, a single colony was discovered clinging on in Dorset. Despite renewed optimism and much searching, no further colonies have been found in the British isles and even across the rest of its northern European range, the Ladybird spider is only locally common in very few places. This is an extremely rare spider. A count in 1994 revealed a total UK population to be just 56 spiders, all residing in this single Dorset heathland colony.
Numbers it seems were obliterated by the rapid destruction of much of the countries lowland heathland for agricultural use and housing. It is this lowland heathland on which the Ladybird spider completely depends though the problems for this little spider are not all man-made, perhaps suffering from a very strict list of needs and requirements to ensure survival.
Favouring well-drained, sandy, sheltered south-facing slopes the spiders build vertical silk-lined burrows crowned with a canopy of silk. The silk canopy is used to ensnare and ambush passing prey of which a variety of beetles are favourites. Ladybird spiders will not travel far, even the young rarely disperse far from their mothers burrow to start new lives, alone. This in turn means they struggle to colonise new areas and expand their range in any significance.
If these living requirements were not strict enough, the male spider will not reach maturity until three years of age, whilst even more incredibly, the female will not reach maturity until four or five years of age and can live considerably longer if not discovered by a male (which is a big ask, given that the female is unlikely to ever leave her burrow unless forced to do so). The male will leave the burrow in April or May if the conditions are right (calm, mild) in search of a female’s web. Once mating is over, the male will die. The female will go on to lay up to eighty eggs in a silk nursery and once hatched the spiderlings will be fed and tended to by their mother before she too eventually dies. The spiderlings remain in their nursery before emerging in the following spring where they will leave the web and build their own burrow in close vicinity; usually just metres away.
It is not difficult to see just where these spiders got their name but it is only the male that displays the sublime red and polka-dot colouring on the abdomen and even then not until reaching maturity. Females and juveniles are completely black across the abdomen though in no way does this make them less beautiful; the velvet like hairs that cover the abdomen add a certain charm, a softness, even perhaps a cuddliness to their appearance which despite the ‘warning’ red makes them appear far less intimidating than the monster in your bathtub. The male measure in at around 10mm, whilst typically the female is much bigger, almost twice the size at 16-20mm.
So, what now for these rare gems? Well, thanks to The Ladybird spider project – a partnership between Buglife, Natural England, the Forestry Commission, Dorset Wildlife Trust, the RSPB, the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust, Dudley Zoo, the British Arachnological Society, the National Trust, the Ministry of Defence, Life-Forms and Perenco – Things are looking up. Each year a number of spiders are carefully moved (via plastic bottles carefully filled with heather and moss) onto new heathland sites, with the aim of establishing more sites where the spider can thrive. Buglife report that there are now eight Ladybird spider populations across the Dorset heathlands; that extends to some one thousand individual spiders today. This recovery, with helping hands, is a terrific feet but there is still work to be done and new sites to be found. You can help too by simply texting: LADY22 £5 to 70070 to make a small donation to the Ladybird Spider Project.
Take another look, I think this arachnid might just be able to cure arachnophobia; harmless, stunningly beautiful, heartbreakingly rare, a fantastic back-story. This spider has it all. One thing is for sure, the Ladybird spider has found its way firmly onto my bucket list. Why not put it on yours?