Nature Notes

Jenny Dixon

Wharfedale Naturalists Society

OUR front door faces east and the steps form a natural suntrap on warm mornings. On one such I opened the door to find a red admiral butterfly basking on the stone. Insects are cold-blooded creatures and need to borrow external warmth before they can become active and so I got a cheering start to my day. Butterflies have been scarce this year but apparently red admirals are doing well. They move north during the summer arriving here in time to feast on blackberries and ripe plums both of which are abundant in our garden.

This encounter made me think about the myriad creatures that have evolved to live in and around our homes, making their presence particularly obvious at this time of year, some more welcome than others. I’m not keen on the mottled green slug that squeezes under the back door to roam the kitchen at night. It’s not the species that minces my hostas and ravages my beans – it’s a useful consumer of dead material. Whatever can it find to eat here? Presumably microscopic crumbs of this and that. I’m also not a wasp-lover, though I realise these – now depleted – insects are important pollinators and a vital part of the food chain, so I try to be a good tolerant naturalist.

However, we are fond of spiders. Recently I came across a new one. It was in the washbasin and clearly couldn’t climb the shiny slopes to escape. It had very long legs making it appear large, but its body was quite small. At first I thought it was a daddy-long-legs (crane fly) but it had eight legs not six and a body in two segments (thorax and abdomen), an arachnid not an insect. In fact it was pholcus phalangiodes, a daddy-long-legs spider, granddaddy long-legs, or vibrator - from its habit of vibrating when threatened, presenting a mere blur to a predator. I made it an escape route and it settled in a corner of the bathroom. Later I came across several much smaller specimens around the house – possibly its progeny – for, although fierce hunters and rather unreliable mates, spiders are excellent mothers caring for their brood of spiderlings till they are ready to disperse.

As autumn approaches spiders are more evident: male house spiders stalk over the carpet in search of mates. On cool sunny mornings the webs of garden spiders festoon our shrubs, catching the rays of the low sun and sparkling with water drops. If you’re a very lucky dog-walker you may even see a whole meadow lightly covered with gossamer, the night’s work of thousands of busy money spiders.