One of my favourite places to visit in the spring is an ancient red cob brick wall on the outskirts of Exeter. The wall must be hundreds of years old and is now riddled with small holes which make it an ideal nesting site for a large colony of Anthophora plumipes the hairy-footed flower bee. These are about the size of a small bumblebee, the males buff coloured with yellow faces and the females all black with orange hind legs. The south-facing wall provides a sun trap for these warmth-loving insects but not everything is in the bees favour as there are monsters lurking here.
The first males fly on sunny days in late February with the main emergence taking place in March. They are also regular visitors to our garden in Buckfastleigh and particularly like lungwort Pulmonaria flowers to nectar from.
In sunny conditions dozens of males patrol the cob wall looking for females. When one is found the male performs a swinging flight back and forth as he lines up on the female then flies at her attempting to clutch her with his long legs in an attempt to mate. As in most bees they are not subtle in their courtship! Sometimes two or three males can be seen lining up on the same female. The females mate once soon after emergence so almost all of these mating attempts are unsuccessful. Watch video.
Some of the holes have neat silk linings with radiating lines of silk at the entrance. In these lurk the large velvet black spider Segestria florentina. This spider is not native to Britain but hitched a lift amongst cargo to ports along the south coast many years ago and has since spread widely and is now common in many towns and villages in Devon. These spiders usually prey on creatures such as woodlice but here the spiders have taken to catching bees as well.
I have occasionally found spiders with freshly caught bees in their clutches and have spent many hours watching and sketching the activity around the wall. When a bee flies near a silk lined burrow the long legs of the spider will suddenly dart out. Occasionally large female spiders would leap out of their burrow and run around the wall with their legs held high and the metallic green jaws held wide. I had thought these spiders were being a little over optimistic until this year.
On my first visit to the wall on 11th March, I set up my video camera on an active spider lair hoping to catch a spider leaping out of its burrow. Then spent the afternoon sketching the bee activity along the wall. I played back the tape each hour but was not successful in catching this behaviour. Then about 3.30pm as the temperature dropped the bees started to return to their burrows for the night. I was just thinking about how many hours I would need to spend staring at this wall to see a spider catch a bee when a few inches to the left of my camera a huge female spider suddenly leapt out of her burrow and caught a male bee as it hovered close to her lair! The sudden appearance of this large velvet-black spider on the bare wall gave me a shock. The spider then sat on the wall with its prey for several minutes allowing me to sketch and photograph it. Close up this spider is a real monster, the metallic green jaws glinted in the sunlight and the long hairy legs and long palps held the unfortunate bee in her clutches as she sucked its insides out. Eventually she retreated backwards in to her burrow dragging the bee behind her.
Observing this moment of drama made all the hours of patiently waiting by the wall worthwhile. I have been hoping to see this since my first visit to the wall in 2011 but to be honest never thought I would ever be in the right place at the right time to do so. Last year I actually gave up thinking it was an impossible task and that I was wasting my time but something made me return to this unfinished business this year and I felt confident about being successful. I don’t think I have any special powers but in a strange way I felt subconsciously guided straight to the spot where I eventually saw it!