Crab Spiders and other gorgeous critters

With spring in the air, I have been thoroughly enjoying all the extra bird activity around my home, and especially been enjoying the daily Speckled Mousebird activity (one of my favourite birds). The Fynbos biome here creates a wonderful habitat for insects, and there are always fascinating ones to see. Most are, however, rather small, and often not shown to my guests on a walk. I use my solitary walks to highlight these for myself through photography but I always have a bit of a yearning to share with a greater audience. Facebook helps, but a blog can reach a much wider audience. My hope through this and other blogs to come, is to highlight some of the lesser known – and lesser liked – creatures I encounter. Most, I am sure, will be very common, but that’s the point; to know that all these amazing creatures are just a walk away.

I’ve always loved the diversity of life. It’s like nature has all these backup plans in place should a species go extinct. I also love learning about animal functionality. You see, they’re so much more than just something pretty, ugly, or smelly; they all have jobs to do. Whether it’s an elephant herd turning a woodland into a grassland, or a bacteria wiping out a herd of mammals, an annoying mosquito, or those flies that stick to our face in the summer; they’re all important; and it is up to us to figure out their jobs and show some respect for the work they do, whether we like them or not.

Here are a few critters I bumped into during my recent wanderings around my home…

Monkey Beetles

Scarabaeidae Family. Monkey Beetles

Monkey Beetles thrive in the Fynbos, and a common view of them is with their heads buried in a flower head, bottoms sticking out. South Africa is a hot-spot for them and, with over 1000 described species, you’ll have to forgive me for not being sure about which two I’ve photographed. They are both around 5 mm in length to give you some perspective. These guys are good pollinators and are also a good food source to various insect eating birds.

They will often spend their nights in the flowers and, as the plant ‘goes to sleep’, it wraps the flower petals over the beetles and shuts them in, protecting them from predators and giving them warmth and food. Best of all? They have breakfast in bed!

With their heads buried and their long back legs sticking out, they often look like a Crab Spider waiting for prey. This is not just a coincidence, but a way for the beetle to protect itself against some predators.

Pictured below is exactly that; looking quite scary if you’re a small predator.

Crab Spiders

Crab Spider with Greenbottle Fly

Speaking of Crab Spiders; pictured above is the reason for my heading; one of the Small Crab Spiders. I see this group most often and they certainly are pretty. This one was munching on a fly; a Greenbottle species. Interestingly, Crab Spiders lack teeth on their chelicerae; which is the parts that the fangs are the tips of. As such, they don’t ‘chew’ on their food as most spiders do; moving their chelicerae in a mashing type way. This causes the shape of the prey to change as it is drained. The prey from Crab Spiders remain normal in appearance on the outside as they are merely sucked dry through the fangs. This makes them look like just another visitor to the plant; and thus protecting the spider in the process. You might think that they are a top predator in their world, but down there everyone is fair game, and they have to be careful for birds, various insects and other spiders that may want to feast on them.

Small Crab Spiders are part of the Thomisidae Family and, as always, it is very difficult to track down a specific species name. They are also referred to as Flower Spiders as this group of spiders are specifically adapted to living on, and hunting directly from, flowers. They can even change their colours to suit the flower! They are potent little predators, often nabbing prey much bigger than them; with their powerful venom killing a bee within seconds. Don’t worry, they’re harmless to us! I have held a few on my hands over the years during educational talks. They are usually no bigger than a thumbnail, never try to bite (their venom is harmless to us) and move like a crab. They’re not just named for their similarity in appearance and shape to a crab, but they also tend to move sideways.

Keep an eye open for them the next time you take a walk in the Fynbos, and you might be lucky enough to spot one hiding in the flowers. They’re well worth the look.

Here’s a couple more I have seen in the past…

Interestingly in the first photo, while the female is feeding, she has a male attached looking to take advantage while she is distracted. You must realise, most spiders spend their entire lives alone, and the only things they ever encounter is either food or a potential threat to them. There is always a chance that she will just see the male as a meal when he arrives, especially since males can be as much as 100 times smaller than females in certain species. Their is a pretty big size difference here, and males from different species have developed various methods to mate successfully with a female. From mesmerizing her with a dance, to bringing her a meal, to just sneaking in while she’s eating.

Hover Flies

Hover Fly

Hover Flies are wonderful creatures and it’s always great to see them. As their name says, they spend a lot of their flying time hovering, and they are very good at it. Most of the 200-plus known Hover Fly species tend to have colours and patterns on their bodies that mimic bees and wasps, making them easy for us to identify as a Family, just not as a species. If you come across something that looks like a bee, but hovers like a helicopter, you know you have found yourself a Hover Fly. They are quite a relaxed insect, in that they don’t fly away if you invade their space, making them a fun and easy insect to sit and watch. 

Painted Lady

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)

Painted Lady’s are very common throughout South Africa, and in fact, the world. The only places they are not found is Australia and the ice caps. I barely go a day without seeing them and they are always a pleasure to see. I like them as a photographer too, as they are a species that sits nice and still, making them quite easy to photograph. Most butterfly’s are species specific when it comes to feeding, and their caterpillars usually don’t utilize more than about 3 or 4 species of plants. Painted Lady’s are quite different to this, feeding from a large variety of plants. It is this of course that helps make them so common, and widely distributed.

My daily view and the reason why I have to get out there!

And finally, that gorgeous view I have that entices me to go out and explore. I hope you liked this, the first of my educational blogs, and I hope to be writing many more. I have plans to do a video blog too, so please keep an eye on my website and Facebook page, and if you like what you’re reading, then please share far and wide. I am still figuring things out with regards to comments, subscriptions, newsletters, etc., and I hope to have all of that up and running soon. I am, after all, an animal person and not a computer tech. I apologize for inconveniences from this.

Here’s to many more walks to come with lots of exciting discoveries.

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