Colouration in crab spiders: Substrate choice and prey attraction

Astrid M. Heiling*, Lars Chittka, Ken Cheng, Marie E. Herberstein

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    89 Citations (Scopus)


    Australian crab spiders Thomisus spectabilis ambush pollinating insects, such as honeybees (Apis mellifera) on flowers, and can change their body colour between yellow and white. It is traditionally assumed that the spiders change their colour to match the flower colour, thus rendering them cryptic to insect prey. Here, we test this assumption combining state-of-the-art knowledge of bee vision and behavioural experiments. In the field, yellow spiders are only found on yellow daisies (Chrysanthemum frutescens), whereas white spiders are found on yellow and white daisies. These field patterns were confirmed in the laboratory. When given the choice between white and yellow daisies, yellow spiders preferred yellow daisies, whereas white spiders showed only a slight but non-significant preference for white flowers. Thus, T. spectabilis select background colours according to their own body colour. When viewed from a distance, bees use an achromatic signal produced by their green receptors for target detection. Through this visual channel, white spiders on white flowers, and yellow spiders on yellow flowers are virtually undetectable. From a closer distance of a few centimetres, when bees evaluate colour contrast, the combination of spider colour against different flower backgrounds affected the response of honeybees, but not in ways predicted by a classical crypsis/conspicuousness interpretation. Yellow spiders on yellow flowers are not perfectly matched when interpreted through the colour vision of a honeybee. Nevertheless, honeybees showed indifference to the presence of a spider, equally landing on vacant or spider-occupied flowers. Likewise, white spiders are poorly hidden on white flowers, as white spiders reflect ultraviolet light strongly, while white flowers do not. Surprisingly, bees are attracted to this contrast, and significantly more honeybees preferred white flowers occupied by white spiders. White spiders on yellow flowers produce the highest colour contrast and bees again preferred spider-occupied flowers. Yellow spiders on white flowers were the only pairing where bees rejected spider-occupied flowers, especially in cases where the contrast between the two was relatively strong. Thus, T. spectabilis select flower colours adaptively in a way that deceives honeybees, or at least does not deter them.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1785-1792
    Number of pages8
    JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
    Issue number10
    Publication statusPublished - May 2005


    Dive into the research topics of 'Colouration in crab spiders: Substrate choice and prey attraction'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

    Cite this