• Australian native bees;
  • predator–prey coevolution;
  • prey attraction;
  • spider colour variation;
  • Thomisidae;
  • UV

1. Australian crab spiders exploit the plant–pollinator mutualism by reflecting UV light that attracts pollinators to the flowers where they sit. However, spider UV reflection seems to vary broadly within and between individuals and species, and we are still lacking any comparative studies of prey and/or predator behaviour towards spider colour variation.

2. Here we looked at the natural variation in the coloration of two species of Australian crab spiders, Thomisus spectabilis and Diaea evanida, collected from the field. Furthermore, we examined how two species of native bees responded to variation in colour contrast generated by spiders sitting in flowers compared with vacant flowers. We used data from a bee choice experiment with D. evanida spiders and Trigona carbonaria bees and also published data on T. spectabilis spiders and Austroplebeia australis bees.

3. In the field both spider species were always achromatically (from a distance) undetectable but chromatically (at closer range) detectable for bees. Experimentally, we showed species-specific differences in bee behaviour towards particular spider colour variation: T. carbonaria bees did not show any preference for any colour contrasts generated by D. evanida spiders but A. australis bees were more likely to reject flowers with more contrasting T. spectabilis spiders.

4. Our study suggests that some of the spider colour variation that we encounter in the field may be partly explained by the spider's ability to adjust the reflectance properties of its colour relative to the behaviour of the species of prey available.