The Life of the Spider
by J. Henri Fabre
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These preparations, which promised so well, did not provide me with the sight which I expected, namely, a magnificent exodus, worthy of the tabernacle occupied. However, a few results, not devoid of interest, are to be noted. Let us state them briefly.

The hatching takes place as March approaches. When this time comes, let us open the Banded Epeira's nest with the scissors. We shall find that some of the youngsters have already left the central chamber and scattered over the surrounding eiderdown, while the rest of the laying still consists of a compact mass of orange eggs. The appearance of the younglings is not simultaneous; it takes place with intermissions and may last a couple of weeks.

Nothing as yet suggests the future, richly-striped livery. The abdomen is white and, as it were, floury in the front half; in the other half it is a blackish-brown. The rest of the body is pale-yellow, except in front, where the eyes form a black edging. When left alone, the little ones remain motionless in the soft, russet swan's-down; if disturbed, they shuffle lazily where they are, or even walk about in a hesitating and unsteady fashion. One can see that they have to ripen before venturing outside.

Maturity is achieved in the exquisite floss that surrounds the natal chamber and fills out the balloon. This is the waiting-room in which the body hardens. All dive into it as and when they emerge from the central keg. They will not leave it until four months later, when the midsummer heats have come.

Their number is considerable. A patient and careful census gives me nearly six hundred. And all this comes out of a purse no larger than a pea. By what miracle is there room for such a family? How do those thousands of legs manage to grow without straining themselves?

The egg-bag, as we learnt in Chapter II., is a short cylinder rounded at the bottom. It is formed of compact white satin, an insuperable barrier. It opens into a round orifice wherein is bedded a lid of the same material, through which the feeble beasties would be incapable of passing. It is not a porous felt, but a fabric as tough as that of the sack. Then by what mechanism is the delivery effected?

Observe that the disk of the lid doubles back into a short fold, which edges into the orifice of the bag. In the same way, the lid of a saucepan fits the mouth by means of a projecting rim, with this difference, that the rim is not attached to the saucepan, whereas, in the Epeira's work, it is soldered to the bag or nest. Well, at the time of the hatching, this disk becomes unstuck, lifts and allows the new-born Spiders to pass through.

If the rim were movable and simply inserted, if, moreover, the birth of all the family took place at the same time, we might think that the door is forced open by the living wave of inmates, who would set their backs to it with a common effort. We should find an approximate image in the case of the saucepan, whose lid is raised by the boiling of its contents. But the fabric of the cover is one with the fabric of the bag, the two are closely welded; besides, the hatching is effected in small batches, incapable of the least exertion. There must, therefore, be a spontaneous bursting, or dehiscence, independent of the assistance of the youngsters and similar to that of the seed-pods of plants.

When fully ripened, the dry fruit of the snap-dragon opens three windows; that of the pimpernel splits into two rounded halves, something like those of the outer case of a fob-watch; the fruit of the carnation partly unseals its valves and opens at the top into a star-shaped hatch. Each seed-casket has its own system of locks, which are made to work smoothly by the mere kiss of the sun.

Well, that other dry fruit, the Banded Epeira's germ-box, likewise possesses its bursting-gear. As long as the eggs remain unhatched, the door, solidly fixed in its frame, holds good; as soon as the little ones swarm and want to get out, it opens of itself.

Come June and July, beloved of the Cicadae, no less beloved of the young Spiders who are anxious to be off. It were difficult indeed for them to work their way through the thick shell of the balloon. For the second time, a spontaneous dehiscence seems called for. Where will it be effected?

The idea occurs off-hand that it will take place along the edges of the top cover. Remember the details given in an earlier chapter. The neck of the balloon ends in a wide crater, which is closed by a ceiling dug out cup-wise. The material is as stout in this part as in any other; but, as the lid was the finishing touch to the work, we expect to find an incomplete soldering, which would allow it to be unfastened.

The method of construction deceives us: the ceiling is immovable; at no season can my forceps manage to extract it, without destroying the building from top to bottom. The dehiscence takes place elsewhere, at some point on the sides. Nothing informs us, nothing suggests to us that it will occur at one place rather than another.

Moreover, to tell the truth, it is not a dehiscence prepared by means of some dainty piece of mechanism; it is a very irregular tear. Somewhat sharply, under the fierce heat of the sun, the satin bursts like the rind of an over-ripe pomegranate. Judging by the result, we think of the expansion of the air inside, which, heated by the sun, causes this rupture. The signs of pressure from within are manifest: the tatters of the torn fabric are turned outwards; also, a wisp of the russet eiderdown that fills the wallet invariably straggles through the breach. In the midst of the protruding floss, the Spiderlings, expelled from their home by the explosion, are in frantic commotion.

The balloons of the Banded Epeira are bombs which, to free their contents, burst under the rays of a torrid sun. To break they need the fiery heat-waves of the dog-days. When kept in the moderate atmosphere of my study, most of them do not open and the emergence of the young does not take place, unless I myself I have a hand in the business; a few others open with a round hole, a hole so neat that it might have been made with a punch. This aperture is the work of the prisoners, who, relieving one another in turns, have, with a patient tooth, bitten through the stuff of the jar at some point or other.

When exposed to the full force of the sun, however, on the rosemaries in the enclosure, the balloons burst and shoot forth a ruddy flood of floss and tiny animals. That is how things occur in the free sun-bath of the fields. Unsheltered, among the bushes, the wallet of the Banded Epeira, when the July heat arrives, splits under the effort of the inner air. The delivery is effected by an explosion of the dwelling.

A very small part of the family are expelled with the flow of tawny floss; the vast majority remain in the bag, which is ripped open, but still bulges with eiderdown. Now that the breach is made, any one can go out who pleases, in his own good time, without hurrying. Besides, a solemn action has to be performed before the emigration. The animal must cast its skin; and the moult is an event that does not fall on the same date for all. The evacuation of the place, therefore, lasts several days. It is effected in small squads, as the slough is flung aside.

Those who sally forth climb up the neighbouring twigs and there, in the full heat of the sun, proceed with the work of dissemination. The method is the same as that which we saw in the case of the Cross Spider. The spinnerets abandon to the breeze a thread that floats, breaks and flies away, carrying the rope-maker with it. The number of starters on any one morning is so small as to rob the spectacle of the greater part of its interest. The scene lacks animation because of the absence of a crowd.

To my intense disappointment, the Silky Epeira does not either indulge in a tumultuous and dashing exodus. Let me remind you of her handiwork, the handsomest of the maternal wallets, next to the Banded Epeira's. It is an obtuse conoid, closed with a star-shaped disk. It is made of a stouter and especially a thicker material than the Banded Epeira's balloon, for which reason a spontaneous rupture becomes more necessary than ever.

This rupture is effected at the sides of the bag, not far from the edge of the lid. Like the ripping of the balloon, it requires the rough aid of the heat of July. Its mechanism also seems to work by the expansion of the heated air, for we again see a partial emission of the silky floss that fills the pouch.

The exit of the family is performed in a single group and, this time, before the moult, perhaps for lack of the space necessary for the delicate casting of the skin. The conical bag falls far short of the balloon in size; those packed within would sprain their legs in extracting them from their sheaths. The family, therefore, emerges in a body and settles on a sprig hard by.

This is a temporary camping-ground, where, spinning in unison, the youngsters soon weave an open-work tent, the abode of a week, or thereabouts. The moult is effected in this lounge of intersecting threads. The sloughed skins form a heap at the bottom of the dwelling; on the trapezes above, the flaylings take exercise and gain strength and vigour. Finally, when maturity is attained, they set out, now these, now those, little by little and always cautiously. There are no audacious flights on the thready airship; the journey is accomplished by modest stages.

Hanging to her thread, the Spider lets herself drop straight down, to a depth of nine or ten inches. A breath of air sets her swinging like a pendulum, sometimes drives her against a neighbouring branch. This is a step towards the dispersal. At the point reached, there is a fresh fall, followed by a fresh pendulous swing that lands her a little farther afield. Thus, in short tacks, for the thread is never very long, does the Spiderling go about, seeing the country, until she comes to a place that suits her. Should the wind blow at all hard, the voyage is cut short: the cable of the pendulum breaks and the beastie is carried for some distance on its cord.

To sum up, although, on the whole, the tactics of the exodus remain much the same, the two spinstresses of my region best-versed in the art of weaving mothers' wallets failed to come up to my expectations. I went to the trouble of rearing them, with disappointing results. Where shall I find again the wonderful spectacle which the Cross Spider offered me by chance? I shall find it—in an even more striking fashion—among humbler Spiders, whom I had neglected to observe.


The Spider that showed me the exodus in all its magnificence is known officially as Thomisus onustus, WALCK. Though the name suggest nothing to the reader's mind, it has the advantage, at any rate, of hurting neither the throat nor the ear, as is too often the case with scientific nomenclature, which sounds more like sneezing than articulate speech. Since it is the rule to dignify plants and animals with a Latin label, let us at least respect the euphony of the classics and refrain from harsh splutters which spit out a name instead of pronouncing it.

What will posterity do in face of the rising tide of a barbarous vocabulary which, under the pretence of progress, stifles real knowledge? It will relegate the whole business to the quagmire of oblivion. But what will never disappear is the popular name, which sounds well, is picturesque and conveys some sort of information. Such is the term Crab Spider, applied by the ancients to the group to which the Thomisus belongs, a pretty accurate term, for, in this case, there is an evident analogy between the Spider and the Crustacean.

Like the Crab, the Thomisus walks sideways; she also has forelegs stronger than her hind-legs. The only thing wanting to complete the resemblance is the front pair of stone gauntlets, raised in the attitude of self-defence.

The Spider with the Crab-like figure does not know how to manufacture nets for catching game. Without springs or snares, she lies in ambush, among the flowers, and awaits the arrival of the quarry, which she kills by administering a scientific stab in the neck. The Thomisus, in particular, the subject of this chapter, is passionately addicted to the pursuit of the Domestic Bee. I have described the contests between the victim and her executioner, at greater length, elsewhere.

The Bee appears, seeking no quarrel, intent upon plunder. She tests the flowers with her tongue; she selects a spot that will yield a good return. Soon she is wrapped up in her harvesting. While she is filling her baskets and distending her crop, the Thomisus, that bandit lurking under cover of the flowers, issues from her hiding-place, creeps round behind the bustling insect, steals up close and, with a sudden rush, nabs her in the nape of the neck. In vain, the Bee protests and darts her sting at random; the assailant does not let go.

Besides, the bite in the neck is paralysing, because the cervical nerve- centres are affected. The poor thing's legs stiffen; and all is over in a second. The murderess now sucks the victim's blood at her ease and, when she has done, scornfully flings the drained corpse aside. She hides herself once more, ready to bleed a second gleaner should the occasion offer.

This slaughter of the Bee engaged in the hallowed delights of labour has always revolted me. Why should there be workers to feed idlers, why sweated to keep sweaters in luxury? Why should so many admirable lives be sacrificed to the greater prosperity of brigandage? These hateful discords amid the general harmony perplex the thinker, all the more as we shall see the cruel vampire become a model of devotion where her family is concerned.

The ogre loved his children; he ate the children of others. Under the tyranny of the stomach, we are all of us, beasts and men alike, ogres. The dignity of labour, the joy of life, maternal affection, the terrors of death: all these do not count, in others; the main point is that morsel the be tender and savoury.

According to the etymology of her name—[Greek text], a cord—the Thomisus should be like the ancient lictor, who bound the sufferer to the stake. The comparison is not inappropriate as regards many Spiders who tie their prey with a thread to subdue it and consume it at their ease; but it just happens that the Thomisus is at variance with her label. She does not fasten her Bee, who, dying suddenly of a bite in the neck, offers no resistance to her consumer. Carried away by his recollection of the regular tactics, our Spider's godfather overlooked the exception; he did not know of the perfidious mode of attack which renders the use of a bow-string superfluous.

Nor is the second name of onustus—loaded, burdened, freighted—any too happily chosen. The fact that the Bee-huntress carries a heavy paunch is no reason to refer to this as a distinctive characteristic. Nearly all Spiders have a voluminous belly, a silk-warehouse where, in some cases, the rigging of the net, in others, the swan's-down of the nest is manufactured. The Thomisus, a first-class nest-builder, does like the rest: she hoards in her abdomen, but without undue display of obesity, the wherewithal to house her family snugly.

Can the expression onustus refer simply to her slow and sidelong walk? The explanation appeals to me, without satisfying me fully. Except in the case of a sudden alarm, every Spider maintains a sober gait and a wary pace. When all is said, the scientific term is composed of a misconception and a worthless epithet. How difficult it is to name animals rationally! Let us be indulgent to the nomenclator: the dictionary is becoming exhausted and the constant flood that requires cataloguing mounts incessantly, wearing out our combinations of syllables.

As the technical name tells the reader nothing, how shall he be informed? I see but one means, which is to invite him to the May festivals, in the waste-lands of the South. The murderess of the Bees is of a chilly constitution; in our parts, she hardly ever moves away from the olive- districts. Her favourite shrub is the white-leaved rock-rose (Cistus albidus), with the large, pink, crumpled, ephemeral blooms that last but a morning and are replaced, next day, by fresh flowers, which have blossomed in the cool dawn. This glorious efflorescence goes on for five or six weeks.

Here, the Bees plunder enthusiastically, fussing and bustling in the spacious whorl of the stamens, which beflour them with yellow. Their persecutrix knows of this affluence. She posts herself in her watch-house, under the rosy screen of a petal. Cast your eyes over the flower, more or less everywhere. If you see a Bee lying lifeless, with legs and tongue out-stretched, draw nearer: the Thomisus will be there, nine times out of ten. The thug has struck her blow; she is draining the blood of the departed.

After all, this cutter of Bees' throats is a pretty, a very pretty creature, despite her unwieldy paunch fashioned like a squat pyramid and embossed on the base, on either side, with a pimple shaped like a camel's hump. The skin, more pleasing to the eye than any satin, is milk-white in some, in others lemon-yellow. There are fine ladies among them who adorn their legs with a number of pink bracelets and their back with carmine arabesques. A narrow pale-green ribbon sometimes edges the right and left of the breast. It is not so rich as the costume of the Banded Epeira, but much more elegant because of its soberness, its daintiness and the artful blending of its hues. Novice fingers, which shrink from touching any other Spider, allow themselves to be enticed by these attractions; they do not fear to handle the beauteous Thomisus, so gentle in appearance.

Well, what can this gem among Spiders do? In the first place, she makes a nest worthy of its architect. With twigs and horse-hair and bits of wool, the Goldfinch, the Chaffinch and other masters of the builder's art construct an aerial bower in the fork of the branches. Herself a lover of high places, the Thomisus selects as the site of her nest one of the upper twigs of the rock-rose, her regular hunting-ground, a twig withered by the heat and possessing a few dead leaves, which curl into a little cottage. This is where she settles with a view to her eggs.

Ascending and descending with a gentle swing in more or less every direction, the living shuttle, swollen with silk, weaves a bag whose outer casing becomes one with the dry leaves around. The work, which is partly visible and partly hidden by its supports, is a pure dead-white. Its shape, moulded in the angular interval between the bent leaves, is that of a cone and reminds us, on a smaller scale, of the nest of the Silky Epeira.

When the eggs are laid, the mouth of the receptacle is hermetically closed with a lid of the same white silk. Lastly, a few threads, stretched like a thin curtain, form a canopy above the nest and, with the curved tips of the leaves, frame a sort of alcove wherein the mother takes up her abode.

It is more than a place of rest after the fatigues of her confinement: it is a guard-room, an inspection-post where the mother remains sprawling until the youngsters' exodus. Greatly emaciated by the laying of her eggs and by her expenditure of silk, she lives only for the protection of her nest.

Should some vagrant pass near by, she hurries from her watch-tower, lifts a limb and puts the intruder to flight. If I tease her with a straw, she parries with big gestures, like those of a prize-fighter. She uses her fists against my weapon. When I propose to dislodge her in view of certain experiments, I find some difficulty in doing so. She clings to the silken floor, she frustrates my attacks, which I am bound to moderate lest I should injure her. She is no sooner attracted outside than she stubbornly returns to her post. She declines to leave her treasure.

Even so does the Narbonne Lycosa struggle when we try to take away her pill. Each displays the same pluck and the same devotion; and also the same denseness in distinguishing her property from that of others. The Lycosa accepts without hesitation any strange pill which she is, given in exchange for her own; she confuses alien produce with the produce of her ovaries and her silk-factory. Those hallowed words, maternal love, were out of place here: it is an impetuous, an almost mechanical impulse, wherein real affection plays no part whatever. The beautiful Spider of the rock-roses is no more generously endowed. When moved from her nest to another of the same kind, she settles upon it and never stirs from it, even though the different arrangement of the leafy fence be such as to warn her that she is not really at home. Provided that she have satin under her feet, she does not notice her mistake; she watches over another's nest with the same vigilance which she might show in watching over her own.

The Lycosa surpasses her in maternal blindness. She fastens to her spinnerets and dangles, by way of a bag of eggs, a ball of cork polished with my file, a paper pellet, a little ball of thread. In order to discover if the Thomisus is capable of a similar error, I gathered some broken pieces of silk-worm's cocoon into a closed cone, turning the fragments so as to bring the smoother and more delicate inner surface outside. My attempt was unsuccessful. When removed from her home and placed on the artificial wallet, the mother Thomisus obstinately refused to settle there. Can she be more clear-sighted than the Lycosa? Perhaps so. Let us not be too extravagant with our praise, however; the imitation of the bag was a very clumsy one.

The work of laying is finished by the end of May, after which, lying flat on the ceiling of her nest, the mother never leaves her guard-room, either by night or day. Seeing her look so thin and wrinkled, I imagine that I can please her by bringing her a provision of Bees, as I was wont to do. I have misjudged her needs. The Bee, hitherto her favourite dish, tempts her no longer. In vain does the prey buzz close by, an easy capture within the cage: the watcher does not shift from her post, takes no notice of the windfall. She lives exclusively upon maternal devotion, a commendable but unsubstantial fare. And so I see her pining away from day to day, becoming more and more wrinkled. What is the withered thing waiting for, before expiring? She is waiting for her children to emerge; the dying creature is still of use to them.

When the Banded Epeira's little ones issue from their balloon, they have long been orphans. There is none to come to their assistance; and they have not the strength to free themselves unaided. The balloon has to split automatically and to scatter the youngsters and their flossy mattress all mixed up together. The Thomisus' wallet, sheathed in leaves over the greater part of its surface, never bursts; nor does the lid rise, so carefully is it sealed down. Nevertheless, after the delivery of the brood, we see, at the edge of the lid, a small, gaping hole, an exit-window. Who contrived this window, which was not there at first?

The fabric is too thick and tough to have yielded to the twitches of the feeble little prisoners. It was the mother, therefore, who, feeling her offspring shuffle impatiently under the silken ceiling, herself made a hole in the bag. She persists in living for five or six weeks, despite her shattered health, so as to give a last helping hand and open the door for her family. After performing this duty, she gently lets herself die, hugging her nest and turning into a shrivelled relic.

When July comes, the little ones emerge. In view of their acrobatic habits, I have placed a bundle of slender twigs at the top of the cage in which they were born. All of them pass through the wire gauze and form a group on the summit of the brushwood, where they swiftly weave a spacious lounge of criss-cross threads. Here they remain, pretty quietly, for a day or two; then foot-bridges begin to be flung from one object to the next. This is the opportune moment.

I put the bunch laden with beasties on a small table, in the shade, before the open window. Soon, the exodus commences, but slowly and unsteadily. There are hesitations, retrogressions, perpendicular falls at the end of a thread, ascents that bring the hanging Spider up again. In short much ado for a poor result.

As matters continue to drag, it occurs to me, at eleven o'clock, to take the bundle of brushwood swarming with the little Spiders, all eager to be off, and place it on the window-sill, in the glare of the sun. After a few minutes of heat and light, the scene assumes a very different aspect. The emigrants run to the top of the twigs, bustle about actively. It becomes a bewildering rope-yard, where thousands of legs are drawing the hemp from the spinnerets. I do not see the ropes manufactured and sent floating at the mercy of the air; but I guess their presence.

Three or four Spiders start at a time, each going her own way in directions independent of her neighbours'. All are moving upwards, all are climbing some support, as can be perceived by the nimble motion of their legs. Moreover, the road is visible behind the climber, it is of double thickness, thanks to an added thread. Then, at a certain height, individual movement ceases. The tiny animal soars in space and shines, lit up by the sun. Softly it sways, then suddenly takes flight.

What has happened? There is a slight breeze outside. The floating cable has snapped and the creature has gone off, borne on its parachute. I see it drifting away, showing, like a spot of light, against the dark foliage of the near cypresses, some forty feet distant. It rises higher, it crosses over the cypress-screen, it disappears. Others follow, some higher, some lower, hither and thither.

But the throng has finished its preparations; the hour has come to disperse in swarms. We now see, from the crest of the brushwood, a continuous spray of starters, who shoot up like microscopic projectiles and mount in a spreading cluster. In the end, it is like the bouquet at the finish of a pyrotechnic display, the sheaf of rockets fired simultaneously. The comparison is correct down to the dazzling light itself. Flaming in the sun like so many gleaming points, the little Spiders are the sparks of that living firework. What a glorious send- off! What an entrance into the world! Clutching its aeronautic thread, the minute creature mounts in an apotheosis.

Sooner or later, nearer or farther, the fall comes. To live, we have to descend, often very low, alas! The Crested Lark crumbles the mule-droppings in the road and thus picks up his food, the oaten grain which he would never find by soaring in the sky, his throat swollen with song. We have to descend; the stomach's inexorable claims demand it. The Spiderling, therefore, touches land. Gravity, tempered by the parachute, is kind to her.

The rest of her story escapes me. What infinitely tiny Midges does she capture before possessing the strength to stab her Bee? What are the methods, what the wiles of atom contending with atom? I know not. We shall find her again in spring, grown quite large and crouching among the flowers whence the Bee takes toll.


The fowling-snare is one of man's ingenious villainies. With lines, pegs and poles, two large, earth-coloured nets are stretched upon the ground, one to the right, the other to the left of a bare surface. A long cord, pulled, at the right moment, by the fowler, who hides in a brushwood hut, works them and brings them together suddenly, like a pair of shutters.

Divided between the two nets are the cages of the decoy-birds—Linnets and Chaffinches, Greenfinches and Yellowhammers, Buntings and Ortolans—sharp-eared creatures which, on perceiving the distant passage of a flock of their own kind, forthwith utter a short calling note. One of them, the Sambe, an irresistible tempter, hops about and flaps his wings in apparent freedom. A bit of twine fastens him to his convict's stake. When, worn with fatigue and driven desperate by his vain attempts to get away, the sufferer lies down flat and refuses to do his duty, the fowler is able to stimulate him without stirring from his hut. A long string sets in motion a little lever working on a pivot. Raised from the ground by this diabolical contrivance, the bird flies, falls down and flies up again at each jerk of the cord.

The fowler waits, in the mild sunlight of the autumn morning. Suddenly, great excitement in the cages. The Chaffinches chirp their rallying-cry:

'Pinck! Pinck!'

There is something happening in the sky. The Sambe, quick! They are coming, the simpletons; they swoop down upon the treacherous floor. With a rapid movement, the man in ambush pulls his string. The nets close and the whole flock is caught.

Man has wild beast's blood in his veins. The fowler hastens to the slaughter. With his thumb, he stifles the beating of the captives' hearts, staves in their skulls. The little birds, so many piteous heads of game, will go to market, strung in dozens on a wire passed through their nostrils.

For scoundrelly ingenuity the Epeira's net can bear comparison with the fowler's; it even surpasses it when, on patient study, the main features of its supreme perfection stand revealed. What refinement of art for a mess of Flies! Nowhere, in the whole animal kingdom, has the need to eat inspired a more cunning industry. If the reader will meditate upon the description that follows, he will certainly share my admiration.

First of all, we must witness the making of the net; we must see it constructed and see it again and again, for the plan of such a complex work can only be grasped in fragments. To-day, observation will give us one detail; to-morrow, it will give us a second, suggesting fresh points of view; as our visits multiply, a new fact is each time added to the sum total of the acquired data, confirming those which come before or directing our thoughts along unsuspected paths.

The snow-ball rolling over the carpet of white grows enormous, however scanty each fresh layer be. Even so with truth in observational science: it is built up of trifles patiently gathered together. And, while the collecting of these trifles means that the student of Spider industry must not be chary of his time, at least it involves no distant and speculative research. The smallest garden contains Epeirae, all accomplished weavers.

In my enclosure, which I have stocked carefully with the most famous breeds, I have six different species under observation, all of a useful size, all first-class spinners. Their names are the Banded Epeira (Epeira fasciata, WALCK.), the Silky Epeira (E. sericea, WALCK.), the Angular Epeira (E. angulata, WALCK.), the Pale-tinted Epeira (E. pallida, OLIV.), the Diadem Epeira, or Cross Spider (E. diadema, CLERK.), and the Crater Epeira (E. cratera, WALCK.).

I am able, at the proper hours, all through the fine season, to question them, to watch them at work, now this one, anon that, according to the chances of the day. What I did not see very plainly yesterday I can see the next day, under better conditions, and on any of the following days, until the phenomenon under observation is revealed in all clearness.

Let us go every evening, step by step, from one border of tall rosemaries to the next. Should things move too slowly, we will sit down at the foot of the shrubs, opposite the rope-yard, where the light falls favourably, and watch with unwearying attention. Each trip will be good for a fact that fills some gap in the ideas already gathered. To appoint one's self, in this way, an inspector of Spiders' webs, for many years in succession and for long seasons, means joining a not overcrowded profession, I admit. Heaven knows, it does not enable one to put money by! No matter: the meditative mind returns from that school fully satisfied.

To describe the separate progress of the work in the case of each of the six Epeirae mentioned would be a useless repetition: all six employ the same methods and weave similar webs, save for certain details that shall be set forth later. I will, therefore, sum up in the aggregate the particulars supplied by one or other of them.

My subjects, in the first instance, are young and boast but a slight corporation, very far removed from what it will be in the late autumn. The belly, the wallet containing the rope-works, hardly exceeds a peppercorn in bulk. This slenderness on the part of the spinstresses must not prejudice us against their work: there is no parity between their skill and their years. The adult Spiders, with their disgraceful paunches, can do no better.

Moreover, the beginners have one very precious advantage for the observer: they work by day, work even in the sun, whereas the old ones weave only at night, at unseasonable hours. The first show us the secrets of their looms without much difficulty; the others conceal them from us. Work starts in July, a couple of hours before sunset.

The spinstresses of my enclosure then leave their daytime hiding-places, select their posts and begin to spin, one here, another there. There are many of them; we can choose where we please. Let us stop in front of this one, whom we surprise in the act of laying the foundations of the structure. Without any appreciable order, she runs about the rosemary- hedge, from the tip of one branch to another within the limits of some eighteen inches. Gradually, she puts a thread in position, drawing it from her wire-mill with the combs attached to her hind-legs. This preparatory work presents no appearance of a concerted plan. The Spider comes and goes impetuously, as though at random; she goes up, comes down, goes up again, dives down again and each time strengthens the points of contact with intricate moorings distributed here and there. The result is a scanty and disordered scaffolding.

Is disordered the word? Perhaps not. The Epeira's eye, more experienced in matters of this sort than mine, has recognized the general lie of the land; and the rope-fabric has been erected accordingly: it is very inaccurate in my opinion, but very suitable for the Spider's designs. What is it that she really wants? A solid frame to contain the network of the web. The shapeless structure which she has just built fulfils the desired conditions: it marks out a flat, free and perpendicular area. This is all that is necessary.

The whole work, for that matter, is now soon completed; it is done all over again, each evening, from top to bottom, for the incidents of the chase destroy it in a night. The net is as yet too delicate to resist the desperate struggles of the captured prey. On the other hand, the adults' net, which is formed of stouter threads, is adapted to last some time; and the Epeira gives it a more carefully-constructed framework, as we shall see elsewhere.

A special thread, the foundation of the real net, is stretched across the area so capriciously circumscribed. It is distinguished from the others by its isolation, its position at a distance from any twig that might interfere with its swaying length. It never fails to have, in the middle, a thick white point, formed of a little silk cushion. This is the beacon that marks the centre of the future edifice, the post that will guide the Epeira and bring order into the wilderness of twists and turns.

The time has come to weave the hunting-snare. The Spider starts from the centre, which bears the white signpost, and, running along the transversal thread, hurriedly reaches the circumference, that is to say, the irregular frame enclosing the free space. Still with the same sudden movement, she rushes from the circumference to the centre; she starts again backwards and forwards, makes for the right, the left, the top, the bottom; she hoists herself up, dives down, climbs up again, runs down and always returns to the central landmark by roads that slant in the most unexpected manner. Each time, a radius or spoke is laid, here, there, or elsewhere, in what looks like mad disorder.

The operation is so erratically conducted that it takes the most unremitting attention to follow it at all. The Spider reaches the margin of the area by one of the spokes already placed. She goes along this margin for some distance from the point at which she landed, fixes her thread to the frame and returns to the centre by the same road which she has just taken.

The thread obtained on the way in a broken line, partly on the radius and partly on the frame, is too long for the exact distance between the circumference and the central point. On returning to this point, the Spider adjusts her thread, stretches it to the correct length, fixes it and collects what remains on the central signpost. In the case of each radius laid, the surplus is treated in the same fashion, so that the signpost continues to increase in size. It was first a speck; it is now a little pellet, or even a small cushion of a certain breadth.

We shall see presently what becomes of this cushion whereon the Spider, that niggardly housewife, lays her saved-up bits of thread; for the moment, we will note that the Epeira works it up with her legs after placing each spoke, teazles it with her claws, mats it into felt with noteworthy diligence. In so doing, she gives the spokes a solid common support, something like the hub of our carriage-wheels.

The eventual regularity of the work suggests that the radii are spun in the same order in which they figure in the web, each following immediately upon its next neighbour. Matters pass in another manner, which at first looks like disorder, but which is really a judicious contrivance. After setting a few spokes in one direction, the Epeira runs across to the other side to draw some in the opposite direction. These sudden changes of course are highly logical; they show us how proficient the Spider is in the mechanics of rope-construction. Were they to succeed one another regularly, the spokes of one group, having nothing as yet to counteract them, would distort the work by their straining, would even destroy it for lack of a stabler support. Before continuing, it is necessary to lay a converse group which will maintain the whole by its resistance. Any combination of forces acting in one direction must be forthwith neutralized by another in the opposite direction. This is what our statics teach us and what the Spider puts into practice; she is a past mistress of the secrets of rope-building, without serving an apprenticeship.

One would think that this interrupted and apparently disordered labour must result in a confused piece of work. Wrong: the rays are equidistant and form a beautifully-regular orb. Their number is a characteristic mark of the different species. The Angular Epeira places 21 in her web, the Banded Epeira 32, the Silky Epeira 42. These numbers are not absolutely fixed; but the variation is very slight.

Now which of us would undertake, off-hand, without much preliminary experiment and without measuring-instruments, to divide a circle into a given quantity of sectors of equal width? The Epeirae, though weighted with a wallet and tottering on threads shaken by the wind, effect the delicate division without stopping to think. They achieve it by a method which seems mad according to our notions of geometry. Out of disorder they evolve order.

We must not, however, give them more than their due. The angles are only approximately equal; they satisfy the demands of the eye, but cannot stand the test of strict measurement. Mathematical precision would be superfluous here. No matter, we are amazed at the result obtained. How does the Epeira come to succeed with her difficult problem, so strangely managed? I am still asking myself the question.

The laying of the radii is finished. The Spider takes her place in the centre, on the little cushion formed of the inaugural signpost and the bits of thread left over. Stationed on this support, she slowly turns round and round. She is engaged on a delicate piece of work. With an extremely thin thread, she describes from spoke to spoke, starting from the centre, a spiral line with very close coils. The central space thus worked attains, in the adults' webs, the dimensions of the palm of one's hand; in the younger Spiders' webs, it is much smaller, but it is never absent. For reasons which I will explain in the course of this study, I shall call it, in future, the 'resting-floor.'

The thread now becomes thicker. The first could hardly be seen; the second is plainly visible. The Spider shifts her position with great slanting strides, turns a few times, moving farther and farther from the centre, fixes her line each time to the spoke which she crosses and at last comes to a stop at the lower edge of the frame. She has described a spiral with coils of rapidly-increasing width. The average distance between the coils, even in the structures of the young Epeirae, is one centimetre. {29}

Let us not be misled by the word 'spiral,' which conveys the notion of a curved line. All curves are banished from the Spiders' work; nothing is used but the straight line and its combinations. All that is aimed at is a polygonal line drawn in a curve as geometry understands it. To this polygonal line, a work destined to disappear as the real toils are woven, I will give the name of the 'auxiliary spiral.' Its object is to supply cross-bars, supporting rungs, especially in the outer zone, where the radii are too distant from one another to afford a suitable groundwork. Its object is also to guide the Epeira in the extremely delicate business which she is now about to undertake.

But, before that, one last task becomes essential. The area occupied by the spokes is very irregular, being marked out by the supports of the branch, which are infinitely variable. There are angular niches which, if skirted too closely, would disturb the symmetry of the web about to be constructed. The Epeira needs an exact space wherein gradually to lay her spiral thread. Moreover, she must not leave any gaps through which her prey might find an outlet.

An expert in these matters, the Spider soon knows the corners that have to be filled up. With an alternating movement, first in this direction, then in that, she lays, upon the support of the radii, a thread that forms two acute angles at the lateral boundaries of the faulty part and describes a zigzag line not wholly unlike the ornament known as the fret.

The sharp corners have now been filled with frets on every side; the time has come to work at the essential part, the snaring-web for which all the rest is but a support. Clinging on the one hand to the radii, on the other to the chords of the auxiliary spiral, the Epeira covers the same ground as when laying the spiral, but in the opposite direction: formerly, she moved away from the centre; now she moves towards it and with closer and more numerous circles. She starts from the base of the auxiliary spiral, near the frame.

What follows is difficult to observe, for the movements are very quick and spasmodic, consisting of a series of sudden little rushes, sways and bends that bewilder the eye. It needs continuous attention and repeated examination to distinguish the progress of the work however slightly.

The two hind-legs, the weaving implements, keep going constantly. Let us name them according to their position on the work-floor. I call the leg that faces the centre of the coil, when the animal moves, the 'inner leg;' the one outside the coil the 'outer leg.'

The latter draws the thread from the spinneret and passes it to the inner leg, which, with a graceful movement, lays it on the radius crossed. At the same time, the first leg measures the distance; it grips the last coil placed in position and brings within a suitable range that point of the radius whereto the thread is to be fixed. As soon as the radius is touched, the thread sticks to it by its own glue. There are no slow operations, no knots: the fixing is done of itself.

Meanwhile, turning by narrow degrees, the spinstress approaches the auxiliary chords that have just served as her support. When, in the end, these chords become too close, they will have to go; they would impair the symmetry of the work. The Spider, therefore, clutches and holds on to the rungs of a higher row; she picks up, one by one, as she goes along, those which are of no more use to her and gathers them into a fine- spun ball at the contact-point of the next spoke. Hence arises a series of silky atoms marking the course of the disappearing spiral.

The light has to fall favourably for us to perceive these specks, the only remains of the ruined auxiliary thread. One would take them for grains of dust, if the faultless regularity of their distribution did not remind us of the vanished spiral. They continue, still visible, until the final collapse of the net.

And the Spider, without a stop of any kind, turns and turns and turns, drawing nearer to the centre and repeating the operation of fixing her thread at each spoke which she crosses. A good half-hour, an hour even among the full-grown Spiders, is spent on spiral circles, to the number of about fifty for the web of the Silky Epeira and thirty for those of the Banded and the Angular Epeira.

At last, at some distance from the centre, on the borders of what I have called the resting-floor, the Spider abruptly terminates her spiral when the space would still allow of a certain number of turns. We shall see the reason of this sudden stop presently. Next, the Epeira, no matter which, young or old, hurriedly flings herself upon the little central cushion, pulls it out and rolls it into a ball which I expected to see thrown away. But no: her thrifty nature does not permit this waste. She eats the cushion, at first an inaugural landmark, then a heap of bits of thread; she once more melts in the digestive crucible what is no doubt intended to be restored to the silken treasury. It is a tough mouthful, difficult for the stomach to elaborate; still, it is precious and must not be lost. The work finishes with the swallowing. Then and there, the Spider instals herself, head downwards, at her hunting-post in the centre of the web.

The operation which we have just seen gives rise to a reflection. Men are born right-handed. Thanks to a lack of symmetry that has never been explained, our right side is stronger and readier in its movements than our left. The inequality is especially noticeable in the two hands. Our language expresses this supremacy of the favoured side in the terms dexterity, adroitness and address, all of which allude to the right hand.

Is the animal, on its side, right-handed, left-handed, or unbiased? We have had opportunities of showing that the Cricket, the Grasshopper and many others draw their bow, which is on the right wing-case, over the sounding apparatus, which is on the left wing-case. They are right-handed.

When you and I take an unpremeditated turn, we spin round on our right heel. The left side, the weaker, moves on the pivot of the right, the stronger. In the same way, nearly all the Molluscs that have spiral shells roll their coils from left to right. Among the numerous species in both land and water fauna, only a very few are exceptional and turn from right to left.

It would be interesting to try and work out to what extent that part of the zoological kingdom which boasts a two-sided structure is divided into right-handed and left-handed animals. Can dissymetry, that source of contrasts, be a general rule? Or are there neutrals, endowed with equal powers of skill and energy on both sides? Yes, there are; and the Spider is one of them. She enjoys the very enviable privilege of possessing a left side which is no less capable than the right. She is ambidextrous, as witness the following observations.

When laying her snaring-thread, every Epeira turns in either direction indifferently, as a close watch will prove. Reasons whose secret escapes us determine the direction adopted. Once this or the other course is taken, the spinstress does not change it, even after incidents that sometimes occur to disturb the progress of the work. It may happen that a Gnat gets caught in the part already woven. The Spider thereupon abruptly interrupts her labours, hastens up to the prey, binds it and then returns to where she stopped and continues the spiral in the same order as before.

At the commencement of the work, gyration in one direction being employed as well as gyration in the other, we see that, when making her repeated webs, the same Epeira turns now her right side, now her left to the centre of the coil. Well, as we have said, it is always with the inner hind-leg, the leg nearer the centre, that is to say, in some cases the right and in some cases the left leg, that she places the thread in position, an exceedingly delicate operation calling for the display of exquisite skill, because of the quickness of the action and the need for preserving strictly equal distances. Any one seeing this leg working with such extreme precision, the right leg to-day, the left to-morrow, becomes convinced that the Epeira is highly ambidextrous.


Age does not modify the Epeira's talent in any essential feature. As the young worked, so do the old, the richer by a year's experience. There are no masters nor apprentices in their guild; all know their craft from the moment that the first thread is laid. We have learnt something from the novices: let us now look into the matter of their elders and see what additional task the needs of age impose upon them.

July comes and gives me exactly what I wish for. While the new inhabitants are twisting their ropes on the rosemaries in the enclosure, one evening, by the last gleams of twilight, I discover a splendid Spider, with a mighty belly, just outside my door. This one is a matron; she dates back to last year; her majestic corpulence, so exceptional at this season, proclaims the fact. I know her for the Angular Epeira (Epeira angulata, WALCK.), clad in grey and girdled with two dark stripes that meet in a point at the back. The base of her abdomen swells into a short nipple on either side.

This neighbour will certainly serve my turn, provided that she do not work too late at night. Things bode well: I catch the buxom one in the act of laying her first threads. At this rate my success need not be won at the expense of sleep. And, in fact, I am able, throughout the month of July and the greater part of August, from eight to ten o'clock in the evening, to watch the construction of the web, which is more or less ruined nightly by the incidents of the chase and built up again, next day, when too seriously dilapidated.

During the two stifling months, when the light fails and a spell of coolness follows upon the furnace-heat of the day, it is easy for me, lantern in hand, to watch my neighbour's various operations. She has taken up her abode, at a convenient height for observation, between a row of cypress-trees and a clump of laurels, near the entrance to an alley haunted by Moths. The spot appears well-chosen, for the Epeira does not change it throughout the season, though she renews her net almost every night.

Punctually as darkness falls, our whole family goes and calls upon her. Big and little, we stand amazed at her wealth of belly and her exuberant somersaults in the maze of quivering ropes; we admire the faultless geometry of the net as it gradually takes shape. All agleam in the lantern-light, the work becomes a fairy orb, which seems woven of moonbeams.

Should I linger, in my anxiety to clear up certain details, the household, which by this time is in bed, waits for my return before going to sleep:

'What has she been doing this evening?' I am asked. 'Has she finished her web? Has she caught a Moth?'

I describe what has happened. To-morrow, they will be in a less hurry to go to bed: they will want to see everything, to the very end. What delightful, simple evenings we have spent looking into the Spider's workshop!

The journal of the Angular Epeira, written up day by day, teaches us, first of all, how she obtains the ropes that form the framework of the building. All day invisible, crouching amid the cypress-leaves, the Spider, at about eight o'clock in the evening, solemnly emerges from her retreat and makes for the top of a branch. In this exalted position, she sits for some time laying her plans with due regard to the locality; she consults the weather, ascertains if the night will be fine. Then, suddenly, with her eight legs wide-spread, she lets herself drop straight down, hanging to the line that issues from her spinnerets. Just as the rope-maker obtains the even output of his hemp by walking backwards, so does the Epeira obtain the discharge of hers by falling. It is extracted by the weight of her body.

The descent, however, has not the brute speed which the force of gravity would give it, if uncontrolled. It is governed by the action of the spinnerets, which contract or expand their pores, or close them entirely, at the faller's pleasure. And so, with gentle moderation she pays out this living plumb-line, of which my lantern clearly shows me the plumb, but not always the line. The great squab seems at such times to be sprawling in space, without the least support.

She comes to an abrupt stop two inches from the ground; the silk-reel ceases working. The Spider turns round, clutches the line which she has just obtained and climbs up by this road, still spinning. But, this time, as she is no longer assisted by the force of gravity, the thread is extracted in another manner. The two hind-legs, with a quick alternate action, draw it from the wallet and let it go.

On returning to her starting-point, at a height of six feet or more, the Spider is now in possession of a double line, bent into a loop and floating loosely in a current of air. She fixes her end where it suits her and waits until the other end, wafted by the wind, has fastened its loop to the adjacent twigs.

The desired result may be very slow in coming. It does not tire the unfailing patience of the Epeira, but it soon wears out mine. And it has happened to me sometimes to collaborate with the Spider. I pick up the floating loop with a straw and lay it on a branch, at a convenient height. The foot-bridge erected with my assistance is considered satisfactory, just as though the wind had placed it. I count this collaboration among the good actions standing to my credit.

Feeling her thread fixed, the Epeira runs along it repeatedly, from end to end, adding a fibre to it on each journey. Whether I help or not, this forms the 'suspension-cable,' the main piece of the framework. I call it a cable, in spite of its extreme thinness, because of its structure. It looks as though it were single, but, at the two ends, it is seen to divide and spread, tuft-wise, into numerous constituent parts, which are the product of as many crossings. These diverging fibres, with their several contact-points, increase the steadiness of the two extremities.

The suspension-cable is incomparably stronger than the rest of the work and lasts for an indefinite time. The web is generally shattered after the night's hunting and is nearly always rewoven on the following evening. After the removal of the wreckage, it is made all over again, on the same site, cleared of everything except the cable from which the new network is to hang.

The laying of this cable is a somewhat difficult matter, because the success of the enterprise does not depend upon the animal's industry alone. It has to wait until a breeze carries the line to the pier-head in the bushes. Sometimes, a calm prevails; sometimes, the thread catches at an unsuitable point. This involves great expenditure of time, with no certainty of success. And so, when once the suspension-cable is in being, well and solidly placed, the Epeira does not change it, except on critical occasions. Every evening, she passes and repasses over it, strengthening it with fresh threads.

When the Epeira cannot manage a fall of sufficient depth to give her the double line with its loop to be fixed at a distance, she employs another method. She lets herself down and then climbs up again, as we have already seen; but, this time, the thread ends suddenly in a filmy hair- pencil, a tuft, whose parts remain disjoined, just as they come from the spinneret's rose. Then this sort of bushy fox's brush is cut short, as though with a pair of scissors, and the whole thread, when unfurled, doubles its length, which is now enough for the purpose. It is fastened by the end joined to the Spider; the other floats in the air, with its spreading tuft, which easily tangles in the bushes. Even so must the Banded Epeira go to work when she throws her daring suspension-bridge across a stream.

Once the cable is laid, in this way or in that, the Spider is in possession of a base that allows her to approach or withdraw from the leafy piers at will. From the height of the cable, the upper boundary of the projected works, she lets herself slip to a slight depth, varying the points of her fall. She climbs up again by the line produced by her descent. The result of the operation is a double thread which is unwound while the Spider walks along her big foot-bridge to the contact-branch, where she fixes the free end of her thread more or less low down. In this way, she obtains, to right and left, a few slanting cross-bars, connecting the cable with the branches.

These cross-bars, in their turn, support others in ever-changing directions. When there are enough of them, the Epeira need no longer resort to falls in order to extract her threads; she goes from one cord to the next, always wire-drawing with her hind-legs and placing her produce in position as she goes. This results in a combination of straight lines owning no order, save that they are kept in one, nearly perpendicular plane. They mark a very irregular polygonal area, wherein the web, itself a work of magnificent regularity, shall presently be woven.

It is unnecessary to go over the construction of the masterpiece again; the younger Spiders have taught us enough in this respect. In both cases, we see the same equidistant radii laid, with a central landmark for a guide; the same auxiliary spiral, the scaffolding of temporary rungs, soon doomed to disappear; the same snaring-spiral, with its maze of closely-woven coils. Let us pass on: other details call for our attention.

The laying of the snaring-spiral is an exceedingly delicate operation, because of the regularity of the work. I was bent upon knowing whether, if subjected to the din of unaccustomed sounds, the Spider would hesitate and blunder. Does she work imperturbably? Or does she need undisturbed quiet? As it is, I know that my presence and that of my light hardly trouble her at all. The sudden flashes emitted by my lantern have no power to distract her from her task. She continues to turn in the light even as she turned in the dark, neither faster nor slower. This is a good omen for the experiment which I have in view.

The first Sunday in August is the feast of the patron saint of the village, commemorating the Finding of St. Stephen. This is Tuesday, the third day of the rejoicings. There will be fireworks to-night, at nine o'clock, to conclude the merry-makings. They will take place on the high- road outside my door, at a few steps from the spot where my Spider is working. The spinstress is busy upon her great spiral at the very moment when the village big-wigs arrive with trumpet and drum and small boys carrying torches.

More interested in animal psychology than in pyrotechnical displays, I watch the Epeira's doings, lantern in hand. The hullabaloo of the crowd, the reports of the mortars, the crackle of Roman candles bursting in the sky, the hiss of the rockets, the rain of sparks, the sudden flashes of white, red or blue light: none of this disturbs the worker, who methodically turns and turns again, just as she does in the peace of ordinary evenings.

Once before, the gun which I fired under the plane-trees failed to trouble the concert of the Cicadae; to-day, the dazzling light of the fire-wheels and the splutter of the crackers do not avail to distract the Spider from her weaving. And, after all, what difference would it make to my neighbour if the world fell in! The village could be blown up with dynamite, without her losing her head for such a trifle. She would calmly go on with her web.

Let us return to the Spider manufacturing her net under the usual tranquil conditions. The great spiral has been finished, abruptly, on the confines of the resting-floor. The central cushion, a mat of ends of saved thread, is next pulled up and eaten. But, before indulging in this mouthful, which closes the proceedings, two Spiders, the only two of the order, the Banded and the Silky Epeira, have still to sign their work. A broad, white ribbon is laid, in a thick zigzag, from the centre to the lower edge of the orb. Sometimes, but not always, a second band of the same shape and of lesser length occupies the upper portion, opposite the first.

I like to look upon these odd flourishes as consolidating-gear. To begin with, the young Epeirae never use them. For the moment, heedless of the future and lavish of their silk, they remake their web nightly, even though it be none too much dilapidated and might well serve again. A brand-new snare at sunset is the rule with them. And there is little need for increased solidity when the work has to be done again on the morrow.

On the other hand, in the late autumn, the full-grown Spiders, feeling laying-time at hand, are driven to practise economy, in view of the great expenditure of silk required for the egg-bag. Owing to its large size, the net now becomes a costly work which it were well to use as long as possible, for fear of finding one's reserves exhausted when the time comes for the expensive construction of the nest. For this reason, or for others which escape me, the Banded and the Silky Epeirae think it wise to produce durable work and to strengthen their toils with a cross- ribbon. The other Epeirae, who are put to less expense in the fabrication of their maternal wallet—a mere pill—are unacquainted with the zigzag binder and, like the younger Spiders, reconstruct their web almost nightly.

My fat neighbour, the Angular Epeira, consulted by the light of a lantern, shall tell us how the renewal of the net proceeds. As the twilight fades, she comes down cautiously from her day-dwelling; she leaves the foliage of the cypresses for the suspension-cable of her snare. Here she stands for some time; then, descending to her web, she collects the wreckage in great armfuls. Everything—spiral, spokes and frame—is raked up with her legs. One thing alone is spared and that is the suspension-cable, the sturdy piece of work that has served as a foundation for the previous buildings and will serve for the new after receiving a few strengthening repairs.

The collected ruins form a pill which the Spider consumes with the same greed that she would show in swallowing her prey. Nothing remains. This is the second instance of the Spiders' supreme economy of their silk. We have seen them, after the manufacture of the net, eating the central guide-post, a modest mouthful; we now see them gobbling up the whole web, a meal. Refined and turned into fluid by the stomach, the materials of the old net will serve for other purposes.

As goon as the site is thoroughly cleared, the work of the frame and the net begins on the support of the suspension-cable which was respected. Would it not be simpler to restore the old web, which might serve many times yet, if a few rents were just repaired? One would say so; but does the Spider know how to patch her work, as a thrifty housewife darns her linen? That is the question.

To mend severed meshes, to replace broken threads, to adjust the new to the old, in short, to restore the original order by assembling the wreckage would be a far-reaching feat of prowess, a very fine proof of gleams of intelligence, capable of performing rational calculations. Our menders excel in this class of work. They have as their guide their sense, which measures the holes, cuts the new piece to size and fits it into its proper place. Does the Spider possess the counterpart of this habit of clear thinking?

People declare as much, without, apparently, looking into the matter very closely. They seem able to dispense with the conscientious observer's scruples, when inflating their bladder of theory. They go straight ahead; and that is enough. As for ourselves, less greatly daring, we will first enquire; we will see by experiment if the Spider really knows how to repair her work.

The Angular Epeira, that near neighbour who has already supplied me with so many documents, has just finished her web, at nine o'clock in the evening. It is a splendid night, calm and warm, favourable to the rounds of the Moths. All promises good hunting. At the moment when, after completing the great spiral, the Epeira is about to eat the central cushion and settle down upon her resting-floor, I cut the web in two, diagonally, with a pair of sharp scissors. The sagging of the spokes, deprived of their counter-agents, produces an empty space, wide enough for three fingers to pass through.

The Spider retreats to her cable and looks on without being greatly frightened. When I have done, she quietly returns. She takes her stand on one of the halves, at the spot which was the centre of the original orb; but, as her legs find no footing on one side, she soon realizes that the snare is defective. Thereupon, two threads are stretched across the breach, two threads, no more; the legs that lacked a foothold spread across them; and henceforth the Epeira moves no more, devoting her attention to the incidents of the chase.

When I saw those two threads laid, joining the edges of the rent, I began to hope that I was to witness a mending-process:

'The Spider,' said I to myself, 'will increase the number of those cross- threads from end to end of the breach; and, though the added piece may not match the rest of the work, at least it will fill the gap and the continuous sheet will be of the same use practically as the regular web.'

The reality did not answer to my expectation. The spinstress made no further endeavour all night. She hunted with her riven net, for what it was worth; for I found the web next morning in the same condition wherein I had left it on the night before. There had been no mending of any kind.

The two threads stretched across the breach even must not be taken for an attempt at repairing. Finding no foothold for her legs on one side, the Spider went to look into the state of things and, in so doing, crossed the rent. In going and returning, she left a thread, as is the custom with all the Epeirae when walking. It was not a deliberate mending, but the mere result of an uneasy change of place.

Perhaps the subject of my experiment thought it unnecessary to go to fresh trouble and expense, for the web can serve quite well as it is, after my scissor-cut: the two halves together represent the original snaring-surface. All that the Spider, seated in a central position, need do is to find the requisite support for her spread legs. The two threads stretched from side to side of the cleft supply her with this, or nearly. My mischief did not go far enough. Let us devise something better.

Next day, the web is renewed, after the old one has been swallowed. When the work is done and the Epeira seated motionless at her central post, I take a straw and, wielding it dexterously, so as to respect the resting- floor and the spokes, I pull and root up the spiral, which dangles in tatters. With its snaring-threads ruined, the net is useless; no passing Moth would allow herself to be caught. Now what does the Epeira do in the face of this disaster? Nothing at all. Motionless on her resting- floor, which I have left intact, she awaits the capture of the game; she awaits it all night in vain on her impotent web. In the morning, I find the snare as I left it. Necessity, the mother of invention, has not prompted the Spider to make a slight repair in her ruined toils.

Possibly this is asking too much of her resources. The silk-glands may be exhausted after the laying of the great spiral; and to repeat the same expenditure immediately is out of the question. I want a case wherein there could be no appeal to any such exhaustion. I obtain it, thanks to my assiduity.

While I am watching the rolling of the spiral, a head of game rushes fun tilt into the unfinished snare. The Epeira interrupts her work, hurries to the giddy-pate, swathes him and takes her fill of him where he lies. During the struggle, a section of the web has torn under the weaver's very eyes. A great gap endangers the satisfactory working of the net. What will the spider do in the presence of this grievous rent?

Now or never is the time to repair the broken threads: the accident has happened this very moment, between the animal's legs; it is certainly known and, moreover, the rope-works are in full swing. This time there is no question of the exhaustion of the silk-warehouse.

Well, under these conditions, so favourable to darning, the Epeira does no mending at all. She flings aside her prey, after taking a few sips at it, and resumes her spiral at the point where she interrupted it to attack the Moth. The torn part remains as it is. The machine-shuttle in our looms does not revert to the spoiled fabric; even so with the Spider working at her web.

And this is no case of distraction, of individual carelessness; all the large spinstresses suffer from a similar incapacity for patching. The Banded Epeira and the Silky Epeira are noteworthy in this respect. The Angular Epeira remakes her web nearly every evening; the other two reconstruct theirs only very seldom and use them even when extremely dilapidated. They go on hunting with shapeless rags. Before they bring themselves to weave a new web, the old one has to be ruined beyond recognition. Well, I have often noted the state of one of these ruins and, the next morning, I have found it as it was, or even more dilapidated. Never any repairs; never; never. I am sorry, because of the reputation which our hard-pressed theorists have given her, but the Spider is absolutely unable to mend her work. In spite of her thoughtful appearance, the Epeira is incapable of the modicum of reflexion required to insert a piece into an accidental gap.

Other Spiders are unacquainted with wide-meshed nets and weave satins wherein the threads, crossing at random, form a continuous substance. Among this number is the House Spider (Tegenaria domestica, LIN.). In the corners of our rooms, she stretches wide webs fixed by angular extensions. The best-protected nook at one side contains the owner's secret apartment. It is a silk tube, a gallery with a conical opening, whence the Spider, sheltered from the eye, watches events. The rest of the fabric, which exceeds our finest muslins in delicacy, is not, properly speaking, a hunting-implement: it is a platform whereon the Spider, attending to the affairs of her estate, goes her rounds, especially at night. The real trap consists of a confusion of lines stretched above the web.

The snare, constructed according to other rules than in the case of the Epeirae, also works differently. Here are no viscous threads, but plain toils, rendered invisible by the very number. If a Gnat rush into the perfidious entanglement, he is caught at once; and the more he struggles the more firmly is he bound. The snareling falls on the sheet-web. Tegenaria hastens up and bites him in the neck.

Having said this, let us experiment a little. In the web of the House Spider, I make a round hole, two fingers wide. The hole remains yawning all day long; but next morning it is invariably closed. An extremely thin gauze covers the breach, the dark appearance of which contrasts with the dense whiteness of the surrounding fabric. The gauze is so delicate that, to make sure of its presence, I use a straw rather than my eyes. The movement of the web, when this part is touched, proves the presence of an obstacle.

Here, the matter would appear obvious. The House Spider has mended her work during the night; she has put a patch in the torn stuff, a talent unknown to the Garden Spiders. It would be greatly to her credit, if a mere attentive study did not lead to another conclusion.

The web of the House Spider is, as we were saying, a platform for watching and exploring; it is also a sheet into which the insects caught in the overhead rigging fall. This surface, a domain subject to unlimited shocks, is never strong enough, especially as it is exposed to the additional burden of little bits of plaster loosened from the wall. The owner is constantly working at it; she adds a new layer nightly.

Every time that she issues from her tubular retreat or returns to it, she fixes the thread that hangs behind her upon the road covered. As evidence of this work, we have the direction of the surface-lines, all of which, whether straight or winding, according to the fancies that guide the Spider's path, converge upon the entrance of the tube. Each step taken, beyond a doubt, adds a filament to the web.

We have here the story of the Processionary of the Pine, {30} whose habits I have related elsewhere. When the caterpillars leave the silk pouch, to go and browse at night, and also when they enter it again, they never fail to spin a little on the surface of their nest. Each expedition adds to the thickness of the wall.

When moving this way or that upon the purse which I have split from top to bottom with my scissors, the Processionaries upholster the breach even as they upholster the untouched part, without paying more attention to it than to the rest of the wall. Caring nothing about the accident, they behave in the same way as on a non-gutted dwelling. The crevice is closed, in course of time, not intentionally, but solely by the action of the usual spinning.

We arrive at the same conclusion on the subject of the House Spider. Walking about her platform every night, she lays fresh courses without drawing a distinction between the solid and the hollow. She has not deliberately put a patch in the torn texture; she has simply gone on with her ordinary business. If it happen that the hole is eventually closed, this fortunate result is the outcome not of a special purpose, but of an unvarying method of work.

Besides, it is evident that, if the Spider really wished to mend her web, all her endeavours would be concentrated upon the rent. She would devote to it all the silk at her disposal and obtain in one sitting a piece very like the rest of the web. Instead of that, what do we find? Almost nothing: a hardly visible gauze.

The thing is obvious: the Spider did on that rent what she did every elsewhere, neither more nor less. Far from squandering silk upon it, she saved her silk so as to have enough for the whole web. The gap will be better mended, little by little, afterwards, as the sheet is strengthened all over with new layers. And this will take long. Two months later, the window—my work—still shows through and makes a dark stain against the dead-white of the fabric.

Neither weavers nor spinners, therefore, know how to repair their work. Those wonderful manufacturers of silk-stuffs lack the least glimmer of that sacred lamp, reason, which enables the stupidest of darning-women to mend the heel of an old stocking. The office of inspector of Spiders' webs would have its uses, even if it merely succeeded in ridding us of a mistaken and mischievous idea.


The spiral network of the Epeirae possesses contrivances of fearsome cunning. Let us give our attention by preference to that of the Banded Epeira or that of the Silky Epeira, both of which can be observed at early morning in all their freshness.

The thread that forms them is seen with the naked eye to differ from that of the framework and the spokes. It glitters in the sun, looks as though it were knotted and gives the impression of a chaplet of atoms. To examine it through the lens on the web itself is scarcely feasible, because of the shaking of the fabric, which trembles at the least breath. By passing a sheet of glass under the web and lifting it, I take away a few pieces of thread to study, pieces that remain fixed to the glass in parallel lines. Lens and microscope can now play their part.

The sight is perfectly astounding. Those threads, on the borderland between the visible and the invisible, are very closely twisted twine, similar to the gold cord of our officers' sword-knots. Moreover, they are hollow. The infinitely slender is a tube, a channel full of a viscous moisture resembling a strong solution of gum arabic. I can see a diaphanous trail of this moisture trickling through the broken ends. Under the pressure of the thin glass slide that covers them on the stage of the microscope, the twists lengthen out, become crinkled ribbons, traversed from end to end, through the middle, by a dark streak, which is the empty container.

The fluid contents must ooze slowly through the side of those tubular threads, rolled into twisted strings, and thus render the network sticky. It is sticky, in fact, and in such a way as to provoke surprise. I bring a fine straw flat down upon three or four rungs of a sector. However gentle the contact, adhesion is at once established. When I lift the straw, the threads come with it and stretch to twice or three times their length, like a thread of India-rubber. At last, when over-taut, they loosen without breaking and resume their original form. They lengthen by unrolling their twist, they shorten by rolling it again; lastly, they become adhesive by taking the glaze of the gummy moisture wherewith they are filled.

In short, the spiral thread is a capillary tube finer than any that our physics will ever know. It is rolled into a twist so as to possess an elasticity that allows it, without breaking, to yield to the tugs of the captured prey; it holds a supply of sticky matter in reserve in its tube, so as to renew the adhesive properties of the surface by incessant exudation, as they become impaired by exposure to the air. It is simply marvellous.

The Epeira hunts not with springs, but with lime-snares. And such lime- snares! Everything is caught in them, down to the dandelion-plume that barely brushes against them. Nevertheless, the Epeira, who is in constant touch with her web, is not caught in them. Why?

Let us first of all remember that the Spider has contrived for herself, in the middle of her trap, a floor in whose construction the sticky spiral thread plays no part. We saw how this thread stops suddenly at some distance from the centre. There is here, covering a space which, in the larger webs, is about equal to the palm of one's hand, a fabric formed of spokes and of the commencement of the auxiliary spiral, a neutral fabric in which the exploring straw finds no adhesiveness anywhere.

Here, on this central resting-floor, and here only, the Epeira takes her stand, waiting whole days for the arrival of the game. However close, however prolonged her contact with this portion of the web, she runs no risk of sticking to it, because the gummy coating is lacking, as is the twisted and tubular structure, throughout the length of the spokes and throughout the extent of the auxiliary spiral. These pieces, together with the rest of the framework, are made of plain, straight, solid thread.

But, when a victim is caught, sometimes right at the edge of the web, the Spider has to rush up quickly, to bind it and overcome its attempts to free itself. She is walking then upon her network; and I do not find that she suffers the least inconvenience. The lime-threads are not even lifted by the movements of her legs.

In my boyhood, when a troop of us would go, on Thursdays, {31} to try and catch a Goldfinch in the hemp-fields, we used, before covering the twigs with glue, to grease our fingers with a few drops of oil, lest we should get them caught in the sticky matter. Does the Epeira know the secret of fatty substances? Let us try.

I rub my exploring straw with slightly oiled paper. When applied to the spiral thread of the web, it now no longer sticks to it. The principle is discovered. I pull out the leg of a live Epeira. Brought just as it is into contact with the lime-threads, it does not stick to them any more than to the neutral cords, whether spokes or parts of the framework. We were entitled to expect this, judging by the Spider's general immunity.

But here is something that wholly alters the result. I put the leg to soak for a quarter of an hour in disulphide of carbon, the best solvent of fatty matters. I wash it carefully with a brush dipped in the same fluid. When this washing is finished, the leg sticks to the snaring-thread quite easily and adheres to it just as well as anything else would, the unoiled straw, for instance.

Did I guess aright when I judged that it was a fatty substance that preserved the Epeira from the snares of her sticky Catherine-wheel? The action of the carbon disulphide seems to say yes. Besides, there is no reason why a substance of this kind, which plays so frequent a part in animal economy, should not coat the Spider very slightly by the mere act of perspiration. We used to rub our fingers with a little oil before handling the twigs in which the Goldfinch was to be caught; even so the Epeira varnishes herself with a special sweat, to operate on any part of her web without fear of the lime-threads.

However, an unduly protracted stay on the sticky threads would have its drawbacks. In the long run, continual contact with those threads might produce a certain adhesion and inconvenience the Spider, who must preserve all her agility in order to rush upon the prey before it can release itself. For this reason, gummy threads are never used in building the post of interminable waiting.

It is only on her resting-floor that the Epeira sits, motionless and with her eight legs outspread, ready to mark the least quiver in the net. It is here, again, that she takes her meals, often long-drawn-out, when the joint is a substantial one; it is hither that, after trussing and nibbling it, she drags her prey at the end of a thread, to consume it at her ease on a non-viscous mat. As a hunting-post and refectory, the Epeira has contrived a central space, free from glue.

As for the glue itself, it is hardly possible to study its chemical properties, because the quantity is so slight. The microscope shows it trickling from the broken threads in the form of a transparent and more or less granular streak. The following experiment will tell us more about it.

With a sheet of glass passed across the web, I gather a series of lime- threads which remain fixed in parallel lines. I cover this sheet with a bell-jar standing in a depth of water. Soon, in this atmosphere saturated with humidity, the threads become enveloped in a watery sheath, which gradually increases and begins to flow. The twisted shape has by this time disappeared; and the channel of the thread reveals a chaplet of translucent orbs, that is to say, a series of extremely fine drops.

In twenty-four hours, the threads have lost their contents and are reduced to almost invisible streaks. If I then lay a drop of water on the glass, I get a sticky solution, similar to that which a particle of gum arabic might yield. The conclusion is evident: the Epeira's glue is a substance that absorbs moisture freely. In an atmosphere with a high degree of humidity, it becomes saturated and percolates by sweating through the side of the tubular threads.

These data explain certain facts relating to the work of the net. The full-grown Banded and Silky Epeirae weave at very early hours, long before dawn. Should the air turn misty, they sometimes leave that part of the task unfinished: they build the general framework, they lay the spokes, they even draw the auxiliary spiral, for all these parts are unaffected by excess of moisture; but they are very careful not to work at the lime-threads, which, if soaked by the fog, would dissolve into sticky shreds and lose their efficacy by being wetted. The net that was started will be finished to-morrow, if the atmosphere be favourable.

While the highly-absorbent character of the snaring-thread has its drawbacks, it also has compensating advantages. Both Epeirae, when hunting by day, affect those hot places, exposed to the fierce rays of the sun, wherein the Crickets delight. In the torrid heats of the dog- days, therefore, the lime-threads, but for special provisions, would be liable to dry up, to shrivel into stiff and lifeless filaments. But the very opposite happens. At the most scorching times of the day, they continue supple, elastic and more and more adhesive.

How is this brought about? By their very powers of absorption. The moisture of which the air is never deprived penetrates them slowly; it dilutes the thick contents of their tubes to the requisite degree and causes it to ooze through, as and when the earlier stickiness decreases. What bird-catcher could vie with the Garden Spider in the art of laying lime-snares? And all this industry and cunning for the capture of a Moth!

Then, too, what a passion for production! Knowing the diameter of the orb and the number of coils, we can easily calculate the total length of the sticky spiral. We find that, in one sitting, each time that she remakes her web, the Angular Epeira produces some twenty yards of gummy thread. The more skilful Silky Epeira produces thirty. Well, during two months, the Angular Epeira, my neighbour, renewed her snare nearly every evening. During that period, she manufactured something like three-quarters of a mile of this tubular thread, rolled into a tight twist and bulging with glue.

I should like an anatomist endowed with better implements than mine and with less tired eyesight to explain to us the work of the marvellous rope- yard. How is the silky matter moulded into a capillary tube? How is this tube filled with glue and tightly twisted? And how does this same wire-mill also turn out plain threads, wrought first into a framework and then into muslin and satin; next, a russet foam, such as fills the wallet of the Banded Epeira; next, the black stripes stretched in meridian curves on that same wallet? What a number of products to come from that curious factory, a Spider's belly! I behold the results, but fail to understand the working of the machine. I leave the problem to the masters of the microtome and the scalpel.


Of the six Garden Spiders that form the object of my observations, two only, the Banded and the silky Epeira, remain constantly in their webs, even under the blinding rays of a fierce sun. The others, as a rule, do not show themselves until nightfall. At some distance from the net, they have a rough and ready retreat in the brambles, an ambush made of a few leaves held together by stretched threads. It is here that, for the most part, they remain in the daytime, motionless and sunk in meditation.

But the shrill light that vexes them is the joy of the fields. At such times, the Locust hops more nimbly than ever, more gaily skims the Dragon- fly. Besides, the limy web, despite the rents suffered during the night, is still in serviceable condition. If some giddy-pate allow himself to be caught, will the Spider, at the distance whereto she has retired, be unable to take advantage of the windfall? Never fear. She arrives in a flash. How is she apprised? Let us explain the matter.

The alarm is given by the vibration of the web, much more than by the sight of the captured object. A very simple experiment will prove this. I lay upon a Banded Epeira's lime-threads a Locust that second asphyxiated with carbon disulphide. The carcass is placed in front, or behind, or at either side of the Spider, who sits moveless in the centre of the net. If the test is to be applied to a species with a daytime hiding-place amid the foliage, the dead Locust is laid on the web, more or less near the centre, no matter how.

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