The Life of the Spider
by J. Henri Fabre
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

In both cases, nothing happens at first. The Epeira remains in her motionless attitude, even when the morsel is at a short distance in front of her. She is indifferent to the presence of the game, does not seem to perceive it, so much so that she ends by wearing out my patience. Then, with a long straw, which enables me to conceal myself slightly, I set the dead insect trembling.

That is quite enough. The Banded Epeira and the Silky Epeira hasten to the central floor; the others come down from the branch; all go to the Locust, swathe him with tape, treat him, in short, as they would treat a live prey captured under normal conditions. It took the shaking of the web to decide them to attack.

Perhaps the grey colour of the Locust is not sufficiently conspicuous to attract attention by itself. Then let us try red, the brightest colour to our retina and probably also to the Spiders'. None of the game hunted by the Epeirae being clad in scarlet, I make a small bundle out of red wool, a bait of the size of a Locust. I glue it to the web.

My stratagem succeeds. As long as the parcel is stationary, the Spider is not roused; but, the moment it trembles, stirred by my straw, she runs up eagerly.

There are silly ones who just touch the thing with their legs and, without further enquiries, swathe it in silk after the manner of the usual game. They even go so far as to dig their fangs into the bait, following the rule of the preliminary poisoning. Then and then only the mistake is recognized and the tricked Spider retires and does not come back, unless it be long afterwards, when she flings the cumbersome object out of the web.

There are also clever ones. Like the others, these hasten to the red- woollen lure, which my straw insidiously keeps moving; they come from their tent among the leaves as readily as from the centre of the web; they explore it with their palpi and their legs; but, soon perceiving that the thing is valueless, they are careful not to spend their silk on useless bonds. My quivering bait does not deceive them. It is flung out after a brief inspection.

Still, the clever ones, like the silly ones, run even from a distance, from their leafy ambush. How do they know? Certainly not by sight. Before recognizing their mistake, they have to hold the object between their legs and even to nibble at it a little. They are extremely short- sighted. At a hand's-breadth's distance, the lifeless prey, unable to shake the web, remains unperceived. Besides, in many cases, the hunting takes place in the dense darkness of the night, when sight, even if it were good, would not avail.

If the eyes are insufficient guides, even close at hand, how will it be when the prey has to be spied from afar! In that case, an intelligence- apparatus for long-distance work becomes indispensable. We have no difficulty in detecting the apparatus.

Let us look attentively behind the web of any Epeira with a daytime hiding-place: we shall see a thread that starts from the centre of the network, ascends in a slanting line outside the plane of the web and ends at the ambush where the Spider lurks all day. Except at the central point, there is no connection between this thread and the rest of the work, no interweaving with the scaffolding-threads. Free of impediment, the line runs straight from the centre of the net to the ambush-tent. Its length averages twenty-two inches. The Angular Epeira, settled high up in the trees, has shown me some as long as eight or nine feet.

There is no doubt that this slanting line is a foot-bridge which allows the Spider to repair hurriedly to the web, when summoned by urgent business, and then, when her round is finished, to return to her hut. In fact, it is the road which I see her follow, in going and coming. But is that all? No; for, if the Epeira had no aim in view but a means of rapid transit between her tent and the net, the foot-bridge would be fastened to the upper edge of the web. The journey would be shorter and the slope less steep.

Why, moreover, does this line always start in the centre of the sticky network and nowhere else? Because that is the point where the spokes meet and, therefore, the common centre of vibration. Anything that moves upon the web sets it shaking. All then that is needed is a thread issuing from this central point to convey to a distance the news of a prey struggling in some part or other of the net. The slanting cord, extending outside the plane of the web, is more than a foot-bridge: it is, above all, a signalling-apparatus, a telegraph-wire.

Let us try experiment. I place a Locust on the network. Caught in the sticky toils, he plunges about. Forthwith, the Spider issues impetuously from her hut, comes down the foot-bridge, makes a rush for the Locust, wraps him up and operates on him according to rule. Soon after, she hoists him, fastened by a line to her spinneret, and drags him to her hiding-place, where a long banquet will be held. So far, nothing new: things happen as usual.

I leave the Spider to mind her own affairs for some days, before I interfere with her. I again propose to give her a Locust; but, this time, I first cut the signalling-thread with a touch of the scissors, without shaking any part of the edifice. The game is then laid on the web. Complete success: the entangled insect struggles, sets the net quivering; the Spider, on her side, does not stir, as though heedless of events.

The idea might occur to one that, in this business, the Epeira stays motionless in her cabin since she is prevented from hurrying down, because the foot-bridge is broken. Let us undeceive ourselves: for one road open to her there are a hundred, all ready to bring her to the place where her presence is now required. The network is fastened to the branches by a host of lines, all of them very easy to cross. Well, the Epeira embarks upon none of them, but remains moveless and self-absorbed.

Why? Because her telegraph, being out of order, no longer tells her of the shaking of the web. The captured prey is too far off for her to see it; she is all unwitting. A good hour passes, with the Locust still kicking, the Spider impassive, myself watching. Nevertheless, in the end, the Epeira wakes up: no longer feeling the signalling-thread, broken by my scissors, as taut as usual under her legs, she comes to look into the state of things. The web is reached, without the least difficulty, by one of the lines of the framework, the first that offers. The Locust is then perceived and forthwith enswathed, after which the signalling- thread is remade, taking the place of the one which I have broken. Along this road the Spider goes home, dragging her prey behind her.

My neighbour, the mighty Angular Epeira, with her telegraph-wire nine feet long, has even better things in store for me. One morning, I find her web, which is now deserted, almost intact, a proof that the night's hunting has not been good. The animal must be hungry. With a piece of game for a bait, I hope to bring her down from her lofty retreat.

I entangle in the web a rare morsel, a Dragon-fly, who struggles desperately and sets the whole net a-shaking. The other, up above, leaves her lurking-place amid the cypress-foliage, strides swiftly down along her telegraph-wire, comes to the Dragon-fly, trusses her and at once climbs home again by the same road, with her prize dangling at her heels by a thread. The final sacrifice will take place in the quiet of the leafy sanctuary.

A few days later, I renew my experiment under the same conditions, but, this time, I first cut the signalling-thread. In vain I select a large Dragon-fly, a very restless prisoner; in vain I exert my patience: the Spider does not come down all day. Her telegraph being broken, she receives no notice of what is happening nine feet below. The entangled morsel remains where it lies, not despised, but unknown. At nightfall, the Epeira leaves her cabin, passes over the ruins of her web, finds the Dragon-fly and eats her on the spot, after which the net is renewed.

One of the Epeirae whom I have had the opportunity of examining simplifies the system, while retaining the essential mechanism of a transmission-thread. This is the Crater Epeira (Epeira cratera, WALCK.), a species seen in spring, at which time she indulges especially in the chase of the Domestic Bee, upon the flowering rosemaries. At the leafy end of a branch, she builds a sort of silken shell, the shape and size of an acorn-cup. This is where she sits, with her paunch contained in the round cavity and her forelegs resting on the ledge, ready to leap. The lazy creature loves this position and rarely stations herself head downwards on the web, as do the others. Cosily ensconced in the hollow of her cup, she awaits the approaching game.

Her web, which is vertical, as is the rule among the Epeirae, is of a fair size and always very near the bowl wherein the Spider takes her ease. Moreover, it touches the bowl by means of an angular extension; and the angle always contains one spoke which the Epeira, seated, so to speak, in her crater, has constantly under her legs. This spoke, springing from the common focus of the vibrations from all parts of the network, is eminently fitted to keep the Spider informed of whatsoever happens. It has a double office: it forms part of the Catherine-wheel supporting the lime-threads and it warns the Epeira by its vibrations. A special thread is here superfluous.

The other snarers, on the contrary, who occupy a distant retreat by day, cannot do without a private wire that keeps them in permanent communication with the deserted web. All of them have one, in point of fact, but only when age comes, age prone to rest and to long slumbers. In their youth, the Epeirae, who are then very wide-awake, know nothing of the art of telegraphy. Besides, their web, a short-lived work whereof hardly a trace remains on the morrow, does not allow of this kind of industry. It is no use going to the expense of a signalling-apparatus for a ruined snare wherein nothing can now be caught. Only the old Spiders, meditating or dozing in their green tent, are warned from afar, by telegraph, of what takes place on the web.

To save herself from keeping a close watch that would degenerate into drudgery and to remain alive to events even when resting, with her back turned on the net, the ambushed Spider always has her foot upon the telegraph-wire. Of my observations on this subject, let me relate the following, which will be sufficient for our purpose.

An Angular Epeira, with a remarkably fine belly, has spun her web between two laurestine-shrubs, covering a width of nearly a yard. The sun beats upon the snare, which is abandoned long before dawn. The Spider is in her day manor, a resort easily discovered by following the telegraph-wire. It is a vaulted chamber of dead leaves, joined together with a few bits of silk. The refuge is deep: the Spider disappears in it entirely, all but her rounded hind-quarters, which bar the entrance to the donjon.

With her front half plunged into the back of her hut, the Epeira certainly cannot see her web. Even if she had good sight, instead of being purblind, her position could not possibly allow her to keep the prey in view. Does she give up hunting during this period, of bright sunlight? Not at all. Look again.

Wonderful! One of her hind-legs is stretched outside the leafy cabin; and the signalling-thread ends just at the tip of that leg. Whoso has not seen the Epeira in this attitude, with her hand, so to speak, on the telegraph-receiver, knows nothing of one of the most curious instances of animal cleverness. Let any game appear upon the scene; and the slumberer, forthwith aroused by means of the leg receiving the vibrations, hastens up. A Locust whom I myself lay on the web procures her this agreeable shock and what follows. If she is satisfied with her bag, I am still more satisfied with what I have learnt.

The occasion is too good not to find out, under better conditions as regards approach, what the inhabitant of the cypress-trees has already shown me. The next morning, I cut the telegraph-wire, this time as long as one's arm and held, like yesterday, by one of the hind-legs stretched outside the cabin. I then place on the web a double prey, a Dragon-fly and a Locust. The latter kicks out with his long, spurred shanks; the other flutters her wings. The web is tossed about to such an extent that a number of leaves, just beside the Epeira's nest, move, shaken by the threads of the framework affixed to them.

And this vibration, though so close at hand, does not rouse the Spider in the least, does not make her even turn round to enquire what is going on. The moment that her signalling-thread ceases to work, she knows nothing of passing events. All day long, she remains without stirring. In the evening, at eight o'clock, she sallies forth to weave the new web and at last finds the rich windfall whereof she was hitherto unaware.

One word more. The web is often shaken by the wind. The different parts of the framework, tossed and teased by the eddying air-currents, cannot fail to transmit their vibration to the signalling-thread. Nevertheless, the Spider does not quit her hut and remains indifferent to the commotion prevailing in the net. Her line, therefore, is something better than a bell-rope that pulls and communicates the impulse given: it is a telephone capable, like our own, of transmitting infinitesimal waves of sound. Clutching her telephone-wire with a toe, the Spider listens with her leg; she perceives the innermost vibrations; she distinguishes between the vibration proceeding from a prisoner and the mere shaking caused by the wind.


Notwithstanding the importance of the subject, I shall not enlarge upon the nuptials of the Epeirae, grim natures whose loves easily turn to tragedy in the mystery of the night. I have but once been present at the pairing and for this curious experience I must thank my lucky star and my fat neighbour, the Angular Epeira, whom I visit so often by lantern-light. Here you have it.

It is the first week of August, at about nine o'clock in the evening, under a perfect sky, in calm, hot weather. The Spider has not yet constructed her web and is sitting motionless on her suspension-cable. The fact that she should be slacking like this, at a time when her building-operations ought to be in full swing, naturally astonishes me. Can something unusual be afoot?

Even so. I see hastening up from the neighbouring bushes and embarking on the cable a male, a dwarf, who is coming, the whipper-snapper, to pay his respects to the portly giantess. How has he, in his distant corner, heard of the presence of the nymph ripe for marriage? Among the Spiders, these things are learnt in the silence of the night, without a summons, without a signal, none knows how.

Once, the Great Peacock, {32} apprised by the magic effluvia, used to come from miles around to visit the recluse in her bell-jar in my study. The dwarf of this evening, that other nocturnal pilgrim, crosses the intricate tangle of the branches without a mistake and makes straight for the rope-walker. He has as his guide the infallible compass that brings every Jack and his Jill together.

He climbs the slope of the suspension-cord; he advances circumspectly, step by step. He stops some distance away, irresolute. Shall he go closer? Is this the right moment? No. The other lifts a limb and the scared visitor hurries down again. Recovering from his fright, he climbs up once more, draws a little nearer. More sudden flights, followed by fresh approaches, each time nigher than before. This restless running to and fro is the declaration of the enamoured swain.

Perseverance spells success. The pair are now face to face, she motionless and grave, he all excitement. With the tip of his leg, he ventures to touch the plump wench. He has gone too far, daring youth that he is! Panic-stricken, he takes a header, hanging by his safety- line. It is only for a moment, however. Up he comes again. He has learnt, from certain symptoms, that we are at last yielding to his blandishments.

With his legs and especially with his palpi, or feelers, he teases the buxom gossip, who answers with curious skips and bounds. Gripping a thread with her front tarsi, or fingers, she turns, one after the other, a number of back somersaults, like those of an acrobat on the trapeze. Having done this, she presents the under-part of her paunch to the dwarf and allows him to fumble at it a little with his feelers. Nothing more: it is done.

The object of the expedition is attained. The whipper-snapper makes off at full speed, as though he had the Furies at his heels. If he remained, he would presumably be eaten. These exercises on the tight-rope are not repeated. I kept watch in vain on the following evenings: I never saw the fellow again.

When he is gone, the bride descends from the cable, spins her web and assumes the hunting-attitude. We must eat to have silk, we must have silk to eat and especially to weave the expensive cocoon of the family. There is therefore no rest, not even after the excitement of being married.

The Epeirae are monuments of patience in their lime-snare. With her head down and her eight legs wide-spread, the Spider occupies the centre of the web, the receiving-point of the information sent along the spokes. If anywhere, behind or before, a vibration occur, the sign of a capture, the Epeira knows about it, even without the aid of sight. She hastens up at once.

Until then, not a movement: one would think that the animal was hypnotized by her watching. At most, on the appearance of anything suspicious, she begins shaking her nest. This is her way of inspiring the intruder with awe. If I myself wish to provoke the singular alarm, I have but to tease the Epeira with a bit of straw. You cannot have a swing without an impulse of some sort. The terror-stricken Spider, who wishes to strike terror into others, has hit upon something much better. With nothing to push her, she swings with her floor of ropes. There is no effort, no visible exertion. Not a single part of the animal moves; and yet everything trembles. Violent shaking proceeds from apparent inertia. Rest causes commotion.

When calm is restored, she resumes her attitude, ceaselessly pondering the harsh problem of life:

'Shall I dine to-day, or not?'

Certain privileged beings, exempt from those anxieties, have food in abundance and need not struggle to obtain it. Such is the Gentle, who swims blissfully in the broth of the putrefying adder. Others—and, by a strange irony of fate, these are generally the most gifted—only manage to eat by dint of craft and patience.

You are of their company, O my industrious Epeirae! So that you may dine, you spend your treasures of patience nightly; and often without result. I sympathize with your woes, for I, who am as concerned as you about my daily bread, I also doggedly spread my net, the net for catching ideas, a more elusive and less substantial prize than the Moth. Let us not lose heart. The best part of life is not in the present, still less in the past; it lies in the future, the domain of hope. Let us wait.

All day long, the sky, of a uniform grey, has appeared to be brewing a storm. In spite of the threatened downpour, my neighbour, who is a shrewd weather-prophet, has come out of the cypress-tree and begun to renew her web at the regular hour. Her forecast is correct: it will be a fine night. See, the steaming-pan of the clouds splits open; and, through the apertures, the moon peeps, inquisitively. I too, lantern in hand, am peeping. A gust of wind from the north clears the realms on high; the sky becomes magnificent; perfect calm reigns below. The Moths begin their nightly rounds. Good! One is caught, a mighty fine one. The Spider will dine to-day.

What happens next, in an uncertain light, does not lend itself to accurate observation. It is better to turn to those Garden Spiders who never leave their web and who hunt mainly in the daytime. The Banded and the Silky Epeira, both of whom live on the rosemaries in the enclosure, shall show us in broad day-light the innermost details of the tragedy.

I myself place on the lime-snare a victim of my selecting. Its six legs are caught without more ado. If the insect raises one of its tarsi and pulls towards itself, the treacherous thread follows, unwinds slightly and, without letting go or breaking, yields to the captive's desperate jerks. Any limb released only tangles the others still more and is speedily recaptured by the sticky matter. There is no means of escape, except by smashing the trap with a sudden effort whereof even powerful insects are not always capable.

Warned by the shaking of the net, the Epeira hastens up; she turns round about the quarry; she inspects it at a distance, so as to ascertain the extent of the danger before attacking. The strength of the snareling will decide the plan of campaign. Let us first suppose the usual case, that of an average head of game, a Moth or Fly of some sort. Facing her prisoner, the Spider contracts her abdomen slightly and touches the insect for a moment with the end of her spinnerets; then, with her front tarsi, she sets her victim spinning. The Squirrel, in the moving cylinder of his cage, does not display a more graceful or nimbler dexterity. A cross-bar of the sticky spiral serves as an axis for the tiny machine, which turns, turns swiftly, like a spit. It is a treat to the eyes to see it revolve.

What is the object of this circular motion? See, the brief contact of the spinnerets has given a starting-point for a thread, which the Spider must now draw from her silk-warehouse and gradually roll around the captive, so as to swathe him in a winding-sheet which will overpower any effort made. It is the exact process employed in our wire-mills: a motor- driven spool revolves and, by its action, draws the wire through the narrow eyelet of a steel plate, making it of the fineness required, and, with the same movement, winds it round and round its collar.

Even so with the Epeira's work. The Spider's front tarsi are the motor; the revolving spool is the captured insect; the steel eyelet is the aperture of the spinnerets. To bind the subject with precision and dispatch nothing could be better than this inexpensive and highly-effective method.

Less frequently, a second process is employed. With a quick movement, the Spider herself turns round about the motionless insect, crossing the web first at the top and then at the bottom and gradually placing the fastenings of her line. The great elasticity of the lime-threads allows the Epeira to fling herself time after time right into the web and to pass through it without damaging the net.

Let us now suppose the case of some dangerous game: a Praying Mantis, for instance, brandishing her lethal limbs, each hooked and fitted with a double saw; an angry Hornet, darting her awful sting; a sturdy Beetle, invincible under his horny armour. These are exceptional morsels, hardly ever known to the Epeirae. Will they be accepted, if supplied by my stratagems?

They are, but not without caution. The game is seen to be perilous of approach and the Spider turns her back upon it, instead of facing it; she trains her rope-cannon upon it. Quickly, the hind-legs draw from the spinnerets something much better than single cords. The whole silk-battery works at one and the same time, firing a regular volley of ribbons and sheets, which a wide movement of the legs spreads fan-wise and flings over the entangled prisoner. Guarding against sudden starts, the Epeira casts her armfuls of bands on the front-and hind-parts, over the legs and over the wings, here, there and everywhere, extravagantly. The most fiery prey is promptly mastered under this avalanche. In vain, the Mantis tries to open her saw-toothed arm-guards; in vain, the Hornet makes play with her dagger; in vain, the Beetle stiffens his legs and arches his back: a fresh wave of threads swoops down and paralyses every effort.

These lavished, far-flung ribbons threaten to exhaust the factory; it would be much more economical to resort to the method of the spool; but, to turn the machine, the Spider would have to go up to it and work it with her leg. This is too risky; and hence the continuous spray of silk, at a safe distance. When all is used up, there is more to come.

Still, the Epeira seems concerned at this excessive outlay. When circumstances permit, she gladly returns to the mechanism of the revolving spool. I saw her practise this abrupt change of tactics on a big Beetle, with a smooth, plump body, which lent itself admirably to the rotary process. After depriving the beast of all power of movement, she went up to it and turned her corpulent victim as she would have done with a medium-sized Moth.

But with the Praying Mantis, sticking out her long legs and her spreading wings, rotation is no longer feasible. Then, until the quarry is thoroughly subdued, the spray of bandages goes on continuously, even to the point of drying up the silk-glands. A capture of this kind is ruinous. It is true that, except when I interfered, I have never seen the Spider tackle that formidable provender.

Be it feeble or strong, the game is now neatly trussed, by one of the two methods. The next move never varies. The bound insect is bitten, without persistency and without any wound that shows. The Spider next retires and allows the bite to act, which it soon does. She then returns.

If the victim be small, a Clothes-moth, for instance, it is consumed on the spot, at the place where it was captured. But, for a prize of some importance, on which she hopes to feast for many an hour, sometimes for many a day, the Spider needs a sequestered dining-room, where there is naught to fear from the stickiness of the network. Before going to it, she first makes her prey turn in the converse direction to that of the original rotation. Her object is to free the nearest spokes, which supplied pivots for the machinery. They are essential factors which it behoves her to keep intact, if need be by sacrificing a few cross-bars.

It is done; the twisted ends are put back into position. The well-trussed game is at last removed from the web and fastened on behind with a thread. The Spider then marches in front and the load is trundled across the web and hoisted to the resting-floor, which is both an inspection-post and a dining-hall. When the Spider is of a species that shuns the light and possesses a telegraph-line, she mounts to her daytime hiding-place along this line, with the game bumping against her heels.

While she is refreshing herself, let us enquire into the effects of the little bite previously administered to the silk-swathed captive. Does the Spider kill the patient with a view to avoiding unseasonable jerks, protests so disagreeable at dinner-time? Several reasons make me doubt it. In the first place, the attack is so much veiled as to have all the appearance of a mere kiss. Besides, it is made anywhere, at the first spot that offers. The expert slayers {33} employ methods of the highest precision: they give a stab in the neck, or under the throat; they wound the cervical nerve-centres, the seat of energy. The paralyzers, those accomplished anatomists, poison the motor nerve-centres, of which they know the number and position. The Epeira possesses none of this fearsome knowledge. She inserts her fangs at random, as the Bee does her sting. She does not select one spot rather than another; she bites indifferently at whatever comes within reach. This being so, her poison would have to possess unparalleled virulence to produce a corpse-like inertia no matter which the point attacked. I can scarcely believe in instantaneous death resulting from the bite, especially in the case of insects, with their highly-resistant organisms.

Besides, is it really a corpse that the Epeira wants, she who feeds on blood much more than on flesh? It were to her advantage to suck a live body, wherein the flow of the liquids, set in movement by the pulsation of the dorsal vessel, that rudimentary heart of insects, must act more freely than in a lifeless body, with its stagnant fluids. The game which the Spider means to suck dry might very well not be dead. This is easily ascertained.

I place some Locusts of different species on the webs in my menagerie, one on this, another on that. The Spider comes rushing up, binds the prey, nibbles at it gently and withdraws, waiting for the bite to take effect. I then take the insect and carefully strip it of its silken shroud. The Locust is not dead, far from it; one would even think that he had suffered no harm. I examine the released prisoner through the lens in vain; I can see no trace of a wound.

Can he be unscathed, in spite of the sort of kiss which I saw given to him just now? You would be ready to say so, judging by the furious way in which he kicks in my fingers. Nevertheless, when put on the ground, he walks awkwardly, he seems reluctant to hop. Perhaps it is a temporary trouble, caused by his terrible excitement in the web. It looks as though it would soon pass.

I lodge my Locusts in cages, with a lettuce-leaf to console them for their trials; but they will not be comforted. A day elapses, followed by a second. Not one of them touches the leaf of salad; their appetite has disappeared. Their movements become more uncertain, as though hampered by irresistible torpor. On the second day, they are dead, every one irrecoverably dead.

The Epeira, therefore, does not incontinently kill her prey with her delicate bite; she poisons it so as to produce a gradual weakness, which gives the blood-sucker ample time to drain her victim, without the least risk, before the rigor mortis stops the flow of moisture.

The meal lasts quite twenty-four hours, if the joint be large; and to the very end the butchered insect retains a remnant of life, a favourable condition for the exhausting of the juices. Once again, we see a skilful method of slaughter, very different from the tactics in use among the expert paralyzers or slayers. Here there is no display of anatomical science. Unacquainted with the patient's structure, the Spider stabs at random. The virulence of the poison does the rest.

There are, however, some very few cases in which the bite is speedily mortal. My notes speak of an Angular Epeira grappling with the largest Dragon-fly in my district (AEshna grandis, LIN.). I myself had entangled in the web this head of big game, which is not often captured by the Epeirae. The net shakes violently, seems bound to break its moorings.

The Spider rushes from her leafy villa, runs boldly up to the giantess, flings a single bundle of ropes at her and, without further precautions, grips her with her legs, tries to subdue her and then digs her fangs into the Dragon-fly's back. The bite is prolonged in such a way as to astonish me. This is not the perfunctory kiss with which I am already familiar; it is a deep, determined wound. After striking her blow, the Spider retires to a certain distance and waits for her poison to take effect.

I at once remove the Dragon-fly. She is dead, really and truly dead. Laid upon my table and left alone for twenty-four hours, she makes not the slightest movement. A prick of which my lens cannot see the marks, so sharp-pointed are the Epeira's weapons, was enough, with a little insistence, to kill the powerful animal. Proportionately, the Rattlesnake, the Horned Viper, the Trigonocephalus and other ill-famed serpents produce less paralysing effects upon their victims.

And these Epeirae, so terrible to insects, I am able to handle without any fear. My skin does not suit them. If I persuaded them to bite me, what would happen to me? Hardly anything. We have more cause to dread the sting of a nettle than the dagger which is fatal to Dragon-flies. The same virus acts differently upon this organism and that, is formidable here and quite mild there. What kills the insect may easily be harmless to us. Let us not, however, generalize too far. The Narbonne Lycosa, that other enthusiastic insect-huntress, would make us pay clearly if we attempted to take liberties with her.

It is not uninteresting to watch the Epeira at dinner. I light upon one, the Banded Epeira, at the moment, about three o'clock in the afternoon, when she has captured a Locust. Planted in the centre of the web, on her resting-floor, she attacks the venison at the joint of a haunch. There is no movement, not even of the mouth-parts, as far as I am able to discover. The mouth lingers, close-applied, at the point originally bitten. There are no intermittent mouthfuls, with the mandibles moving backwards and forwards. It is a sort of continuous kiss.

I visit my Epeira at intervals. The mouth does not change its place. I visit her for the last time at nine o'clock in the evening. Matters stand exactly as they did: after six hours' consumption, the mouth is still sucking at the lower end of the right haunch. The fluid contents of the victim are transferred to the ogress' belly, I know not how.

Next morning, the Spider is still at table. I take away her dish. Naught remains of the Locust but his skin, hardly altered in shape, but utterly drained and perforated in several places. The method, therefore, was changed during the night. To extract the non-fluent residue, the viscera and muscles, the stiff cuticle had to be tapped here, there and elsewhere, after which the tattered husk, placed bodily in the press of the mandibles, would have been chewed, rechewed and finally reduced to a pill, which the sated Spider throws up. This would have been the end of the victim, had I not taken it away before the time.

Whether she wound or kill, the Epeira bites her captive somewhere or other, no matter where. This is an excellent method on her part, because of the variety of the game that comes her way. I see her accepting with equal readiness whatever chance may send her: Butterflies and Dragon-flies, Flies and Wasps, small Dung-beetles and Locusts. If I offer her a Mantis, a Bumble-bee, an Anoxia—the equivalent of the common Cockchafer—and other dishes probably unknown to her race, she accepts all and any, large and small, thin-skinned and horny-skinned, that which goes afoot and that which takes winged flight. She is omnivorous, she preys on everything, down to her own kind, should the occasion offer.

Had she to operate according to individual structure, she would need an anatomical dictionary; and instinct is essentially unfamiliar with generalities: its knowledge is always confined to limited points. The Cerceres know their Weevils and their Buprestis-beetles absolutely; the Sphex their Grasshoppers, their Crickets and their Locusts; the Scoliae {34} their Cetonia- and Oryctes-grubs. Even so the other paralyzers. Each has her own victim and knows nothing of any of the others.

The same exclusive tastes prevail among the slayers. Let us remember, in this connection, Philanthus apivorus {35} and, especially, the Thomisus, the comely Spider who cuts Bees' throats. They understand the fatal blow, either in the neck or under the chin, a thing which the Epeira does not understand; but, just because of this talent, they are specialists. Their province is the Domestic Bee.

Animals are a little like ourselves: they excel in an art only on condition of specializing in it. The Epeira, who, being omnivorous, is obliged to generalize, abandons scientific methods and makes up for this by distilling a poison capable of producing torpor and even death, no matter what the point attacked.

Recognizing the large variety of game, we wonder how the Epeira manages not to hesitate amid those many diverse forms, how, for instance, she passes from the Locust to the Butterfly, so different in appearance. To attribute to her as a guide an extensive zoological knowledge were wildly in excess of what we may reasonably expect of her poor intelligence. The thing moves, therefore it is worth catching: this formula seems to sum up the Spider's wisdom.


A dog has found a bone. He lies in the shade, holding it between his paws, and studies it fondly. It is his sacred property, his chattel. An Epeira has woven her web. Here again is property; and owning a better title than the other. Favoured by chance and assisted by his scent, the Dog has merely had a find; he has neither worked nor paid for it. The Spider is more than a casual owner, she has created what is hers. Its substance issued from her body, its structure from her brain. If ever property was sacrosanct, hers is.

Far higher stands the work of the weaver of ideas, who tissues a book, that other Spider's web, and out of his thought makes something that shall instruct or thrill us. To protect our 'bone,' we have the police, invented for the express purpose. To protect the book, we have none but farcical means. Place a few bricks one atop the other; join them with mortar; and the law will defend your wall. Build up in writing an edifice of your thoughts; and it will be open to any one, without serious impediment, to abstract stones from it, even to take the whole, if it suit him. A rabbit-hutch is property; the work of the mind is not. If the animal has eccentric views as regards the possessions of others, we have ours as well.

'Might always has the best of the argument,' said La Fontaine, to the great scandal of the peace-lovers. The exigencies of verse, rhyme and rhythm, carried the worthy fabulist further than he intended: he meant to say that, in a fight between mastiffs and in other brute conflicts, the stronger is left master of the bone. He well knew that, as things go, success is no certificate of excellence. Others came, the notorious evil- doers of humanity, who made a law of the savage maxim that might is right.

We are the larvae with the changing skins, the ugly caterpillars of a society that is slowly, very slowly, wending its way to the triumph of right over might. When will this sublime metamorphosis be accomplished? To free ourselves from those wild-beast brutalities, must we wait for the ocean-plains of the southern hemisphere to flow to our side, changing the face of continents and renewing the glacial period of the Reindeer and the Mammoth? Perhaps, so slow is moral progress.

True, we have the bicycle, the motor-car, the dirigible airship and other marvellous means of breaking our bones; but our morality is not one rung the higher for it all. One would even say that, the farther we proceed in our conquest of matter, the more our morality recedes. The most advanced of our inventions consists in bringing men down with grapeshot and explosives with the swiftness of the reaper mowing the corn.

Would we see this might triumphant in all its beauty? Let us spend a few weeks in the Epeira's company. She is the owner of a web, her work, her most lawful property. The question at once presents itself: Does the Spider possibly recognize her fabric by certain trademarks and distinguish it from that of her fellows?

I bring about a change of webs between two neighbouring Banded Epeirae. No sooner is either placed upon the strange net than she makes for the central floor, settles herself head downwards and does not stir from it, satisfied with her neighbour's web as with her own. Neither by day nor by night does she try to shift her quarters and restore matters to their pristine state. Both Spiders think themselves in their own domain. The two pieces of work are so much alike that I almost expected this.

I then decide to effect an exchange of webs between two different species. I move the Banded Epeira to the net of the Silky Epeira and vice versa. The two webs are now dissimilar; the Silky Epeira's has a limy spiral consisting of closer and more numerous circles. What will the Spiders do, when thus put to the test of the unknown? One would think that, when one of them found meshes too wide for her under her feet, the other meshes too narrow, they would be frightened by this sudden change and decamp in terror. Not at all. Without a sign of perturbation, they remain, plant themselves in the centre and await the coming of the game, as though nothing extraordinary had happened. They do more than this. Days pass and, as long as the unfamiliar web is not wrecked to the extent of being unserviceable, they make no attempt to weave another in their own style. The Spider, therefore, is incapable of recognizing her web. She takes another's work for hers, even when it is produced by a stranger to her race.

We now come to the tragic side of this confusion. Wishing to have subjects for study within my daily reach and to save myself the trouble of casual excursions, I collect different Epeirae whom I find in the course of my walks and establish them on the shrubs in my enclosure. In this way, a rosemary-hedge, sheltered from the wind and facing the sun, is turned into a well-stocked menagerie. I take the Spiders from the paper bags wherein I had put them separately, to carry them, and place them on the leaves, with no further precaution. It is for them to make themselves at home. As a rule, they do not budge all day from the place where I put them: they wait for nightfall before seeking a suitable site whereon to weave a net.

Some among them show less patience. A little while ago, they possessed a web, between the reeds of a brook or in the holm-oak copses; and now they have none. They go off in search, to recover their property or seize on some one else's: it is all the same to them. I come upon a Banded Epeira, newly imported, making for the web of a Silky Epeira who has been my guest for some days now. The owner is at her post, in the centre of the net. She awaits the stranger with seeming impassiveness. Then suddenly they grip each other; and a desperate fight begins. The Silky Epeira is worsted. The other swathes her in bonds, drags her to the non- limy central floor and, in the calmest fashion, eats her. The dead Spider is munched for twenty-four hours and drained to the last drop, when the corpse, a wretched, crumpled ball, is at last flung aside. The web so foully conquered becomes the property of the stranger, who uses it, if it have not suffered too much in the contest.

There is here a shadow of an excuse. The two Spiders were of different species; and the struggle for life often leads to these exterminations among such as are not akin. What would happen if the two belonged to the same species? It is easily seen. I cannot rely upon spontaneous invasions, which may be rare under normal conditions, and I myself place a Banded Epeira on her kinswoman's web. A furious attack is made forthwith. Victory, after hanging for a moment in the balance, is once again decided in the stranger's favour. The vanquished party, this time a sister, is eaten without the slightest scruple. Her web becomes the property of the victor.

There it is, in all its horror, the right of might: to eat one's like and take away their goods. Man did the same in days of old: he stripped and ate his fellows. We continue to rob one another, both as nations and as individuals; but we no longer eat one another: the custom has grown obsolete since we discovered an acceptable substitute in the mutton-chop.

Let us not, however, blacken the Spider beyond her deserts. She does not live by warring on her kith and kin; she does not of her own accord attempt the conquest of another's property. It needs extraordinary circumstances to rouse her to these villainies. I take her from her web and place her on another's. From that moment, she knows no distinction between meum and tuum: the thing which the leg touches at once becomes real estate. And the intruder, if she be the stronger, ends by eating the occupier, a radical means of cutting short disputes.

Apart from disturbances similar to those provoked by myself, disturbances that are possible in the everlasting conflict of events, the Spider, jealous of her own web, seems to respect the webs of others. She never indulges in brigandage against her fellows except when dispossessed of her net, especially in the daytime, for weaving is never done by day: this work is reserved for the night. When, however, she is deprived of her livelihood and feels herself the stronger, then she attacks her neighbour, rips her open, feeds on her and takes possession of her goods. Let us make allowances and proceed.

We will now examine Spiders of more alien habits. The Banded and the Silky Epeira differ greatly in form and colouring. The first has a plump, olive-shaped belly, richly belted with white, bright-yellow and black; the second's abdomen is flat, of a silky white and pinked into festoons. Judging only by dress and figure, we should not think of closely connecting the two Spiders.

But high above shapes tower tendencies, those main characteristics which our methods of classification, so particular about minute details of form, ought to consult more widely than they do. The two dissimilar Spiders have exactly similar ways of living. Both of them prefer to hunt by day and never leave their webs; both sign their work with a zigzag flourish. Their nets are almost identical, so much so that the Banded Epeira uses the Silky Epeira's web after eating its owner. The Silky Epeira, on her side, when she is the stronger, dispossesses her belted cousin and devours her. Each is at home on the other's web, when the argument of might triumphant has ended the discussion.

Let us next take the case of the Cross Spider, a hairy beast of varying shades of reddish-brown. She has three large white spots upon her back, forming a triple-barred cross. She hunts mostly at night, shuns the sun and lives by day on the adjacent shrubs, in a shady retreat which communicates with the lime-snare by means of a telegraph-wire. Her web is very similar in structure and appearance to those of the two others. What will happen if I procure her the visit of a Banded Epeira?

The lady of the triple cross is invaded by day, in the full light of the sun, thanks to my mischievous intermediary. The web is deserted; the proprietress is in her leafy hut. The telegraph-wire performs its office; the Cross Spider hastens down, strides all round her property, beholds the danger and hurriedly returns to her hiding-place, without taking any measures against the intruder.

The latter, on her side, does not seem to be enjoying herself. Were she placed on the web of one of her sisters, or even on that of the Silky Epeira, she would have posted herself in the centre, as soon as the struggle had ended in the other's death. This time there is no struggle, for the web is deserted; nothing prevents her from taking her position in the centre, the chief strategic point; and yet she does not move from the place where I put her.

I tickle her gently with the tip of a long straw. When at home, if teased in this way, the Banded Epeira—like the others, for that matter—violently shakes the web to intimidate the aggressor. This time, nothing happens: despite my repeated enticements, the Spider does not stir a limb. It is as though she were numbed with terror. And she has reason to be: the other is watching her from her lofty loop-hole.

This is probably not the only cause of her fright. When my straw does induce her to take a few steps, I see her lift her legs with some difficulty. She tugs a bit, drags her tarsi till she almost breaks the supporting threads. It is not the progress of an agile rope-walker; it is the hesitating gait of entangled feet. Perhaps the lime-threads are stickier than in her own web. The glue is of a different quality; and her sandals are not greased to the extent which the new degree of adhesiveness would demand.

Anyhow, things remain as they are for long hours on end: the Banded Epeira motionless on the edge of the web; the other lurking in her hut; both apparently most uneasy. At sunset, the lover of darkness plucks up courage. She descends from her green tent and, without troubling about the stranger, goes straight to the centre of the web, where the telegraph- wire brings her. Panic-stricken at this apparition, the Banded Epeira releases herself with a jerk and disappears in the rosemary-thicket.

The experiment, though repeatedly renewed with different subjects, gave me no other results. Distrustful of a web dissimilar to her own, if not in structure, at least in stickiness, the bold Banded Epeira shows the white feather and refuses to attack the Cross Spider. The latter, on her side, either does not budge from her day shelter in the foliage, or else rushes back to it, after taking a hurried glance at the stranger. She here awaits the coming of the night. Under favour of the darkness, which gives her fresh courage and activity, she reappears upon the scene and puts the intruder to flight by her mere presence, aided, if need be, by a cuff or two. Injured right is the victor.

Morality is satisfied; but let us not congratulate the Spider therefore. If the invader respects the invaded, it is because very serious reasons impel her. First, she would have to contend with an adversary ensconced in a stronghold whose ambushes are unknown to the assailant. Secondly, the web, if conquered, would be inconvenient to use, because of the lime- threads, possessing a different degree of stickiness from those which she knows so well. To risk one's skin for a thing of doubtful value were twice foolish. The Spider knows this and forbears.

But let the Banded Epeira, deprived of her web, come upon that of one of her kind or of the Silky Epeira, who works her gummy twine in the same manner: then discretion is thrown to the winds; the owner is fiercely ripped open and possession taken of the property.

Might is right, says the beast; or, rather, it knows no right. The animal world is a rout of appetites, acknowledging no other rein than impotence. Mankind, alone capable of emerging from the slough of the instincts, is bringing equity into being, is creating it slowly as its conception grows clearer. Out of the sacred rushlight, so flickering as yet, but gaining strength from age to age, man will make a flaming torch that will put an end, among us, to the principles of the brutes and, one day, utterly change the face of society.


While the Epeirae, with their gorgeous net-tapestries, are incomparable weavers, many other Spiders excel in ingenious devices for filling their stomachs and leaving a lineage behind them: the two primary laws of living things. Some of them are celebrities of long-standing renown, who are mentioned in all the books.

Certain Mygales {36} inhabit a burrow, like the Narbonne Lycosa, but of a perfection unknown to the brutal Spider of the waste-lands. The Lycosa surrounds the mouth of her shaft with a simple parapet, a mere collection of tiny pebbles, sticks and silk; the others fix a movable door to theirs, a round shutter with a hinge, a groove and a set of bolts. When the Mygale comes home, the lid drops into the groove and fits so exactly that there is no possibility of distinguishing the join. If the aggressor persist and seek to raise the trap-door, the recluse pushes the bolt, that is to say, plants her claws into certain holes on the opposite side to the hinge, props herself against the wall and holds the door firmly.

Another, the Argyroneta, or Water Spider, builds herself an elegant silken diving-bell, in which she stores air. Thus supplied with the wherewithal to breathe, she awaits the coming of the game and keeps herself cool meanwhile. At times of scorching heat, hers must be a regular sybaritic abode, such as eccentric man has sometimes ventured to build under water, with mighty blocks of stone and marble. The submarine palaces of Tiberius are no more than an odious memory; the Water Spider's dainty cupola still flourishes.

If I possessed documents derived from personal observation, I should like to speak of these ingenious workers; I would gladly add a few unpublished facts to their life-history. But I must abandon the idea. The Water Spider is not found in my district. The Mygale, the expert in hinged doors, is found there, but very seldom. I saw one once, on the edge of a path skirting a copse. Opportunity, as we know, is fleeting. The observer, more than any other, is obliged to take it by the forelock. Preoccupied as I was with other researches, I but gave a glance at the magnificent subject which good fortune offered. The opportunity fled and has never returned.

Let us make up for it with trivial things of frequent encounter, a condition favourable to consecutive study. What is common is not necessarily unimportant. Give it our sustained attention and we shall discover in it merits which our former ignorance prevented us from seeing. When patiently entreated, the least of creatures adds its note to the harmonies of life.

In the fields around, traversed, in these days, with a tired step, but still vigilantly explored, I find nothing so often as the Labyrinth Spider (Agelena labyrinthica, CLERCK.). Not a hedge but shelters a few at its foot, amidst grass, in quiet, sunny nooks. In the open country and especially in hilly places laid bare by the wood-man's axe, the favourite sites are tufts of bracken, rock-rose, lavender, everlasting and rosemary cropped close by the teeth of the flocks. This is where I resort, as the isolation and kindliness of the supports lend themselves to proceedings which might not be tolerated by the unfriendly hedge.

Several times a week, in July, I go to study my Spiders on the spot, at an early hour, before the sun beats fiercely on one's neck. The children accompany me, each provided with an orange wherewith to slake the thirst that will not be slow in coming. They lend me their good eyes and supple limbs. The expedition promises to be fruitful.

We soon discover high silk buildings, betrayed at a distance by the glittering threads which the dawn has converted into dewy rosaries. The children are wonderstruck at those glorious chandeliers, so much so that they forget their oranges for a moment. Nor am I, on my part, indifferent. A splendid spectacle indeed is that of our Spider's labyrinth, heavy with the tears of the night and lit up by the first rays of the sun. Accompanied as it is by the Thrushes' symphony, this alone is worth getting up for.

Half an hour's heat; and the magic jewels disappear with the dew. Now is the moment to inspect the webs. Here is one spreading its sheet over a large cluster of rock-roses; it is the size of a handkerchief. A profusion of guy-ropes, attached to any chance projection, moor it to the brushwood. There is not a twig but supplies a contact-point. Entwined on every side, surrounded and surmounted, the bush disappears from view, veiled in white muslin.

The web is flat at the edges, as far as the unevenness of the support permits, and gradually hollows into a crater, not unlike the bell of a hunting-horn. The central portion is a cone-shaped gulf, a funnel whose neck, narrowing by degrees, dives perpendicularly into the leafy thicket to a depth of eight or nine inches.

At the entrance to the tube, in the gloom of that murderous alley, sits the Spider, who looks at us and betrays no great excitement at our presence. She is grey, modestly adorned on the thorax with two black ribbons and on the abdomen with two stripes in which white specks alternate with brown. At the tip of the belly, two small, mobile appendages form a sort of tail, a rather curious feature in a Spider.

The crater-shaped web is not of the same structure throughout. At the borders, it is a gossamer weft of sparse threads; nearer the centre, the texture becomes first fine muslin and then satin; lower still, on the narrower part of the opening, it is a network of roughly lozenged meshes. Lastly, the neck of the funnel, the usual resting-place, is formed of solid silk.

The Spider never ceases working at her carpet, which represents her investigation-platform. Every night she goes to it, walks over it, inspecting her snares, extending her domain and increasing it with new threads. The work is done with the silk constantly hanging from the spinnerets and constantly extracted as the animal moves about. The neck of the funnel, being more often walked upon than the rest of the dwelling, is therefore provided with a thicker upholstery. Beyond it are the slopes of the crater, which are also much-frequented regions. Spokes of some regularity fix the diameter of the mouth; a swaying walk and the guiding aid of the caudal appendages have laid lozengy meshes across these spokes. This part has been strengthened by the nightly rounds of inspection. Lastly come the less-visited expanses, which consequently have a thinner carpet.

At the bottom of the passage dipping into the brushwood, we might expect to find a secret cabin, a wadded cell where the Spider would take refuge in her hours of leisure. The reality is something entirely different. The long funnel-neck gapes at its lower end, where a private door stands always ajar, allowing the animal, when hard-pushed, to escape through the grass and gain the open.

It is well to know this arrangement of the home, if you wish to capture the Spider without hurting her. When attacked from the front, the fugitive runs down and slips through the postern-gate at the bottom. To look for her by rummaging in the brushwood often leads to nothing, so swift is her flight; besides, a blind search entails a great risk of maiming her. Let us eschew violence, which is but seldom successful, and resort to craft.

We catch sight of the Spider at the entrance to her tube. If practicable, squeeze the bottom of the tuft, containing the neck of the funnel, with both hands. That is enough; the animal is caught. Feeling its retreat cut off, it readily darts into the paper bag held out to it; if necessary, it can be stimulated with a bit of straw. In this way, I fill my cages with subjects that have not been demoralized by contusions.

The surface of the crater is not exactly a snare. It is just possible for the casual pedestrian to catch his legs in the silky carpets; but giddy-pates who come here for a walk must be very rare. What is wanted is a trap capable of securing the game that hops or flies. The Epeira has her treacherous limed net; the Spider of the bushes has her no less treacherous labyrinth.

Look above the web. What a forest of ropes! It might be the rigging of a ship disabled by a storm. They run from every twig of the supporting shrubs, they are fastened to the tip of every branch. There are long ropes and short ropes, upright and slanting, straight and bent, taut and slack, all criss-cross and a-tangle, to the height of three feet or so in inextricable disorder. The whole forms a chaos of netting, a labyrinth which none can pass through, unless he be endowed with wings of exceptional power.

We have here nothing similar to the lime-threads used by the Garden Spiders. The threads are not sticky; they act only by their confused multitude. Would you care to see the trap at work? Throw a small Locust into the rigging. Unable to obtain a steady foothold on that shaky support, he flounders about; and the more he struggles the more he entangles his shackles. The Spider, spying on the threshold of her abyss, lets him have his way. She does not run up the shrouds of the mast-work to seize the desperate prisoner; she waits until his bonds of threads, twisted backwards and forwards, make him fall on the web.

He falls; the other comes and flings herself upon her prostrate prey. The attack is not without danger. The Locust is demoralized rather than tied up; it is merely bits of broken thread that he is trailing from his legs. The bold assailant does not mind. Without troubling, like the Epeirae, to bury her capture under a paralysing winding-sheet, she feels it, to make sure of its quality, and then, regardless of kicks, inserts her fangs.

The bite is usually given at the lower end of a haunch: not that this place is more vulnerable than any other thin-skinned part, but probably because it has a better flavour. The different webs which I inspect to study the food in the larder show me, among other joints, various Flies and small Butterflies and carcasses of almost-untouched Locusts, all deprived of their hind-legs, or at least of one. Locusts' legs often dangle, emptied of their succulent contents, on the edges of the web, from the meat-hooks of the butcher's shop. In my urchin-days, days free from prejudices in regard to what one ate, I, like many others, was able to appreciate that dainty. It is the equivalent, on a very small scale, of the larger legs of the Crayfish.

The rigging-builder, therefore, to whom we have just thrown a Locust attacks the prey at the lower end of a thigh. The bite is a lingering one: once the Spider has planted her fangs, she does not let go. She drinks, she sips, she sucks. When this first point is drained, she passes on to others, to the second haunch in particular, until the prey becomes an empty hulk without losing its outline.

We have seen that Garden Spiders feed in a similar way, bleeding their venison and drinking it instead of eating it. At last, however, in the comfortable post-prandial hours, they take up the drained morsel, chew it, rechew it and reduce it to a shapeless ball. It is a dessert for the teeth to toy with. The Labyrinth Spider knows nothing of the diversions of the table; she flings the drained remnants out of her web, without chewing them. Although it lasts long, the meal is eaten in perfect safety. From the first bite, the Locust becomes a lifeless thing; the Spider's poison has settled him.

The labyrinth is greatly inferior, as a work of art, to that advanced geometrical contrivance, the Garden Spider's net; and, in spite of its ingenuity, it does not give a favourable notion of its constructor. It is hardly more than a shapeless scaffolding, run up anyhow. And yet, like the others, the builder of this slovenly edifice must have her own principles of beauty and accuracy. As it is, the prettily-latticed mouth of the crater makes us suspect this; the nest, the mother's usual masterpiece, will prove it to the full.

When laying-time is at hand, the Spider changes her residence; she abandons her web in excellent condition; she does not return to it. Whoso will can take possession of the house. The hour has come to found the family-establishment. But where? The Spider knows right well; I am in the dark. Mornings are spent in fruitless searches. In vain I ransack the bushes that carry the webs: I never find aught that realizes my hopes.

I learn the secret at last. I chance upon a web which, though deserted, is not yet dilapidated, proving that it has been but lately quitted. Instead of hunting in the brushwood whereon it rests, let us inspect the neighbourhood, to a distance of a few paces. If these contain a low, thick cluster, the nest is there, hidden from the eye. It carries an authentic certificate of its origin, for the mother invariably occupies it.

By this method of investigation, far from the labyrinth-trap, I become the owner of as many nests as are needed to satisfy my curiosity. They do not by a long way come up to my idea of the maternal talent. They are clumsy bundles of dead leaves, roughly drawn together with silk threads. Under this rude covering is a pouch of fine texture containing the egg- casket, all in very bad condition, because of the inevitable tears incurred in its extrication from the brushwood. No, I shall not be able to judge of the artist's capacity by these rags and tatters.

The insect, in its buildings, has its own architectural rules, rules as unchangeable as anatomical peculiarities. Each group builds according to the same set of principles, conforming to the laws of a very elementary system of aesthetics; but often circumstances beyond the architect's control—the space at her disposal, the unevenness of the site, the nature of the material and other accidental causes—interfere with the worker's plans and disturb the structure. Then virtual regularity is translated into actual chaos; order degenerates into disorder.

We might discover an interesting subject of research in the type adopted by each species when the work is accomplished without hindrances. The Banded Epeira weaves the wallet of her eggs in the open, on a slim branch that does not get in her way; and her work is a superbly artistic jar. The Silky Epeira also has all the elbow-room she needs; and her paraboloid is not without elegance. Can the Labyrinth Spider, that other spinstress of accomplished merit, be ignorant of the precepts of beauty when the time comes for her to weave a tent for her offspring? As yet, what I have seen of her work is but an unsightly bundle. Is that all she can do?

I look for better things if circumstances favour her. Toiling in the midst of a dense thicket, among a tangle of dead leaves and twigs, she may well produce a very inaccurate piece of work; but compel her to labour when free from all impediment: she will then—I am convinced of it beforehand—apply her talents without constraint and show herself an adept in the building of graceful nests.

As laying-time approaches, towards the middle of August, I instal half-a- dozen Labyrinth Spiders in large wire-gauze cages, each standing in an earthen pan filled with sand. A sprig of thyme, planted in the centre, will furnish supports for the structure, together with the trellis-work of the top and sides. There is no other furniture, no dead leaves, which would spoil the shape of the nest if the mother were minded to employ them as a covering. By way of provision, Locusts, every day. They are readily accepted, provided they be tender and not too large.

The experiment works perfectly. August is hardly over before I am in possession of six nests, magnificent in shape and of a dazzling whiteness. The latitude of the workshop has enabled the spinstress to follow the inspiration of her instinct without serious obstacles; and the result is a masterpiece of symmetry and elegance, if we allow for a few angularities demanded by the suspension-points.

It is an oval of exquisite white muslin, a diaphanous abode wherein the mother must make a long stay to watch over the brood. The size is nearly that of a Hen's egg. The cabin is open at either end. The front-entrance broadens into a gallery; the back-entrance tapers into a funnel-neck. I fail to see the object of this neck. As for the opening in front, which is wider, this is, beyond a doubt, a victualling-door. I see the Spider, at intervals, standing here on the look-out for the Locust, whom she consumes outside, taking care not to soil the spotless sanctuary with corpses.

The structure of the nest is not without a certain similarity to that of the home occupied during the hunting-season. The passage at the back represents the funnel-neck, that ran almost down to the ground and afforded an outlet for flight in case of grave danger. The one in front, expanding into a mouth kept wide open by cords stretched backwards and forwards, recalls the yawning gulf into which the victims used to fall. Every part of the old dwelling is repeated: even the labyrinth, though this, it is true, is on a much smaller scale. In front of the bell-shaped mouth is a tangle of threads wherein the passers-by are caught. Each species, in this way, possesses a primary architectural model which is followed as a whole, in spite of altered conditions. The animal knows its trade thoroughly, but it does not know and will never know aught else, being incapable of originality.

Now this palace of silk, when all is said, is nothing more than a guard- house. Behind the soft, milky opalescence of the wall glimmers the egg- tabernacle, with its form vaguely suggesting the star of some order of knighthood. It is a large pocket, of a splendid dead-white, isolated on every side by radiating pillars which keep it motionless in the centre of the tapestry. These pillars are about ten in number and are slender in the middle, expanding at one end into a conical capital and at the other into a base of the same shape. They face one another and mark the position of the vaulted corridors which allow free movement in every direction around the central chamber. The mother walks gravely to and fro under the arches of her cloisters, she stops first here, then there; she makes a lengthy auscultation of the egg-wallet; she listens to all that happens inside the satin wrapper. To disturb her would be barbarous.

For a closer examination, let us use the dilapidated nests which we brought from the fields. Apart from its pillars, the egg-pocket is an inverted conoid, reminding us of the work of the Silky Epeira. Its material is rather stout; my pincers, pulling at it, do not tear it without difficulty. Inside the bag there is nothing but an extremely fine, white wadding and, lastly, the eggs, numbering about a hundred and comparatively large, for they measure a millimetre and a half. {37} They are very pale amber-yellow beads, which do not stick together and which roll freely as soon as I remove the swan's-down shroud. Let us put everything into a glass-tube to study the hatching.

We will now retrace our steps a little. When laying-time comes, the mother forsakes her dwelling, her crater into which her falling victims dropped, her labyrinth in which the flight of the Midges was cut short; she leaves intact the apparatus that enabled her to live at her ease. Thoughtful of her natural duties, she goes to found another establishment at a distance. Why at a distance?

She has still a few long months to live and she needs nourishment. Were it not better, then, to lodge the eggs in the immediate neighbourhood of the present home and to continue her hunting with the excellent snare at her disposal? The watching of the nest and the easy acquisition of provender would go hand in hand. The Spider is of another opinion; and I suspect the reason.

The sheet-net and the labyrinth that surmounts it are objects visible from afar, owing to their whiteness and the height whereat they are placed. Their scintillation in the sun, in frequented paths, attracts Mosquitoes and Butterflies, like the lamps in our rooms and the fowler's looking-glass. Whoso comes to look at the bright thing too closely dies the victim of his curiosity. There is nothing better for playing upon the folly of the passer-by, but also nothing more dangerous to the safety of the family.

Harpies will not fail to come running at this signal, showing up against the green; guided by the position of the web, they will assuredly find the precious purse; and a strange grub, feasting on a hundred new-laid eggs, will ruin the establishment. I do not know these enemies, not having sufficient materials at my disposal for a register of the parasites; but, from indications gathered elsewhere, I suspect them.

The Banded Epeira, trusting to the strength of her stuff, fixes her nest in the sight of all, hangs it on the brushwood, taking no precautions whatever to hide it. And a bad business it proves for her. Her jar provides me with an Ichneumon {38} possessed of the inoculating larding- pin: a Cryptus who, as a grub, had fed on Spiders' eggs. Nothing but empty shells was left inside the central keg; the germs were completely exterminated. There are other Ichneumon-flies, moreover, addicted to robbing Spiders' nests; a basket of fresh eggs is their offspring's regular food.

Like any other, the Labyrinth Spider dreads the scoundrelly advent of the pickwallet; she provides for it and, to shield herself against it as far as possible, chooses a hiding-place outside her dwelling, far removed from the tell-tale web. When she feels her ovaries ripen, she shifts her quarters; she goes off at night to explore the neighbourhood and seek a less dangerous refuge. The points selected are, by preference, the low brambles dragging along the ground, keeping their dense verdure during the winter and crammed with dead leaves from the oaks hard by. Rosemary- tufts, which gain in thickness what they lose in height on the unfostering rock, suit her particularly. This is where I usually find her nest, not without long seeking, so well is it hidden.

So far, there is no departure from current usage. As the world is full of creatures on the prowl for tender mouthfuls, every mother has her apprehensions; she also has her natural wisdom, which advises her to establish her family in secret places. Very few neglect this precaution; each, in her own manner, conceals the eggs she lays.

In the case of the Labyrinth Spider, the protection of the brood is complicated by another condition. In the vast majority of instances, the eggs, once lodged in a favourable spot, are abandoned to themselves, left to the chances of good or ill fortune. The Spider of the brushwood, on the contrary, endowed with greater maternal devotion, has, like the Crab Spider, to mount guard over hers until they hatch.

With a few threads and some small leaves joined together, the Crab Spider builds, above her lofty nest, a rudimentary watch-tower where she stays permanently, greatly emaciated, flattened into a sort of wrinkled shell through the emptying of her ovaries and the total absence of food. And this mere shred, hardly more than a skin that persists in living without eating, stoutly defends her egg-sack, shows fight at the approach of any tramp. She does not make up her mind to die until the little ones are gone.

The Labyrinth Spider is better treated. After laying her eggs, so far from becoming thin, she preserves an excellent appearance and a round belly. Moreover, she does not lose her appetite and is always prepared to bleed a Locust. She therefore requires a dwelling with a hunting-box close to the eggs watched over. We know this dwelling, built in strict accordance with artistic canons under the shelter of my cages.

Remember the magnificent oval guard-room, running into a vestibule at either end; the egg-chamber slung in the centre and isolated on every side by half a score of pillars; the front-hall expanding into a wide mouth and surmounted by a network of taut threads forming a trap. The semi-transparency of the walls allows us to see the Spider engaged in her household affairs. Her cloister of vaulted passages enables her to proceed to any point of the star-shaped pouch containing the eggs. Indefatigable in her rounds, she stops here and there; she fondly feels the satin, listens to the secrets of the wallet. If I shake the net at any point with a straw, she quickly runs up to enquire what is happening. Will this vigilance frighten off the Ichneumon and other lovers of omelettes? Perhaps so. But, though this danger be averted, others will come when the mother is no longer there.

Her attentive watch does not make her overlook her meals. One of the Locusts whereof I renew the supply at intervals in the cages is caught in the cords of the great entrance-hall. The Spider arrives hurriedly, snatches the giddy-pate and disjoints his shanks, which she empties of their contents, the best part of the insect. The remainder of the carcass is afterwards drained more or less, according to her appetite at the time. The meal is taken outside the guard-room, on the threshold, never indoors.

These are not capricious mouthfuls, serving to beguile the boredom of the watch for a brief while; they are substantial repasts, which require several sittings. Such an appetite astonishes me, after I have seen the Crab Spider, that no less ardent watcher, refuse the Bees whom I give her and allow herself to die of inanition. Can this other mother have so great a need as that to eat? Yes, certainly she has; and for an imperative reason.

At the beginning of her work, she spent a large amount of silk, perhaps all that her reserves contained; for the double dwelling—for herself and for her offspring—is a huge edifice, exceedingly costly in materials; and yet, for nearly another month, I see her adding layer upon layer both to the wall of the large cabin and to that of the central chamber, so much so that the texture, which at first was translucent gauze, becomes opaque satin. The walls never seem thick enough; the Spider is always working at them. To satisfy this lavish expenditure, she must incessantly, by means of feeding, fill her silk-glands as and when she empties them by spinning. Food is the means whereby she keeps the inexhaustible factory going.

A month passes and, about the middle of September, the little ones hatch, but without leaving their tabernacle, where they are to spend the winter packed in soft wadding. The mother continues to watch and spin, lessening her activity from day to day. She recruits herself with a Locust at longer intervals; she sometimes scorns those whom I myself entangle in her trap. This increasing abstemiousness, a sign of decrepitude, slackens and at last stops the work of the spinnerets.

For four or five weeks longer, the mother never ceases her leisurely inspection-rounds, happy at hearing the new-born Spiders swarming in the wallet. At length, when October ends, she clutches her offspring's nursery and dies withered. She has done all that maternal devotion can do; the special providence of tiny animals will do the rest. When spring comes, the youngsters will emerge from their snug habitation, disperse all over the neighbourhood by the expedient of the floating thread and weave their first attempts at a labyrinth on the tufts of thyme.

Accurate in structure and neat in silk-work though they be, the nests of the caged captives do not tell us everything; we must go back to what happens in the fields, with their complicated conditions. Towards the end of December, I again set out in search, aided by all my youthful collaborators. We inspect the stunted rosemaries along the edge of a path sheltered by a rocky, wooded slope; we lift the branches that spread over the ground. Our zeal is rewarded with success. In a couple of hours, I am the owner of some nests.

Pitiful pieces of work are they, injured beyond recognition by the assaults of the weather! It needs the eyes of faith to see in these ruins the equivalent of the edifices built inside my cages. Fastened to the creeping branch, the unsightly bundle lies on the sand heaped up by the rains. Oak-leaves, roughly joined by a few threads, wrap it all round. One of these leaves, larger than the others, roofs it in and serves as a scaffolding for the whole of the ceiling. If we did not see the silky remnants of the two vestibules projecting and feel a certain resistance when separating the parts of the bundle, we might take the thing for a casual accumulation, the work of the rain and the wind.

Let us examine our find and look more closely into its shapelessness. Here is the large room, the maternal cabin, which rips as the coating of leaves is removed; here are the circular galleries of the guard-room; here are the central chamber and its pillars, all in a fabric of immaculate white. The dirt from the damp ground has not penetrated to this dwelling protected by its wrapper of dead leaves.

Now open the habitation of the offspring. What is this? To my utter astonishment, the contents of the chamber are a kernel of earthy matters, as though the muddy rain-water had been allowed to soak through. Put aside that idea, says the satin wall, which itself is perfectly clean inside. It is most certainly the mother's doing, a deliberate piece of work, executed with minute care. The grains of sand are stuck together with a cement of silk; and the whole resists the pressure of the fingers.

If we continue to unshell the kernel, we find, below this mineral layer, a last silken tunic that forms a globe around the brood. No sooner do we tear this final covering than the frightened little ones run away and scatter with an agility that is singular at this cold and torpid season.

To sum up, when working in the natural state, the Labyrinth Spider builds around the eggs, between two sheets of satin, a wall composed of a great deal of sand and a little silk. To stop the Ichneumon's probe and the teeth of the other ravagers, the best thing that occurred to her was this hoarding which combines the hardness of flint with the softness of muslin.

This means of defence seems to be pretty frequent among Spiders. Our own big House Spider, Tegenaria domestica, encloses her eggs in a globule strengthened with a rind of silk and of crumbly wreckage from the mortar of the walls. Other species, living in the open under stones, work in the same way. They wrap their eggs in a mineral shell held together with silk. The same fears have inspired the same protective methods.

Then how comes it that, of the five mothers reared in my cages, not one has had recourse to the clay rampart? After all, sand abounded: the pans in which the wire-gauze covers stood were full of it. On the other hand, under normal conditions, I have often come across nests without any mineral casing. These incomplete nests were placed at some height from the ground, in the thick of the brushwood; the others, on the contrary, those supplied with a coating of sand, lay on the ground.

The method of the work explains these differences. The concrete of our buildings is obtained by the simultaneous manipulation of gravel and mortar. In the same way, the Spider mixes the cement of the silk with the grains of sand; the spinnerets never cease working, while the legs fling under the adhesive spray the solid materials collected in the immediate neighbourhood. The operation would be impossible if, after cementing each grain of sand, it were necessary to stop the work of the spinnerets and go to a distance to fetch further stony elements. Those materials have to be right under her legs; otherwise the Spider does without and continues her work just the same.

In my cages, the sand is too far off. To obtain it, the Spider would have to leave the top of the dome, where the nest is being built on its trellis-work support; she would have to come down some nine inches. The worker refuses to take this trouble, which, if repeated in the case of each grain, would make the action of the spinnerets too irksome. She also refuses to do so when, for reasons which I have not fathomed, the site chosen is some way up in the tuft of rosemary. But, when the nest touches the ground, the clay rampart is never missing.

Are we to see in this fact proof of an instinct capable of modification, either making for decadence and gradually neglecting what was the ancestors' safeguard, or making for progress and advancing, hesitatingly, towards perfection in the mason's art? No inference is permissible in either direction. The Labyrinth Spider has simply taught us that instinct possesses resources which are employed or left latent according to the conditions of the moment. Place sand under her legs and the spinstress will knead concrete; refuse her that sand, or put it out of her reach, and the Spider will remain a simple silk-worker, always ready, however, to turn mason under favourable conditions. The aggregate of things that come within the observer's scope proves that it were mad to expect from her any further innovations, such as would utterly change her methods of manufacture and cause her, for instance, to abandon her cabin, with its two entrance-halls and its star-like tabernacle, in favour of the Banded Epeira's pear-shaped gourd.


She is named Durand's Clotho (Clotho Durandi, LATR.), in memory of him who first called attention to this particular Spider. To enter on eternity under the safe-conduct of a diminutive animal which saves us from speedy oblivion under the mallows and rockets is no contemptible advantage. Most men disappear without leaving an echo to repeat their name; they lie buried in forgetfulness, the worst of graves.

Others, among the naturalists, benefit by the designation given to this or that object in life's treasure-house: it is the skiff wherein they keep afloat for a brief while. A patch of lichen on the bark of an old tree, a blade of grass, a puny beastie: any one of these hands down a man's name to posterity as effectively as a new comet. For all its abuses, this manner of honouring the departed is eminently respectable. If we would carve an epitaph of some duration, what could we find better than a Beetle's wing-case, a Snail's shell or a Spider's web? Granite is worth none of them. Entrusted to the hard stone, an inscription becomes obliterated; entrusted to a Butterfly's wing, it is indestructible. 'Durand,' therefore, by all means.

But why drag in 'Clotho'? Is it the whim of a nomenclator, at a loss for words to denote the ever-swelling tide of beasts that require cataloguing? Not entirely. A mythological name came to his mind, one which sounded well and which, moreover, was not out of place in designating a spinstress. The Clotho of antiquity is the youngest of the three Fates; she holds the distaff whence our destinies are spun, a distaff wound with plenty of rough flocks, just a few shreds of silk and, very rarely, a thin strand of gold.

Prettily shaped and clad, as far as a Spider can be, the Clotho of the naturalists is, above all, a highly talented spinstress; and this is the reason why she is called after the distaff-bearing deity of the infernal regions. It is a pity that the analogy extends no further. The mythological Clotho, niggardly with her silk and lavish with her coarse flocks, spins us a harsh existence; the eight-legged Clotho uses naught but exquisite silk. She works for herself; the other works for us, who are hardly worth the trouble.

Would we make her acquaintance? On the rocky slopes in the oliveland, scorched and blistered by the sun, turn over the flat stones, those of a fair size; search, above all, the piles which the shepherds set up for a seat whence to watch the sheep browsing amongst the lavender below. Do not be too easily disheartened: the Clotho is rare; not every spot suits her. If fortune smile at last upon our perseverance, we shall see, clinging to the lower surface of the stone which we have lifted, an edifice of a weather-beaten aspect, shaped like an over-turned cupola and about the size of half a tangerine orange. The outside is encrusted or hung with small shells, particles of earth and, especially, dried insects.

The edge of the cupola is scalloped into a dozen angular lobes, the points of which spread and are fixed to the stone. In between these straps is the same number of spacious inverted arches. The whole represents the Ishmaelite's camel-hair tent, but upside down. A flat roof, stretched between the straps, closes the top of the dwelling.

Then where is the entrance? All the arches of the edge open upon the roof; not one leads to the interior. The eye seeks in vain; there is nothing to point to a passage between the inside and the outside. Yet the owner of the house must go out from time to time, were it only in search of food; on returning from her expedition, she must go in again. How does she make her exits and her entrances? A straw will tell us the secret.

Pass it over the threshold of the various arches. Everywhere, the searching straw encounters resistance; everywhere, it finds the place rigorously closed. But one of the scallops, differing in no wise from the others in appearance, if cleverly coaxed, opens at the edge into two lips and stands slightly ajar. This is the door, which at once shuts again of its own elasticity. Nor is this all: the Spider, when she returns home, often bolts herself in, that is to say, she joins and fastens the two leaves of the door with a little silk.

The Mason Mygale is no safer in her burrow, with its lid undistinguishable from the soil and moving on a hinge, than is the Clotho in her tent, which is inviolable by any enemy ignorant of the device. The Clotho, when in danger, runs quickly home; she opens the chink with a touch of her claw, enters and disappears. The door closes of itself and is supplied, in case of need, with a lock consisting of a few threads. No burglar, led astray by the multiplicity of arches, one and all alike, will ever discover how the fugitive vanished so suddenly.

While the Clotho displays a more simple ingenuity as regards her defensive machinery, she is incomparably ahead of the Mygale in the matter of domestic comfort. Let us open her cabin. What luxury! We are taught how a Sybarite of old was unable to rest, owing to the presence of a crumpled rose-leaf in his bed. The Clotho is quite as fastidious. Her couch is more delicate than swan's-down and whiter than the fleece of the clouds where brood the summer storms. It is the ideal blanket. Above is a canopy or tester of equal softness. Between the two nestles the Spider, short-legged, clad in sombre garments, with five yellow favours on her back.

Rest in this exquisite retreat demands perfect stability, especially on gusty days, when sharp draughts penetrate beneath the stone. This condition is admirably fulfilled. Take a careful look at the habitation. The arches that gird the roof with a balustrade and bear the weight of the edifice are fixed to the slab by their extremities. Moreover, from each point of contact, there issues a cluster of diverging threads that creep along the stone and cling to it throughout their length, which spreads afar. I have measured some fully nine inches long. These are so many cables; they represent the ropes and pegs that hold the Arab's tent in position. With such supports as these, so numerous and so methodically arranged, the hammock cannot be torn from its bearings save by the intervention of brutal methods with which the Spider need not concern herself, so seldom do they occur.

Another detail attracts our attention: whereas the interior of the house is exquisitely clean, the outside is covered with dirt, bits of earth, chips of rotten wood, little pieces of gravel. Often there are worse things still: the exterior of the tent becomes a charnel-house. Here, hung up or embedded, are the dry carcasses of Opatra, Asidae and other Tenebrionidae {39} that favour underrock shelters; segments of Iuli, {40} bleached by the sun; shells of Pupae, {41} common among the stones; and, lastly, Snail-shells, selected from among the smallest.

These relics are obviously, for the most part, table-leavings, broken victuals. Unversed in the trapper's art, the Clotho courses her game and lives upon the vagrants who wander from one stone to another. Whoso ventures under the slab at night is strangled by the hostess; and the dried-up carcass, instead of being flung to a distance, is hung to the silken wall, as though the Spider wished to make a bogey-house of her home. But this cannot be her aim. To act like the ogre who hangs his victims from the castle battlements is the worst way to disarm suspicion in the passers-by whom you are lying in wait to capture.

There are other reasons which increase our doubts. The shells hung up are most often empty; but there are also some occupied by the Snail, alive and untouched. What can the Clotho do with a Pupa cinerea, a Pupa quadridens and other narrow spirals wherein the animal retreats to an inaccessible depth? The Spider is incapable of breaking the calcareous shell or of getting at the hermit through the opening. Then why should she collect those prizes, whose slimy flesh is probably not to her taste? We begin to suspect a simple question of ballast and balance. The House Spider, or Tegenaria domestica, prevents her web, spun in a corner of the wall, from losing its shape at the least breath of air, by loading it with crumbling plaster and allowing tiny fragments of mortar to accumulate. Are we face to face with a similar process? Let us try experiment, which is preferable to any amount of conjecture.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse