The Life of the Spider by J. Henri Fabre - HTML preview

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The Crab Spider

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should some vagrant pass near by, she hurries from her watch-tower, lifts a limb and puts the intruder to flight. If I tease her with a straw, she parries with big gestures, like those of a prize-fighter. She uses her fists against my weapon. When I propose to dislodge her in view of certain experiments, I find some difficulty in doing so. She clings to the silken floor, she frustrates my attacks, which I am bound to moderate lest I should injure her. She is no sooner attracted outside than she stubbornly returns to her post. She declines to leave her treasure.
Even so does the Narbonne Lycosa struggle when we try to take away her pill. Each displays the same pluck and the same devotion; and also the same denseness in distinguishing her property from that of others. The Lycosa accepts without hesitation any strange pill which she is, given in exchange for her own; she confuses alien produce with the produce of her ovaries and her silk-factory. Those hallowed words, maternal love, were out of place here: it is an impetuous, an almost mechanical impulse, wherein real affection plays no part whatever. The beautiful Spider of the rock-roses is no more generously endowed. When moved from her nest to another of the same kind, she settles upon it and never stirs from it, even though the different arrangement of the leafy fence be such as to warn her that she is not really at home. Provided that she have satin under her feet, she does not notice her mistake; she watches over another’s nest with the same vigilance which she might show in watching over her own.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the throng has finished its preparations; the hour has come to disperse in swarms. We now see, from the crest of the brushwood, a continuous spray of starters, who shoot up like microscopic projectiles and mount in a spreading cluster. In the end, it is like the bouquet at the finish of a pyrotechnic display, the sheaf of rockets fired simultaneously. The comparison is correct down to the dazzling light itself. Flaming in the sun like so many gleaming points, the little Spiders are the sparks of that living firework. What a glorious send-off! What an entrance into the world! Clutching its aeronautic thread, the minute creature mounts in an apotheosis.
Sooner or later, nearer or farther, the fall comes. To live, we have to descend, often very low, alas! The Crested Lark crumbles the mule-droppings in the road and thus picks up his food, the oaten grain which he would never find by soaring in the sky, his throat swollen with song. We have to descend; the stomach’s inexorable claims demand it. The Spiderling, therefore, touches land. Gravity, tempered by the parachute, is kind to her.

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

The Garden Spiders: Building The Web

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

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

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


‘Pinck! Pinck!’

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

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

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

First of all, we must witness the making of the net; we must see it constructed and see it again and again, for the plan of such a complex work can only be grasped in fragments. To-day, observation will give us one detail; to-morrow, it will give us a second, suggesting fresh points of view; as our visits multiply, a new fact is each time added to the sum total of the acquired data, confirming those which come before or directing our thoughts along unsuspected paths.
The snow-ball rolling over the carpet of white grows enormous, however scanty each fresh layer be. Even so with truth in observational science: it is built up of trifles patiently gathered together. And, while the collecting of these trifles means that the student of Spider industry must not be chary of his time, at least it involves no distant and speculative research. The smallest garden contains Epeirae, all accomplished weavers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The operation is so erratically conducted that it takes the most unremitting attention to follow it at all. The Spider reaches the margin of the area by one of the spokes already placed. She goes along this margin for some distance from the point at which she landed, fixes her thread to the frame and returns to the centre by the same road which she has just taken.
The thread obtained on the way in a broken line, partly on the radius and partly on the frame, is too long for the exact distance between the circumference and the central point. On returning to this point, the Spider adjusts her thread, stretches it to the correct length, fixes it and collects what remains on the central signpost. In the case of each radius laid, the surplus is treated in the same fashion, so that the signpost continues to increase in size. It was first a speck; it is now a little pellet, or even a small cushion of a certain breadth.

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

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

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

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

We must not, however, give them more than their due. The angles are only approximately equal; they satisfy the demands of the eye, but cannot stand the test of strict measurement. Mathematical precision would be superfluous here. No matter, we are amazed at the result obtained. How does the Epeira come to succeed with her difficult problem, so strangely managed? I am still asking myself the question. The laying of the radii is finished. The Spider takes her place in the centre, on the little cushion formed of the inaugural signpost and the bits of thread left over. Stationed on this support, she slowly turns round and round. She is engaged on a delicate piece of work. With an extremely thin thread, she describes from spoke to spoke, starting from the centre, a spiral line with very close coils. The central space thus worked attains, in the adults’ webs, the dimensions of the palm of one’s hand; in the younger Spiders’ webs, it is much smaller, but it is never absent. For reasons which I will explain in the course of this study, I shall call it, in future, the ‘resting-floor.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At last, at some distance from the centre, on the borders of what I have called the restingfloor, the Spider abruptly terminates her spiral when the space would still allow of a certain number of turns. We shall see the reason of this sudden stop presently. Next, the Epeira, no matter which, young or old, hurriedly flings herself upon the little central cushion, pulls it out and rolls it into a ball which I expected to see thrown away. But no: her thrifty nature does not permit this waste. She eats the cushion, at first an inaugural landmark, then a heap of bits of thread; she once more melts in the digestive crucible what is no doubt intended to be restored to the silken treasury. It is a tough mouthful, difficult for the stomach to elaborate; still, it is precious and must not be lost. The work finishes with the swallowing. Then and there, the Spider instals herself, head downwards, at her hunting-post in the centre of the web.
The operation which we have just seen gives rise to a reflection. Men are born righthanded. Thanks to a lack of symmetry that has never been explained, our right side is stronger and readier in its movements than our left. The inequality is especially noticeable in the two hands. Our language expresses this supremacy of the favoured side in the terms dexterity, adroitness and address, all of which allude to the right hand.

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

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

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

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

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

The Garden Spiders: My Neighbour

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

I describe what has happened. To-morrow, they will be in a less hurry to go to bed: they will want to see everything, to the very end. What delightful, simple evenings we have spent looking into the Spider’s workshop!
The journal of the Angular Epeira, written up day by day, teaches us, first of all, how she obtains the ropes that form the framework of the building. All day invisible, crouching amid the cypress-leaves, the Spider, at about eight o’clock in the evening, solemnly emerges from her retreat and makes for the top of a branch. In this exalted position, she sits for some time laying her plans with due regard to the locality; she consults the weather, ascertains if the night will be fine. Then, suddenly, with her eight legs widespread, she lets herself drop straight down, hanging to the line that issues from her spinnerets. Just as the rope-maker obtains the even output of his hemp by walking backwards, so does the Epeira obtain the discharge of hers by falling. It is extracted by the weight of her body.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is unnecessary to go over the construction of the masterpiece again; the younger Spiders have taught us enough in this respect. In both cases, we see the same equidistant radii laid, with a central landmark for a guide; the same auxiliary spiral, the scaffolding of temporary rungs, soon doomed to disappear; the same snaring-spiral, with its maze of closely-woven coils. Let us pass on: other details call for our attention.
The laying of the snaring-spiral is an exceedingly delicate operation, because of the regularity of the work. I was bent upon knowing whether, if subjected to the din of unaccustomed sounds, the Spider would hesitate and blunder. Does she work imperturbably? Or does she need undisturbed quiet? As it is, I know that my presence and that of my light hardly trouble her at all. The sudden flashes emitted by my lantern have no power to distract her from her task. She continues to turn in the light even as she turned in the dark, neither faster nor slower. This is a good omen for the experiment which I have in view.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Spiders are unacquainted with wide-meshed nets and weave satins wherein the threads, crossing at random, form a continuous substance. Among this number is the House Spider (Tegenaria domestica, LIN.). In the corners of our rooms, she stretches wide webs fixed by angular extensions. The best-protected nook at one side contains the owner’s secret apartment. It is a silk tube, a gallery with a conical opening, whence the Spider, sheltered from the eye, watches events. The rest of the fabric, which exceeds our finest muslins in delicacy, is not, properly speaking, a hunting-implement: it is a platform whereon the Spider, attending to the affairs of her estate, goes her rounds, especially at night. The real trap consists of a confusion of lines stretched above the web. The snare, constructed according to other rules than in the case of the Epeirae, also works differently. Here are no viscous threads, but plain toils, rendered invisible by the very number. If a Gnat rush into the perfidious entanglement, he is caught at once; and the more he struggles the more firmly is he bound. The snareling falls on the sheet-web. Tegenaria hastens up and bites him in the neck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Garden Spiders: The Lime-Snare

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

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

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

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

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

The Epeira hunts not with springs, but with lime-snares. And such lime-snares! Everything is caught in them, down to the dandelion-plume that barely brushes against them. Nevertheless, the Epeira, who is in constant touch with her web, is not caught in them. Why?
Let us first of all remember that the Spider has contrived for herself, in the middle of her trap, a floor in whose construction the sticky spiral thread plays no part. We saw how this thread stops suddenly at some distance from the centre. There is here, covering a space which, in the larger webs, is about equal to the palm of one’s hand, a fabric formed of spokes and of the commencement of the auxiliary spiral, a neutral fabric in which the exploring straw finds no adhesiveness anywhere.

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

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

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

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

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

Did I guess aright when I judged that it was a fatty substance that preserved the Epeira from the snares of her sticky Catherine-wheel? The action of the carbon disulphide seems to say yes. Besides, there is no reason why a substance of this kind, which plays so frequent a part in animal economy, should not coat the Spider very slightly by the mere act of perspiration. We used to rub our fingers with a little oil before handling the twigs in which the Goldfinch was to be caught; even so the Epeira varnishes herself with a special sweat, to operate on any part of her web without fear of the lime-threads. However, an unduly protracted stay on the sticky threads would have its drawbacks. In the long run, continual contact with those threads might produce a certain adhesion and inconvenience the Spider, who must preserve all her agility in order to rush upon the prey before it can release itself. For this reason, gummy threads are never used in building the post of interminable waiting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Garden Spiders: The Telegraph-Wire

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

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

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

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 cypressfoliage, 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 signallingthread 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.

The Garden Spiders: Pairing And Hunting

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 lanternlight. 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 silkwarehouse 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 wiremills: 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 diningroom, 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 crossbars.

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, thinskinned 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.

The Garden Spiders: The Question Of Property

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 muttonchop.

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 reddishbrown. 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.

The Labyrinth Spider

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 longstanding 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 investigationplatform. 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 deadwhite, 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 passerby, 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 silkglands 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.

The Clotho Spider

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 distaffbearing 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.

To rear the Clotho is not an arduous undertaking; we are not obliged to take the heavy flagstone, on which the dwelling is built, away with us. A very simple operation suffices. I loosen the fastenings with my pocket-knife. The Spider has such stay-at-home ways that she very rarely makes off. Besides, I use the utmost discretion in my rape of the house. And so I carry away the building, together with its owner, in a paper bag.

The flat stones, which are too heavy to move and which would occupy too much room upon my table, are replaced either by deal disks, which once formed part of cheeseboxes, or by round pieces of cardboard. I arrange each silken hammock under one of these by itself, fastening the angular projections, one by one, with strips of gummed paper. The whole stands on three short pillars and gives a very fair imitation of the underrock shelter in the form of a small dolmen. Throughout this operation, if you are careful to avoid shocks and jolts, the Spider remains indoors. Finally, each apparatus is placed under a wire-gauze, bell-shaped cage, which stands in a dish filled with sand.

We can have an answer by the next morning. If, among the cabins swung from the ceilings of the deal or cardboard dolmens, there be one that is all dilapidated, that was seriously knocked out of shape at the time of removal, the Spider abandons it during the night and instals herself elsewhere, sometimes even on the trellis-work of the wire cage. The new tent, the work of a few hours, attains hardly the diameter of a two-franc piece. It is built, however, on the same principles as the old manor-house and consists of two thin sheets laid one above the other, the upper one flat and forming a tester, the lower curved and pocket-shaped. The texture is extremely delicate: the least trifle would deform it, to the detriment of the available space, which is already much reduced and only just sufficient for the recluse.

Well, what has the Spider done to keep the gossamer stretched, to steady it and to make it retain its greatest capacity? Exactly what our static treatises would advise her to do: she has ballasted her structure, she has done her best to lower its centre of gravity. From the convex surface of the pocket hang long chaplets of grains of sand strung together with slender silken cords. To these sandy stalactites, which form a bushy beard, are added a few heavy lumps hung separately and lower down, at the end of a thread. The whole is a piece of ballast-work, an apparatus for ensuring equilibrium and tension.

The present edifice, hastily constructed in the space of a night, is the frail rough sketch of what the home will afterwards become. Successive layers will be added to it; and the partition-wall will grow into a thick blanket capable of partly retaining, by its own weight, the requisite curve and capacity. The Spider now abandons the stalactites of sand, which were used to keep the original pocket stretched, and confines herself to dumping down on her abode any more or less heavy object, mainly corpses of insects, because she need not look for these and finds them ready to hand after each meal. They are weights, not trophies; they take the place of materials that must otherwise be collected from a distance and hoisted to the top. In this way, a breastwork is obtained that strengthens and steadies the house. Additional equilibrium is often supplied by tiny shells and other objects hanging a long way down.

What would happen if one robbed an old dwelling, long since completed, of its outer covering? In case of such a disaster, would the Spider go back to the sandy stalactites, as a ready means of restoring stability? This is easily ascertained. In my hamlets under wire, I select a fair-sized cabin. I strip the exterior, carefully removing any foreign body. The silk reappears in its original whiteness. The tent looks magnificent, but seems to me too limp.

This is also the Spider’s opinion. She sets to work, next evening, to put things right. And how? Once more with hanging strings of sand. In a few nights, the silk bag bristles with a long, thick beard of stalactites, a curious piece of work, excellently adapted to maintain the web in an unvaried curve. Even so are the cables of a suspension-bridge steadied by the weight of the superstructure.

Later, as the Spider goes on feeding, the remains of the victuals are embedded in the wall, the sand is shaken and gradually drops away and the home resumes its charnelhouse appearance. This brings us to the same conclusion as before: the Clotho knows her statics; by means of additional weights, she is able to lower the centre of gravity and thus to give her dwelling the proper equilibrium and capacity.
Now what does she do in her softly-wadded home? Nothing, that I know of. With a full stomach, her legs luxuriously stretched over the downy carpet, she does nothing, thinks of nothing; she listens to the sound of earth revolving on its axis. It is not sleep, still less is it waking; it is a middle state where naught prevails save a dreamy consciousness of well-being. We ourselves, when comfortably in bed, enjoy, just before we fall asleep, a few moments of bliss, the prelude to cessation of thought and its train of worries; and those moments are among the sweetest in our lives. The Clotho seems to know similar moments and to make the most of them.

If I push open the door of the cabin, invariably I find the Spider lying motionless, as though in endless meditation. It needs the teasing of a straw to rouse her from her apathy. It needs the prick of hunger to bring her out of doors; and, as she is extremely temperate, her appearances outside are few and far between. During three years of assiduous observation, in the privacy of my study, I have not once seen her explore the domain of the wire cage by day. Not until a late hour at night does she venture forth in quest of victuals; and it is hardly feasible to follow her on her excursions.

Patience once enabled me to find her, at ten o’clock in the evening, taking the air on the flat roof of her house, where she was doubtless waiting for the game to pass. Startled by the light of my candle, the lover of darkness at once returned indoors, refusing to reveal any of her secrets. Only, next day, there was one more corpse hanging from the wall of the cabin, a proof that the chase was successfully resumed after my departure.

The Clotho, who is not only nocturnal, but also excessively shy, conceals her habits from us; she shows us her works, those precious historical documents, but hides her actions, especially the laying, which I estimate approximately to take place in October. The sum total of the eggs is divided into five or six small, flat, lentiform pockets, which, taken together, occupy the greater part of the maternal home. These capsules have each their own partition-wall of superb white satin, but they are so closely soldered, both together and to the floor of the house, that it is impossible to part them without tearing them, impossible, therefore, to obtain them separately. The eggs in all amount to about a hundred.

The mother sits upon the heap of pockets with the same devotion as a brooding hen. Maternity has not withered her. Although decreased in bulk, she retains an excellent look of health; her round belly and her well-stretched skin tell us from the first that her part is not yet wholly played.

The hatching takes place early. November has not arrived before the pockets contain the young: wee things clad in black, with five yellow specks, exactly like their elders. The new-born do not leave their respective nurseries. Packed close together, they spend the whole of the wintry season there, while the mother, squatting on the pile of cells, watches over the general safety, without knowing her family other than by the gentle trepidations felt through the partitions of the tiny chambers. The Labyrinth Spider has shown us how she maintains a permanent sitting for two months in her guard-room, to defend, in case of need, the brood which she will never see. The Clotho does the same during eight months, thus earning the right to set eyes for a little while on her family trotting around her in the main cabin and to assist at the final exodus, the great journey undertaken at the end of a thread.

When the summer heat arrives, in June, the young ones, probably aided by their mother, pierce the walls of their cells, leave the maternal tent, of which they know the secret outlet well, take the air on the threshold for a few hours and then fly away, carried to some distance by a funicular aeroplane, the first product of their spinning-mill.

The elder Clotho remains behind, careless of this emigration which leaves her alone. She is far from being faded indeed, she looks younger than ever. Her fresh colour, her robust appearance suggest great length of life, capable of producing a second family. On this subject I have but one document, a pretty far-reaching one, however. There were a few mothers whose actions I had the patience to watch, despite the wearisome minutiae of the rearing and the slowness of the result. These abandoned their dwellings after the departure of their young; and each went to weave a new one for herself on the wire network of the cage.

They were rough-and-ready summaries, the work of a night. Two hangings, one above the other, the upper one flat, the lower concave and ballasted with stalactites of grains of sand, formed the new home, which, strengthened daily by fresh layers, promised to become similar to the old one. Why does the Spider desert her former mansion, which is in no way dilapidated—far from it—and still exceedingly serviceable, as far as one can judge? Unless I am mistaken, I think I have an inkling of the reason.

The old cabin, comfortably wadded though it be, possesses serious disadvantages: it is littered with the ruins of the children’s nurseries. These ruins are so close-welded to the rest of the home that my forceps cannot extract them without difficulty; and to remove them would be an exhausting business for the Clotho and possibly beyond her strength. It is a case of the resistance of Gordian knots, which not even the very spinstress who fastened them is capable of untying. The encumbering litter, therefore, will remain.

If the Spider were to stay alone, the reduction of space, when all is said, would hardly matter to her: she wants so little room, merely enough to move in! Besides, when you have spent seven or eight months in the cramping presence of those bedchambers, what can be the reason of a sudden need for greater space? I see but one: the Spider requires a roomy habitation, not for herself—she is satisfied with the smallest den—but for a second family. Where is she to place the pockets of eggs, if the ruins of the previous laying remain in the way? A new brood requires a new home. That, no doubt, is why, feeling that her ovaries are not yet dried up, the Spider shifts her quarters and founds a new establishment.

The facts observed are confined to this change of dwelling. I regret that other interests and the difficulties attendant upon a long upbringing did not allow me to pursue the question and definitely to settle the matter of the repeated layings and the longevity of the Clotho, as I did in that of the Lycosa.
Before taking leave of this Spider, let us glance at a curious problem which has already been set by the Lycosa’s offspring. When carried for seven months on the mother’s back, they keep in training as agile gymnasts without taking any nourishment. It is a familiar exercise for them, after a fall, which frequently occurs, to scramble up a leg of their mount and nimbly to resume their place in the saddle. They expend energy without receiving any material sustenance.

The sons of the Clotho, the Labyrinth Spider and many others confront us with the same riddle: they move, yet do not eat. At any period of the nursery stage, even in the heart of winter, on the bleak days of January, I tear the pockets of the one and the tabernacle of the other, expecting to find the swarm of youngsters lying in a state of complete inertia, numbed by the cold and by lack of food. Well, the result is quite different. The instant their cells are broken open, the anchorites run out and flee in every direction as nimbly as at the best moments of their normal liberty. It is marvellous to see them scampering about. No brood of Partridges, stumbled upon by a Dog, scatters more promptly.

Chicks, while still no more than tiny balls of yellow fluff, hasten up at the mother’s call and scurry towards the plate of rice. Habit has made us indifferent to the spectacle of those pretty little animal machines, which work so nimbly and with such precision; we pay no attention, so simple does it all appear to us. Science examines and looks at things differently. She says to herself:

‘Nothing is made with nothing. The chick feeds itself; it consumes or rather it assimilates and turns the food into heat, which is converted into energy.’

Were any one to tell us of a chick which, for seven or eight months on end, kept itself in condition for running, always fit, always brisk, without taking the least beakful of nourishment from the day when it left the egg, we could find no words strong enough to express our incredulity. Now this paradox of activity maintained without the stay of food is realized by the Clotho Spider and others.

I believe I have made it sufficiently clear that the young Lycosae take no food as long as they remain with their mother. Strictly speaking, doubt is just admissible, for observation is needs dumb as to what may happen earlier or later within the mysteries of the burrow. It seems possible that the repleted mother may there disgorge to her family a mite of the contents of her crop. To this suggestion the Clotho undertakes to make reply.

Like the Lycosa, she lives with her family; but the Clotho is separated from them by the walls of the cells in which the little ones are hermetically enclosed. In this condition, the transmission of solid nourishment becomes impossible. Should any one entertain a theory of nutritive humours cast up by the mother and filtering through the partitions at which the prisoners might come and drink, the Labyrinth Spider would at once dispel the idea. She dies a few weeks after her young are hatched; and the children, still locked in their satin bed-chamber for the best part of the year, are none the less active. Can it be that they derive sustenance from the silken wrapper? Do they eat their house? The supposition is not absurd, for we have seen the Epeirae, before beginning a new web, swallow the ruins of the old. But the explanation cannot be accepted, as we learn from the Lycosa, whose family boasts no silky screen. In short, it is certain that the young, of whatever species, take absolutely no nourishment.

Lastly, we wonder whether they may possess within themselves reserves that come from the egg, fatty or other matters the gradual combustion of which would be transformed into mechanical force. If the expenditure of energy were of but short duration, a few hours or a few days, we could gladly welcome this idea of a motor viaticum, the attribute of every creature born into the world. The chick possesses it in a high degree: it is steady on its legs, it moves for a little while with the sole aid of the food wherewith the egg furnishes it; but soon, if the stomach is not kept supplied, the centre of energy becomes extinct and the bird dies. How would the chick fare if it were expected, for seven or eight months without stopping, to stand on its feet, to run about, to flee in the face of danger? Where would it stow the necessary reserves for such an amount of work?

The little Spider, in her turn, is a minute particle of no size at all. Where could she store enough fuel to keep up mobility during so long a period? The imagination shrinks in dismay before the thought of an atom endowed with inexhaustible motive oils.

We must needs, therefore, appeal to the immaterial, in particular to heat-rays coming from the outside and converted into movement by the organism. This is nutrition of energy reduced to its simplest expression: the motive heat, instead of being extracted from the food, is utilized direct, as supplied by the sun, which is the seat of all life. Inert matter has disconcerting secrets, as witness radium; living matter has secrets of its own, which are more wonderful still. Nothing tells us that science will not one day turn the suspicion suggested by the Spider into an established truth and a fundamental theory of physiology.


I find myself confronted with a subject which is not only highly interesting, but somewhat difficult: not that the subject is obscure; but it presupposes in the reader a certain knowledge of geometry: a strong meat too often neglected. I am not addressing geometricians, who are generally indifferent to questions of instinct, nor entomological collectors, who, as such, take no interest in mathematical theorems; I write for any one with sufficient intelligence to enjoy the lessons which the insect teaches.

What am I to do? To suppress this chapter were to leave out the most remarkable instance of Spider industry; to treat it as it should be treated, that is to say, with the whole armoury of scientific formulae, would be out of place in these modest pages. Let us take a middle course, avoiding both abstruse truths and complete ignorance.

Let us direct our attention to the nets of the Epeirae, preferably to those of the Silky Epeira and the Banded Epeira, so plentiful in the autumn, in my part of the country, and so remarkable for their bulk. We shall first observe that the radii are equally spaced; the angles formed by each consecutive pair are of perceptibly equal value; and this in spite of their number, which in the case of the Silky Epeira exceeds two score. We know by what strange means the Spider attains her ends and divides the area wherein the web is to be warped into a large number of equal sectors, a number which is almost invariable in the work of each species. An operation without method, governed, one might imagine, by an irresponsible whim, results in a beautiful rose-window worthy of our compasses.

We shall also notice that, in each sector, the various chords, the elements of the spiral windings, are parallel to one another and gradually draw closer together as they near the centre. With the two radiating lines that frame them they form obtuse angles on one side and acute angles on the other; and these angles remain constant in the same sector, because the chords are parallel.

There is more than this: these same angles, the obtuse as well as the acute, do not alter in value, from one sector to another, at any rate so far as the conscientious eye can judge. Taken as a whole, therefore, the rope-latticed edifice consists of a series of cross-bars intersecting the several radiating lines obliquely at angles of equal value.

By this characteristic we recognize the ‘logarithmic spiral.’ Geometricians give this name to the curve which intersects obliquely, at angles of unvarying value, all the straight lines or ‘radii vectores’ radiating from a centre called the ‘Pole.’ The Epeira’s construction, therefore, is a series of chords joining the intersections of a logarithmic spiral with a series of radii. It would become merged in this spiral if the number of radii were infinite, for this would reduce the length of the rectilinear elements indefinitely and change this polygonal line into a curve.

To suggest an explanation why this spiral has so greatly exercised the meditations of science, let us confine ourselves for the present to a few statements of which the reader will find the proof in any treatise on higher geometry.

The logarithmic spiral describes an endless number of circuits around its pole, to which it constantly draws nearer without ever being able to reach it. This central point is indefinitely inaccessible at each approaching turn. It is obvious that this property is beyond our sensory scope. Even with the help of the best philosophical instruments, our sight could not follow its interminable windings and would soon abandon the attempt to divide the invisible. It is a volute to which the brain conceives no limits. The trained mind, alone, more discerning than our retina, sees clearly that which defies the perceptive faculties of the eye.

The Epeira complies to the best of her ability with this law of the endless volute. The spiral revolutions come closer together as they approach the pole. At a given distance, they stop abruptly; but, at this point, the auxiliary spiral, which is not destroyed in the central region, takes up the thread; and we see it, not without some surprise, draw nearer to the pole in ever-narrowing and scarcely perceptible circles. There is not, of course, absolute mathematical accuracy, but a very close approximation to that accuracy. The Epeira winds nearer and nearer round her pole, so far as her equipment, which, like our own, is defective, will allow her. One would believe her to be thoroughly versed in the laws of the spiral.

I will continue to set forth, without explanations, some of the properties of this curious curve. Picture a flexible thread wound round a logarithmic spiral. If we then unwind it, keeping it taut the while, its free extremity will describe a spiral similar at all points to the original. The curve will merely have changed places.

Jacques Bernouilli, {42} to whom geometry owes this magnificent theorem, had engraved on his tomb, as one of his proudest titles to fame, the generating spiral and its double, begotten of the unwinding of the thread. An inscription proclaimed, ‘Eadem mutata resurgo: I rise again like unto myself.’ Geometry would find it difficult to better this splendid flight of fancy towards the great problem of the hereafter.

There is another geometrical epitaph no less famous. Cicero, when quaestor in Sicily, searching for the tomb of Archimedes amid the thorns and brambles that cover us with oblivion, recognized it, among the ruins, by the geometrical figure engraved upon the stone: the cylinder circumscribing the sphere. Archimedes, in fact, was the first to know the approximate relation of circumference to diameter; from it he deduced the perimeter and surface of the circle, as well as the surface and volume of the sphere. He showed that the surface and volume of the last-named equal two-thirds of the surface and volume of the circumscribing cylinder. Disdaining all pompous inscription, the learned Syracusan honoured himself with his theorem as his sole epitaph. The geometrical figure proclaimed the individual’s name as plainly as would any alphabetical characters.

To have done with this part of our subject, here is another property of the logarithmic spiral. Roll the curve along an indefinite straight line. Its pole will become displaced while still keeping on one straight line. The endless scroll leads to rectilinear progression; the perpetually varied begets uniformity.

Now is this logarithmic spiral, with its curious properties, merely a conception of the geometers, combining number and extent, at will, so as to imagine a tenebrous abyss wherein to practise their analytical methods afterwards? Is it a mere dream in the night of the intricate, an abstract riddle flung out for our understanding to browse upon?

No, it is a reality in the service of life, a method of construction frequently employed in animal architecture. The Mollusc, in particular, never rolls the winding ramp of the shell without reference to the scientific curve. The first-born of the species knew it and put it into practice; it was as perfect in the dawn of creation as it can be to-day.

Let us study, in this connection, the Ammonites, those venerable relics of what was once the highest expression of living things, at the time when the solid land was taking shape from the oceanic ooze. Cut and polished length-wise, the fossil shows a magnificent logarithmic spiral, the general pattern of the dwelling which was a pearl palace, with numerous chambers traversed by a siphuncular corridor.
To this day, the last representative of the Cephalopoda with partitioned shells, the Nautilus of the Southern Seas, remains faithful to the ancient design; it has not improved upon its distant predecessors. It has altered the position of the siphuncle, has placed it in the centre instead of leaving it on the back, but it still whirls its spiral logarithmically as did the Ammonites in the earliest ages of the world’s existence.

And let us not run away with the idea that these princes of the Mollusc tribe have a monopoly of the scientific curve. In the stagnant waters of our grassy ditches, the flat shells, the humble Planorbes, sometimes no bigger than a duckweed, vie with the Ammonite and the Nautilus in matters of higher geometry. At least one of them, Planorbis vortex, for example, is a marvel of logarithmic whorls.

In the long-shaped shells, the structure becomes more complex, though remaining subject to the same fundamental laws. I have before my eyes some species of the genus Terebra, from New Caledonia. They are extremely tapering cones, attaining almost nine inches in length. Their surface is smooth and quite plain, without any of the usual ornaments, such as furrows, knots or strings of pearls. The spiral edifice is superb, graced with its own simplicity alone. I count a score of whorls which gradually decrease until they vanish in the delicate point. They are edged with a fine groove.

I take a pencil and draw a rough generating line to this cone; and, relying merely on the evidence of my eyes, which are more or less practised in geometric measurements, I find that the spiral groove intersects this generating line at an angle of unvarying value.

The consequence of this result is easily deduced. If projected on a plane perpendicular to the axis of the shell, the generating lines of the cone would become radii; and the groove which winds upwards from the base to the apex would be converted into a plane curve which, meeting those radii at an unvarying angle, would be neither more nor less than a logarithmic spiral. Conversely, the groove of the shell may be considered as the projection of this spiral on a conic surface.

Better still. Let us imagine a plane perpendicular to the aids of the shell and passing through its summit. Let us imagine, moreover, a thread wound along the spiral groove. Let us unroll the thread, holding it taut as we do so. Its extremity will not leave the plane and will describe a logarithmic spiral within it. It is, in a more complicated degree, a variant of Bernouilli’s ‘Eadem mutata resurgo:’ the logarithmic conic curve becomes a logarithmic plane curve.

A similar geometry is found in the other shells with elongated cones, Turritellae, Spindleshells, Cerithia, as well as in the shells with flattened cones, Trochidae, Turbines. The spherical shells, those whirled into a volute, are no exception to this rule. All, down to the common Snail-shell, are constructed according to logarithmic laws. The famous spiral of the geometers is the general plan followed by the Mollusc rolling its stone sheath.
Where do these glairy creatures pick up this science? We are told that the Mollusc derives from the Worm. One day, the Worm, rendered frisky by the sun, emancipated itself, brandished its tail and twisted it into a corkscrew for sheer glee. There and then the plan of the future spiral shell was discovered.

This is what is taught quite seriously, in these days, as the very last word in scientific progress. It remains to be seen up to what point the explanation is acceptable. The Spider, for her part, will have none of it. Unrelated to the appendix-lacking, corkscrewtwirling Worm, she is nevertheless familiar with the logarithmic spiral. From the celebrated curve she obtains merely a sort of framework; but, elementary though this framework be, it clearly marks the ideal edifice. The Epeira works on the same principles as the Mollusc of the convoluted shell.

The Mollusc has years wherein to construct its spiral and it uses the utmost finish in the whirling process. The Epeira, to spread her net, has but an hour’s sitting at the most, wherefore the speed at which she works compels her to rest content with a simpler production. She shortens the task by confining herself to a skeleton of the curve which the other describes to perfection.

The Epeira, therefore, is versed in the geometric secrets of the Ammonite and the Nautilus pompilus; she uses, in a simpler form, the logarithmic line dear to the Snail. What guides her? There is no appeal here to a wriggle of some kind, as in the case of the Worm that ambitiously aspires to become a Mollusc. The animal must needs carry within itself a virtual diagram of its spiral. Accident, however fruitful in surprises we may presume it to be, can never have taught it the higher geometry wherein our own intelligence at once goes astray, without a strict preliminary training.

Are we to recognize a mere effect of organic structure in the Epeira’s art? We readily think of the legs, which, endowed with a very varying power of extension, might serve as compasses. More or less bent, more or less outstretched, they would mechanically determine the angle whereat the spiral shall intersect the radius; they would maintain the parallel of the chords in each sector.

Certain objections arise to affirm that, in this instance, the tool is not the sole regulator of the work. Were the arrangement of the thread determined by the length of the legs, we should find the spiral volutes separated more widely from one another in proportion to the greater length of implement in the spinstress. We see this in the Banded Epeira and the Silky Epeira. The first has longer limbs and spaces her cross-threads more liberally than does the second, whose legs are shorter.

But we must not rely too much on this rule, say others. The Angular Epeira, the Paletinted Epeira and the Cross Spider, all three more or less short-limbed, rival the Banded Epeira in the spacing of their lime-snares. The last two even dispose them with greater intervening distances.
We recognize in another respect that the organization of the animal does not imply an immutable type of work. Before beginning the sticky spiral, the Epeirae first spin an auxiliary intended to strengthen the stays. This spiral, formed of plain, non-glutinous thread, starts from the centre and winds in rapidly-widening circles to the circumference. It is merely a temporary construction, whereof naught but the central part survives when the Spider has set its limy meshes. The second spiral, the essential part of the snare, proceeds, on the contrary, in serried coils from the circumference to the centre and is composed entirely of viscous cross-threads.

Here we have, following one after the other merely by a sudden alteration of the machine, two volutes of an entirely different order as regards direction, the number of whorls and intersection. Both of them are logarithmic spirals. I see no mechanism of the legs, be they long or short, that can account for this alteration.

Can it then be a premeditated design on the part of the Epeira? Can there be calculation, measurement of angles, gauging of the parallel by means of the eye or otherwise? I am inclined to think that there is none of all this, or at least nothing but an innate propensity, whose effects the animal is no more able to control than the flower is able to control the arrangement of its verticils. The Epeira practises higher geometry without knowing or caring. The thing works of itself and takes its impetus from an instinct imposed upon creation from the start.

The stone thrown by the hand returns to earth describing a certain curve; the dead leaf torn and wafted away by a breath of wind makes its journey from the tree to the ground with a similar curve. On neither the one side nor the other is there any action by the moving body to regulate the fall; nevertheless, the descent takes place according to a scientific trajectory, the ‘parabola,’ of which the section of a cone by a plane furnished the prototype to the geometer’s speculations. A figure, which was at first but a tentative glimpse, becomes a reality by the fall of a pebble out of the vertical.

The same speculations take up the parabola once more, imagine it rolling on an indefinite straight line and ask what course does the focus of this curve follow. The answer comes: The focus of the parabola describes a ‘catenary,’ a line very simple in shape, but endowed with an algebraic symbol that has to resort to a kind of cabalistic number at variance with any sort of numeration, so much so that the unit refuses to express it, however much we subdivide the unit. It is called the number e. Its value is represented by the following series carried out ad infinitum:

e = 1 + 1/1 + 1/(1*2) + 1/(1*2*3) + 1/(1*2*3*4) + 1/(1*2*3*4*5) + etc


If the reader had the patience to work out the few initial terms of this series, which has no limit, because the series of natural numerals itself has none, he would find:

e=2.7182818... With this weird number are we now stationed within the strictly defined realm of the imagination? Not at all: the catenary appears actually every time that weight and flexibility act in concert. The name is given to the curve formed by a chain suspended by two of its points which are not placed on a vertical line. It is the shape taken by a flexible cord when held at each end and relaxed; it is the line that governs the shape of a sail bellying in the wind; it is the curve of the nanny-goat’s milk-bag when she returns from filling her trailing udder. And all this answers to the number e.

What a quantity of abstruse science for a bit of string! Let us not be surprised. A pellet of shot swinging at the end of a thread, a drop of dew trickling down a straw, a splash of water rippling under the kisses of the air, a mere trifle, after all, requires a titanic scaffolding when we wish to examine it with the eye of calculation. We need the club of Hercules to crush a fly.

Our methods of mathematical investigation are certainly ingenious; we cannot too much admire the mighty brains that have invented them; but how slow and laborious they appear when compared with the smallest actualities! Will it never be given to us to probe reality in a simpler fashion? Will our intelligence be able one day to dispense with the heavy arsenal of formulae? Why not?

Here we have the abracadabric number e reappearing, inscribed on a Spider’s thread. Let us examine, on a misty morning, the meshwork that has been constructed during the night. Owing to their hygrometrical nature, the sticky threads are laden with tiny drops, and, bending under the burden, have become so many catenaries, so many chaplets of limpid gems, graceful chaplets arranged in exquisite order and following the curve of a swing. If the sun pierce the mist, the whole lights up with iridescent fires and becomes a resplendent cluster of diamonds. The number e is in its glory.

Geometry, that is to say, the science of harmony in space, presides over everything. We find it in the arrangement of the scales of a fir-cone, as in the arrangement of an Epeira’s limy web; we find it in the spiral of a Snail-shell, in the chaplet of a Spider’s thread, as in the orbit of a planet; it is everywhere, as perfect in the world of atoms as in the world of immensities.

And this universal geometry tells us of an Universal Geometrician, whose divine compass has measured all things. I prefer that, as an explanation of the logarithmic curve of the Ammonite and the Epeira, to the Worm screwing up the tip of its tail. It may not perhaps be in accordance with latter-day teaching, but it takes a loftier flight.


{1} A small or moderate-sized spider found among foliage.—Translator’s Note.

{2} Léon Dufour (1780-1865) was an army surgeon who served with distinction in several campaigns and subsequently practised as a doctor in the Landes. He attained great eminence as a naturalist.—Translator’s Note.

{3} The Tarantula is a Lycosa, or Wolf-spider. Fabre’s Tarantula, the Black-bellied Tarantula, is identical with the Narbonne Lycosa, under which name the description is continued in Chapters iii. to vi., all of which were written at a considerably later date than the present chapter.—Translator’s Note.

{4} Giorgio Baglivi (1669-1707), professor of anatomy and medicine at Rome.— Translator’s Note.

{5} ‘When our husbandmen wish to catch them, they approach their hiding-places, and play on a thin grass pipe, making a sound not unlike the humming of bees. Hearing which, the Tarantula rushes out fiercely that she may catch the flies or other insects of this kind, whose buzzing she thinks it to be; but she herself is caught by her rustic trapper.’

{6} Provençal for the bit of waste ground on which the author studies his insects in the natural state.—Translator’s note.


{7} ‘Thanks to the Bumble-bee.’


{8} Like the Dung-beetles.—Translator’s Note.


{9} Like the Solitary Wasps.—Translator’s Note.


{10} Such as the Hairy Ammophila, the Cerceris and the Languedocian Sphex, Diggerwasps described in other of the author’s essays.—Translator’s Note.


{11} The desnucador, the Argentine slaughterman whose methods of slaying cattle are detailed in the author’s essay entitled, The Theory of Instinct.—Translator’s Note.


{12} A family of Grasshoppers.—Translator’s Note.


{13} A genus of Beetles.—Translator’s Note.

{14} A species of Digger-wasp.—Translator’s Note. {15} The Cicada is the Cigale, an insect akin to the Grasshopper and found more particularly in the South of France.—Translator’s Note.

{16} The generic title of the work from which these essays are taken is Entomological Memories, or, Studies relating to the Instinct and Habits of Insects.—Translator’s Note.


{17} A species of Grasshopper.—Translator’s Note.

{18} An insect akin to the Locusts and Crickets, which, when at rest, adopts an attitude resembling that of prayer. When attacking, it assumes what is known as ‘the spectral attitude.’ Its forelegs form a sort of saw-like or barbed harpoons. Cf. Social Life in the Insect World, by J. H. Fabre, translated by Bernard Miall: chaps. v. to vii.—Translator’s Note.

{19} .39 inch.—Translator’s Note.


{20} These experiments are described in the author’s essay on the Mason Bees entitled Fragments on Insect Psychology.—Translator’s Note.


{21} A species of Wasp.—Translator’s Note.


{22} In Chap. VIII. of the present volume.—Translator’s Note.

{23} Jules Michelet (1798-1874), author of L’Oiseau and L’Insecte, in addition to the historical works for which he is chiefly known. As a lad, he helped his father, a printer by trade, in setting type.—Translator’s Note.

{24} Chapter III. of the present volume.—Translator’s Note.


{25} A species of Dung-beetle. Cf. The Life and Love of the Insect, by J. Henri Fabre, translated by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos: chap. v.—Translator’s Note.


{26} A species of Beetle.—Translator’s Note.

{27} Cf. Insect Life, by J. H. Fabre, translated by the author of Mademoiselle Mori: chaps. i. and ii.; The Life and Love of the Insect, by J. Henri Fabre, translated by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos: chaps. i. to iv.—Translator’s Note.

{28} Chapter II.—Translator’s Note.


{29} .39 inch.—Translator’s Note.


{30} The Processionaries are Moth-caterpillars that feed on various leaves and march in file, laying a silken trail as they go.—Translator’s Note.


{31} The weekly half-holiday in French schools.—Translator’s Note.


{32} Cf. Social Life in the Insect World, by J. H. Fabre, translated by Bernard Miall: chap. xiv.—Translator’s Note.


{33} Cf. Insect Life, by J. H. Fabre, translated by the author of Mademoiselle Mori: chap. v.—Translator’s Note.

{34} The Scolia is a Digger-wasp, like the Cerceris and the Sphex, and feeds her larvae on the grubs of the Cetonia, or Rose-chafer, and the Oryctes, or Rhinoceros Beetle. Cf. The Life and Love of the Insect, by J. Henri Fabre, translated by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos: chap. xi.—Translator’s Note.

{35} Cf. Social Life in the Insect World, by J. H. Fabre, translated by Bernard Miall. chap. xiii., in which the name is given, by a printer’s error, as Philanthus aviporus.— Translator’s Note.

{36} Or Bird Spiders, known also as the American Tarantula.—Translator’s Note.


{37} .059 inch.—Translator’s Note.

{38} The Ichneumon-flies are very small insects which carry long ovipositors, wherewith they lay their eggs in the eggs of other insects and also, more especially, in caterpillars. Their parasitic larvae live and develop at the expense of the egg or grub attacked, which degenerates in consequence.—Translator’s Note.

{39} One of the largest families of Beetles, darkish in colour and shunning the light.— Translator’s Note.


{40} The Iulus is one of the family of Myriapods, which includes Centipedes, etc.— Translator’s Note.


{41} A species of Land-snail.—Translator’s Note.

{42} Jacques Bernouilli (1654-1705), professor of mathematics at the University of Basel from 1687 to the year of his death. He improved the differential calculus, solved the isoperimetrical problem and discovered the properties of the logarithmic spiral.— Translator’s Note.

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