I N the inclement season of the year, when the insect has nothing to do and retires to winter quarters, the observer profits by the mildness of the sunny nooks and grubs in the sand, lifts the stones, searches the brushwood; and often he is stirred with a pleasurable excitement, when he lights upon some ingenious work of art, discovered unawares. Happy are the simple of heart whose ambition is satisfied with such treasure-trove! I wish them all the joys which it has brought me and which it will continue to bring me, despite the vexations of life, which grow ever more bitter as the years follow their swift downward course.
Should the seekers rummage among the wild grasses in the osier-beds and copses, I wish them the delight of finding the wonderful object that, at this moment, lies before my eyes. It is the work of a Spider, the nest of the Banded Epeira (Epeira fasciata, Latr.).
A Spider is not an insect, according to the rules of classification; and as such the Epeira seems out of place here. A fig for systems! It is immaterial to the student of instinct whether the animal have eight legs instead of six, or pulmonary sacs instead of air-tubes. Besides, the Araneida belong to the group of segmented animals, organized in sections placed end to end, a structure to which the terms "insect" and "entomology" both refer.
Formerly, to describe this group, people said "articulate animals," an expression which possessed the drawback of not jarring on the ear and of being understood by all. This is out of date. Nowadays, they use the euphonious term "Arthropoda." And to think that there are men who question the existence of progress! Infidels! Say, "articulate," first; then roll out, "Arthropoda;" and you shall see whether zoological science is not progressing!
In bearing and colouring, Epeira fasciata is the handsomest of the Spiders of the South. On her fat belly, a mighty silk-warehouse nearly as large as a hazel-nut, are alternate yellow, black and silver sashes, to which she owes her epithet of Banded. Around that portly abdomen, the eight long legs, with their dark- and pale-brown rings, radiate like spokes.
Any small prey suits her; and, as long as she can find supports for her web, she settles wherever the Locust hops, wherever the Fly hovers, wherever the Dragon-fly dances or the Butterfly flits. As a rule, because of the greater abundance of game, she spreads her toils across some brooklet, from bank to bank among the rushes. She also stretches them, but not assiduously, in the thickets of evergreen oak, on the slopes with the scrubby greenswards, dear to the Grasshoppers.
Her hunting-weapon is a large upright web, whose outer boundary, which varies according to the disposition of the ground, is fastened to the neighbouring branches by a number of moorings. The structure is that adopted by the other weaving Spiders. Straight threads radiate at equal intervals from a central point. Over this framework runs a continuous spiral thread, forming chords, or cross-bars, from the centre to the circumference. It is magnificently large and magnificently symmetrical.
In the lower part of the web, starting from the centre, a wide opaque ribbon descends zigzag-wise across the radii. This is the Epeira's trade-mark, the flourish of an artist initialling his creation. "Fecit So-and-So," she seems to say, when giving the last throw of the shuttle to her handiwork.
That the Spider feels satisfied when, after passing and repassing from spoke to spoke, she finishes her spiral, is beyond a doubt: the work achieved ensures her food for a few days to come. But, in this particular case, the vanity of the spinstress has naught to say to the matter: the strong silk zigzag is added to impart greater firmness to the web.
Increased resistance is not superfluous, for the net is sometimes exposed to severe tests. The Epeira cannot pick and choose her prizes. Seated motionless in the centre of her web, her eight legs wide-spread to feel the shaking of the network in any direction, she waits for what luck will bring her: now some giddy weakling unable to control its flight, anon some powerful prey rushing headlong with a reckless bound.
The Locust in particular, the fiery Locust, who releases the spring of his long shanks at random, often falls into the trap. One imagines that his strength ought to frighten the Spider; the kick of his spurred levers should enable him to make a hole, then and there, in the web and to get away. But not at all. If he does not free himself at the first effort, the Locust is lost.
Turning her back on the game, the Epeira works all her spinnerets, pierced like the rose of a watering-pot, at one and the same time. The silky spray is gathered by the hind-legs, which are longer than the others and open into a wide arc to allow the stream to spread. Thanks to this artifice, the Epeira this time obtains not a thread, but an iridescent sheet, a sort of clouded fan wherein the component threads are kept almost separate. The two hind-legs fling this shroud gradually, by rapid alternate armfuls, while, at the same time, they turn the prey over and over, swathing it completely.
The ancient retiarius, when pitted against a powerful wild beast, appeared in the arena with a rope-net folded over his left shoulder. The animal made its spring. The man, with a sudden movement of his right arm, cast the net after the manner of the fishermen; he covered the beast and tangled it in the meshes. A thrust of the trident gave the quietus to the vanquished foe.
The Epeira acts in like fashion, with this advantage, that she is able to renew her armful of fetters. Should the first not suffice, a second instantly follows and another and yet another, until the reserves of silk become exhausted.
When all movement ceases under the snowy winding-sheet, the Spider goes up to her bound prisoner. She has a better weapon than the bestiarius' trident: she has her poison-fangs. She gnaws at the Locust, without undue persistence, and then withdraws, leaving the torpid patient to pine away.
Soon she comes back to her motionless head of game: she sucks it, drains it, repeatedly changing her point of attack. At last, the clean-bled remains are flung out of the net and the Spider returns to her ambush in the centre of the web.
What the Epeira sucks is not a corpse, but a numbed body. If I remove the Locust immediately after he has been bitten and release him from the silken sheath, the patient recovers his strength to such an extent that he seems, at first, to have suffered no injury. The Spider, therefore, does not kill her capture before sucking its juices; she is content to deprive it of the power of motion by producing a state of torpor. Perhaps this kindlier bite gives her greater facility in working her pump. The humours, if stagnant, in a corpse, would not respond so readily to the action of the sucker; they are more easily extracted from a live body, in which they move about.
The Epeira, therefore, being a drinker of blood, moderates the virulence of her sting, even with victims of appalling size, so sure is she of her retiarian art. The long-legged Tryxalis, the corpulent Grey Locust, the largest of our Grasshoppers are accepted without hesitation and sucked dry as soon as numbed. Those giants, capable of making a hole in the net and passing through it in their impetuous onrush, can be but rarely caught. I myself place them on the web. The Spider does the rest. Lavishing her silky spray, she swathes them and then sucks the body at her ease. With an increased expenditure of the spinnerets, the very biggest game is mastered as successfully as the everyday prey.
I have seen even better than that. This time, my subject is the Silky Epeira (Epeira sericea, OLIV.), with a broad, festooned, silvery abdomen. Like that of the other, her web is large, upright and "signed" with a zigzag ribbon. I place upon it a Praying Mantis, a well-developed specimen, quite capable of changing rôles, should circumstances permit, and herself making a meal off her assailant. It is a question no longer of capturing a peaceful Locust, but a fierce and powerful ogre, who would rip open the Epeira's paunch with one blow of her harpoons.
Will the Spider dare? Not immediately. Motionless in the centre of her net, she consults her strength before attacking the formidable quarry; she waits until the struggling prey has its claws more thickly entangled. At last, she approaches. The Mantis curls her belly; lifts her wings like vertical sails; opens her saw-toothed arm-pieces; in short, adopts the spectral attitude which she employs when delivering battle.
The Spider disregards these menaces. Spreading wide her spinnerets, she pumps out sheets of silk which the hind-legs draw out, expand and fling without stint in alternate armfuls. Under this shower of threads, the Mantis' terrible saws, the lethal legs, quickly disappear from sight, as do the wings, still erected in the spectral posture.
Meanwhile, the swathed one gives sudden jerks, which make the Spider fall out of her web. The accident is provided for. A safety-cord, emitted at the same instant by the spinnerets, keeps the Epeira hanging, swinging in space. When calm is restored, she packs her cord and climbs up again. The heavy paunch and the hind-legs are now bound. The flow slackens, the silk comes only in thin sheets. Fortunately, the business is done. The prey is invisible under the thick shroud.
The Spider retires without giving a bite. To master the terrible quarry, she has spent the whole reserves of her spinning-mill, enough to weave many good-sized webs. With this heap of shackles, further precautions are superfluous.
After a short rest in the centre of the net, she comes down to dinner. Slight incisions are made in different parts of the prize, now here, now there; and the Spider puts her mouth to each and sucks the blood of her prey. The meal is long protracted, so rich is the dish. For ten hours, I watch the insatiable glutton, who changes her point of attack as each wound sucked dries up. Night comes and robs me of the finish of the unbridled debauch. Next morning, the drained Mantis lies upon the ground. The Ants are eagerly devouring the remains.
The eminent talents of the Epeirae are displayed to even better purpose in the industrial business of motherhood than in the art of the chase. The silk bag, the nest, in which the Banded Epeira houses her eggs, is a much greater marvel than the bird's nest. In shape, it is an inverted balloon, nearly the size of a Pigeon's egg. The top tapers like a pear and is cut short and crowned with a scalloped rim, the corners of which are lengthened by means of moorings that fasten the object to the adjoining twigs. The whole, a graceful ovoid, hangs straight down, amid a few threads that steady it.
The top is hollowed into a crater closed with a silky padding. Every other part is contained in the general wrapper, formed of thick, compact white satin, difficult to break and impervious to moisture. Brown and even black silk, laid out in abroad ribbons, in spindle-shaped patterns, in fanciful meridian waves, adorns the upper portion of the exterior. The part played by this fabric is self-evident: it is a waterproof cover which neither dew nor rain can penetrate.
Exposed to all the inclemencies of the weather, among the dead grasses, close to the ground, the Epeira's nest has also to protect its contents from the winter cold. Let us cut the wrapper with our scissors. Underneath, we find a thick layer of reddish-brown silk, not worked into a fabric this time, but puffed into an extra-fine wadding. It is a fleecy cloud, an incomparable quilt, softer than any swan's-down. This is the screen set up against loss of heat.
And what does this cosy mass protect? See: in the middle of the eiderdown hangs a cylindrical pocket, round at the bottom, cut square at the top and closed with a padded lid. It is made of extremely fine satin; it contains the Epeira's eggs, pretty little orange-coloured beads, which, glued together, form a globule the size of a pea. This is the treasure to be defended against the asperities of the winter.
Now that we know the structure of the work, let us try to see in what manner the spinstress sets about it. The observation is not an easy one, for the Banded Epeira is a night-worker. She needs nocturnal quiet in order not to go astray amid the complicated rules that guide her industry. Now and again, at very early hours in the morning, I have happened to catch her working, which enables me to sum up the progress of the operations.
My subjects are busy in their bell-shaped cages, at about the middle of August. A scaffolding is first run up, at the top of the dome; it consists of a few stretched threads. The wire trellis represents the twigs and the blades of grass which the Spider, if at liberty, would have used as suspension-points. The loom works on this shaky support. The Epeira does not see what she is doing; she turns her back on her task. The machinery is so well put together that the whole thing goes automatically.
The tip of the abdomen sways, a little to the right, a little to the left, rises and falls, while the Spider moves slowly round and round. The thread paid out is single. The hind-legs draw it out and place it in position on that which is already done. Thus is formed a satin receptacle the rim of which is gradually raised until it becomes a bag about a centimetre deep. The texture is of the daintiest. Guy-ropes bind it to the nearest threads and keep it stretched, especially at the mouth.
Then the spinnerets take a rest and the turn of the ovaries comes. A continuous shower of eggs falls into the bag, which is filled to the top. The capacity of the receptacle has been so nicely calculated that there is room for all the eggs, without leaving any space unoccupied. When the Spider has finished and retires, I catch a momentary glimpse of the heap of orange-coloured eggs; but the work of the spinnerets is at once resumed.
The next business is to close the bag. The machinery works a little differently. The tip of the belly no longer sways from side to side. It sinks and touches a point; it retreats, sinks again and touches another point, first here, then there, describing inextricable zigzags. At the same time, the hind-legs tread the material emitted. The result is no longer a stuff, but a felt, a blanketing.
Around the satin capsule, which contains the eggs, is the eiderdown destined to keep out the cold. The youngsters will bide for some time in this soft shelter, to strengthen their joints and prepare for the final exodus. It does not take long to make. The spinning-mill suddenly alters the raw material: it was turning out white silk; it now furnishes reddish-brown silk, finer than the other and issuing in clouds which the hind-legs, those dexterous carders, beat into a sort of froth. The egg-pocket disappears, drowned in this exquisite wadding.
The balloon-shape is already outlined; the top of the work tapers to a neck. The Spider, moving up and down, tacking first to one side and then to the other, from the very first spray marks out the graceful form as accurately as though she carried a compass in her abdomen.
Then, once again, with the same suddenness, the material changes. The white silk reappears, wrought into thread. This is the moment to weave the outer wrapper. Because of the thickness of the stuff and the density of its texture, this operation is the longest of the series.
First, a few threads are flung out, hither and thither, to keep the layer of wadding in position. The Epeira takes special pains with the edge of the neck, where she fashions an indented border, the angles of which, prolonged with cords or lines, form the main support of the building. The spinnerets never touch this part without giving it, each time, until the end of the work, a certain added solidity, necessary to secure the stability of the balloon. The suspensory indentations soon outline a crater which needs plugging. The Spider closes the bag with a padded stopper similar to that with which she sealed the egg-pocket.
When these arrangements are made, the real manufacture of the wrapper begins. The Spider goes backwards and forwards, turns and turns again. The spinnerets do not touch the fabric. With a rhythmical, alternate movement, the hind-legs, the sole implements employed, draw the thread, seize it in their combs and apply it to the work, while the tip of the abdomen sways methodically to and fro.
In this way, the silken fibre is distributed in an even zigzag, of almost geometrical precision and comparable with that of the cotton thread which the machines in our factories roll so neatly into balls. And this is repeated all over the surface of the work, for the Spider shifts her position a little at every moment.
At fairly frequent intervals, the tip of the abdomen is lifted to the mouth of the balloon; and then the spinnerets really touch the fringed edge. The length of contact is even considerable. We find, therefore, that the thread is stuck in this star-shaped fringe, the foundation of the building and the crux of the whole, while every elsewhere it is simply laid on, in a manner determined by the movements of the hind-legs. If we wished to unwind the work, the thread would break at the margin; at any other point, it would unroll.
The Epeira ends her web with a dead-white, angular flourish; she ends her nest with brown mouldings, which run down, irregularly, from the marginal junction to the bulging middle. For this purpose, she makes use, for the third time, of a different silk; she now produces silk of a dark hue, varying from russet to black. The spinnerets distribute the material with a wide longitudinal swing, from pole to pole; and the hind-legs apply it in capricious ribbons. When this is done, the work is finished. The Spider moves away with slow strides, without giving a glance at the bag. The rest does not interest her: time and the sun will see to it.
She felt her hour at hand and came down from her web. Near by, in the rank grass, she wove the tabernacle of her offspring and, in so doing, drained her resources. To resume her hunting-post, to return to her web would be useless to her: she has not the wherewithal to bind the prey. Besides, the fine appetite of former days has gone. Withered and languid, she drags out her existence for a few days and, at last, dies. This is how things happen in my cages; this is how they must happen in the brushwood.
The Silky Epeira (Epeira sericea, OLIV.) excels the Banded Epeira in the manufacture of big hunting-nets, but she is less gifted in the art of nest-building. She gives her nest the inelegant form of an obtuse cone. The opening of this pocket is very wide and is scalloped into lobes by which the edifice is slung. It is closed with a large lid, half satin, half swan's-down. The rest is a stout white fabric, frequently covered with irregular brown streaks.
The difference between the work of the two Epeirae does not extend beyond the wrapper, which is an obtuse cone in the one case and a balloon in the other. The same internal arrangements prevail behind this frontage: first, a flossy quilt; next, a little keg in which the eggs are packed. Though the two Spiders build the outer wall according to special architectural rules, they both employ the same means as a protection against the cold.
As we see, the egg-bag of the Epeirae, particularly that of the Banded Epeira, is an important and complex work. Various materials enter into its composition: white silk, red silk, brown silk; moreover, these materials are worked into dissimilar products: stout cloth, soft eiderdown, dainty satinette, porous felt. And all of this comes from the same workshop that weaves the hunting-net, warps the zigzag ribbon-band and casts an entangling shroud over the prey.
What a wonderful silk-factory it is! With a very simple and never-varying plant, consisting of the hind-legs and the spinnerets, it produces, by turns, rope-maker's, spinner's, weaver's, ribbon-maker's and fuller's work. How does the Spider direct an establishment of this kind? How does she obtain, at will, skeins of diverse hues and grades? How does she turn them out, first in this fashion, then in that? I see the results, but I do not understand the machinery and still less the process. It beats me altogether.
The Spider also sometimes loses her head in her difficult trade, when some trouble disturbs the peace of her nocturnal labours. I do not provoke this trouble myself, for I am not present at those unseasonable hours. It is simply due to the conditions prevailing in my menagerie.
In their natural state, the Epeirae settle separately, at long distances from one another. Each has her own hunting-grounds, where there is no reason to fear the competition that would result from the close proximity of the nets. In my cages, on the other hand, there is cohabitation. In order to save space, I lodge two or three Epeirae in the same cage. My easy-going captives live together in peace. There is no strife between them, no encroaching on the neighbour's property. Each of them weaves herself a rudimentary web, as far from the rest as possible, and here, rapt in contemplation, as though indifferent to what the others are doing, she awaits the hop of the Locust.
Nevertheless, these close quarters have their drawbacks when laying-time arrives. The cords by which the different establishments are hung interlace and criss-cross in a confused network. When one of them shakes, all the others are more or less affected. This is enough to distract the layer from her business and to make her do silly things. Here are two instances.
A bag has been woven during the night. I find it, when I visit the cage in the morning, hanging from the trellis-work and completed. It is perfect, as regards structure; it is decorated with the regulation black meridian curves. There is nothing missing, nothing except the essential thing, the eggs, for which the spinstress has gone to such expense in the matter of silks. Where are the eggs? They are not in the bag, which I open and find empty. They are lying on the ground below, on the sand in the pan, utterly unprotected.
Disturbed at the moment of discharging them, the mother has missed the mouth of the little bag and dropped them on the floor. Perhaps even, in her excitement, she came down from above and, compelled by the exigencies of the ovaries, laid her eggs on the first support that offered. No matter: if her Spider brain contains the least gleam of sense, she must be aware of the disaster and is therefore bound at once to abandon the elaborate manufacture of a now superfluous nest.
Not at all: the bag is woven around nothing, as accurate in shape, as finished in structure as under normal conditions. The absurd perseverance displayed by certain Bees, whose egg and provisions I used to remove, is here repeated without the slightest interference from me. My victims used scrupulously to seal up their empty cells. In the same way, the Epeira puts the eiderdown quilting and the taffeta wrapper round a capsule that contains nothing.
Another, distracted from her work by some startling vibration, leaves her nest at the moment when the layer of red-brown wadding is being completed. She flees to the dome, at a few inches above her unfinished work, and spends upon a shapeless mattress, of no use whatever, all the silk with which she would have woven the outer wrapper if nothing had come to disturb her.
Poor fool! You upholster the wires of your cage with swan's-down and you leave the eggs imperfectly protected. The absence of the work already executed and the hardness of the metal do not warn you that you are now engaged upon a senseless task. You remind me of the Pelopaeus, who used to coat with mud the place on the wall whence her nest had been removed. You speak to me, in your own fashion, of a strange psychology which is able to reconcile the wonders of a master craftsmanship with aberrations due to unfathomable stupidity.
Let us compare the work of the Banded Epeira with that of the Penduline Titmouse, the cleverest of our small birds in the art of nest-building. This Tit haunts the osier-beds of the lower reaches of the Rhone. Rocking gently in the river breeze, his nest sways pendent over the peaceful backwaters, at some distance from the too-impetuous current. It hangs from the drooping end of the branch of a poplar, an old willow or an alder, all of them tall trees, favouring the banks of streams.
It consists of a cotton bag, closed all round, save for a small opening at the side, just sufficient to allow of the mother's passage. In shape, it resembles the body of an alembic, a chemist's retort with a short lateral neck, or, better still, the foot of a stocking, with the edges brought together, but for a little round hole left at one side. The outward appearances increase the likeness: one can almost see the traces of a knitting-needle working with coarse stitches. That is why, struck by this shape, the Provençal peasant, in his expressive language, calls the Penduline lou Debassaire, the Stocking-knitter.
The early-ripening seedlets of the widows and poplars furnish the materials for the work. There breaks from them, in May, a sort of vernal snow, a fine down, which the eddies of the air heap in the crevices of the ground. It is a cotton similar to that of our manufactures, but of very short staple. It comes from an inexhaustible warehouse: the tree is bountiful; and the wind from the osier-beds gathers the tiny flocks as they pour from the seeds. They are easy to pick up.
The difficulty is to set to work. How does the bird proceed, in order to knit its stocking? How, with such simple implements as its beak and claws, does it manage to produce a fabric which our skilled fingers would fail to achieve? An examination of the nest will inform us, to a certain extent.
The cotton of the poplar cannot, of itself, supply a hanging pocket capable of supporting the weight of the brood and resisting the buffeting of the wind. Rammed, entangled and packed together, the flocks, similar to those which ordinary wadding would give if chopped up very fine, would produce only an agglomeration devoid of cohesion and liable to be dispelled by the first breath of air. They require a canvas, a warp, to keep them in position.
Tiny dead stalks, with fibrous barks, well softened by the action of moisture and the air, furnish the Penduline with a coarse tow, not unlike that of hemp. With these ligaments, purged of every woody particle and tested for flexibility and tenacity, he winds a number of loops round the end of the branch which he has selected as a support for his structure.
It is not a very accurate piece of work. The loops run clumsily and anyhow: some are slacker, others tighter; but, when all is said, it is solid, which is the main point. Also, this fibrous sheath, the keystone of the edifice, occupies a fair length of branch, which enables the fastenings for the net to be multiplied.
The several straps, after describing a certain number of turns, ravel out at the ends and hang loose. After them come interlaced threads, greater in number and finer in texture. In the tangled jumble occur what might almost be described as weaver's knots. As far as one can judge by the result alone, without having seen the bird at work, this is how the canvas, the support of the cotton wall, is obtained.
This warp, this inner framework, is obviously not constructed in its entirety from the start; it goes on gradually, as the bird stuffs the part above it with cotton. The wadding, picked up bit by bit from the ground, is teazled by the bird's claws and inserted, all fleecy, into the meshes of the canvas. The beak pushes it, the breast presses it, both inside and out. The result is a soft felt a couple of inches thick.
Near the top of the pouch, on one side, is contrived a narrow orifice, tapering into a short neck. This is the kitchen-door. In order to pass through it, the Penduline, small though he be, has to force the elastic partition, which yields slightly and then contracts. Lastly, the house is furnished with a mattress of first-quality cotton. Here lie from six to eight white eggs, the size of a cherry-stone.
Well, this wonderful nest is a barbarous casemate compared with that of the Banded Epeira. As regards shape, this stocking-foot cannot be mentioned in the same breath with the Spider's elegant and faultlessly-rounded balloon. The fabric of mixed cotton and tow is a rustic frieze beside the spinstress' satin; the suspension-straps are clumsy cables compared with her delicate silk fastenings. Where shall we find in the Penduline's mattress aught to vie with the Epeira's eiderdown, that teazled russet gossamer? The Spider is superior to the bird in every way, in so far as concerns her work.
But, on her side, the Penduline is a more devoted mother. For weeks on end, squatting at the bottom of her purse, she presses to her heart the eggs, those little white pebbles from which the warmth of her body will bring forth life. The Epeira knows not these softer passions. Without bestowing a second glance an it, she abandons her nest to its fate, be it good or ill.