The Story Book of Science  by Jean Henri Fabre

The Chase

U NCLE PAUL had said: "Let us get up early in the morning." No one had to be called. One sleeps little when one is going to see an epeira hunt. About seven o'clock, with the sun shining bright, they were at the border of the stream. The cobweb was finished. Some dewdrops hanging to the threads shone like pearls. Hence the spider was not yet in the center of the net; no doubt it was waiting, before descending from its room, for the sun to dissipate the morning dampness. The party sat down on the grass for breakfast, at the very foot of the alder-tree to which were fastened the cables of the net. Blue damsel-flies flew from one tuft of rushes to another and chased each other playfully. Beware, you giddy ones, who will not know how to avoid the web by passing over and under it! Ah! it has happened; so much the worse for the victim. When one plays foolishly with one's companions, one must at least look where one is going. A dragon-fly is caught in the meshes of the web. With one wing free it struggles to escape. It shakes the web, but the cables hold in spite of the shaking. Threads in communication with the resting-room warn the epeira, by their agitation, of the important things taking place in the net. The spider hastily descends, but it does not get there in time. With a desperate stroke of its wing the dragon-fly frees itself and escapes, tearing a large hole in the web.



"Oh! how well it got out!" cried Jules. "A little more and the poor thing would have been eaten alive. Did you see, Emile, how quickly the spider ran down from its hiding place when it felt the web move! The hunt begins badly; the game escapes and the net is torn."

"Yes, but the spider is going to mend it," his uncle reassured him.

And, in fact, as soon as it had recovered from its misadventure, the epeira renewed the broken threads with delicate dexterity. The darning finished, the damage could hardly be detected. The spider now takes its place in the center of the network: the right moment for the chase has come, apparently, and it is advisable for it to pounce upon the game as quickly as possible, to avoid other misadventures. It spreads its eight feet in a circle, to receive the slightest movement that may come at any point of the web, and it waits, completely motionless.

The dragon-flies continue their evolutions. Not one is caught: the recent alarm has rendered them circumspect; they fly around the web to pass beyond it. Oh! oh! what is that coming so giddily and striking its head against the network? It is a little bumble-bee, all velvety and black, with a red stomach. It is caught. The epeira runs. But the captive is vigorous and formidable; perhaps it has a sting. The spider mistrusts it. It draws a thread from its spinneret and passes it quickly over the bee. A second silk string, a third, a fourth, soon subdue the captive's desperate efforts. Here is the bee strangled but still full of life, and menacing. To seize it in that state would be great imprudence: the epeira's life would be at stake. What must be done so as to leave nothing to fear from this dangerous prey? The spider possesses, folded under its head, two sharp-pointed fangs, which let flow a little drop of poison through a hole in their extremities. That is its hunting weapon. The epeira approaches cautiously, opens its fangs, stings the bee, and immediately moves aside. In the twinkling of an eye it is all over. The poison acts instantly: the bee trembles, its legs stiffen, it is dead. The spider carries it off to its silken chamber to suck it at leisure. When nothing but the skin is left, the spider will throw the remains of the bee far from its domicile, so as not to soil its web with a corpse that might frighten other game.

"It was done so quickly," complained Jules, "I did not see the spider's poisonous fangs. If we were to wait a little longer, another bumble-bee might perhaps come and then I should see it better."

"It is not necessary to wait," replied Uncle Paul. "If we proceed skilfully we can make the spider recommence its hunting manœuvers. All of you look attentively."

Uncle Paul searched among the field flowers for a moment and caught a large fly; then, holding it by one wing, put it near the web. The insect, beating about, gets entangled in the threads. The web shakes, the spider leaves its bee and runs, delighted with the fortunate chance that brings him prey again so quickly. The same manœuvers begin again. The fly is first strangled; the epeira opens its pointed fangs, stings the fly a little, and all is over. The victim trembles, stretches itself out, and ceases to move.

"Ah! that time I saw it," said Jules, satisfied at last.

"Claire, did you notice the fineness of the spider's fangs?" asked Emile. "I am sure that in your needle-case you haven't any such fine-pointed needles."

"I dare say not. As for me, what surprises me the most is not the fineness of the spider's fangs, but the quickness of the victim's death. It seems to me that a fly as large as this one ought not to die so quickly even from the coarser pricks of our needles."

"Very true," assented her uncle. "An insect transfixed by a pin still lives a long time; but if it is only pricked by the fine point of the spider's fangs, it dies almost instantly. But then, the spider takes care to poison its weapon. Its fangs are venomous; they are perforated by a minute canal through which the spider lets flow at will a scarcely visible little drop of liquid called venom, which the creature makes as it makes the silk liquid. The venom is held in reserve in a slender pocket placed in the interior of the fangs. When the spider pricks its prey, it makes a little of this liquid pass into the wound, and that suffices to bring speedy death to the wounded insect. The victim dies, not from the prick itself, but from the dreadful ravages wrought by the venom discharged into the wound."

Here Uncle Paul, in order to give his hearers a better view of the poisonous fangs, took the epeira with the tips of his fingers. Claire uttered a cry of fear, but her uncle soon calmed her.

"Don't be uneasy, my dear child: the poison that kills a fly will have no effect on Uncle Paul's hard skin."

And with the aid of a pin he opened the creature's fangs to show them in detail to the children, who were quite reassured.

"You must not be too frightened," he continued, "at the quick death of the fly and of the bumble-bee, and so look on spiders as creatures to be feared by us. The fangs of most of them would have great difficulty in piercing our skin. Courageous observers have let themselves be bitten by the various spiders of our country. The sting has never produced any serious results; nothing more than a redness less painful than that produced by the sting of a mosquito. At the same time, persons with a delicate skin ought to beware of the large kinds, were it only to spare themselves a passing pain. Without any excessive alarm we avoid the wasp's sting, which is very painful; let us avoid the spider's fangs in the same way without uttering loud cries at the sight of one of these creatures. We will resume the subject of the venomous insects. But it is late; let us go."