The Story Book of Science  by Jean Henri Fabre


O NE morning, Mother Ambroisine was chopping herbs and cooked apples for a brood of little chickens hatched not long before. A large gray spider, letting itself slide the length of its thread, descended from the ceiling to the good woman's shoulders. At sight of the creature with long velvety legs, Mother Ambroisine could not suppress a cry of fear, and, shaking her shoulder, made the insect fall, and crushed it under her foot. "Spider in the morning stands for mourning," said she to herself. At this instant Uncle Paul and Claire entered.



"No, sir, it is not right," said Mother Ambroisine, "that we poor mortals should have so much useless trouble. Twelve little chickens are hatched out for us, bright as gold; and just as I am preparing them something to eat, a villainous spider falls on my shoulder."

And Mother Ambroisine pointed with her finger at the crushed insect with its legs still trembling.

"I do not see that those little chickens have anything to fear from the spider," remarked Uncle Paul.

"Oh! nothing, sir: the horrid creature is dead. But you know the proverb: 'Spider in the morning, mourning; spider at night, delight.' Everybody knows that a spider seen in the morning is a sign of bad luck. Our little chickens are in danger; the cats will claw them. You'll see, sir, you'll see."

Tears of emotion came to Mother Ambroisine's eyes.

"Put the little chickens in a safe place, watch the cats, and I will answer for the rest. The proverb of the spider is only a foolish prejudice," said Uncle Paul.

Mother Ambroisine did not utter another word. She knew that Maître Paul found a reason for everything, and on occasion was capable of pronouncing a eulogy on the spider. Claire, who saw this eulogy coming, ventured a question.

"I know: in your eyes all animals, however hideous they may be, have excellent excuses to plead: all merit consideration; all play a part ordained by Providence; all are interesting to observe and to study. You are the advocate of the good God's creatures; you would plead for the toad. But permit your niece to see there only an impulse of your kind heart, and not the real truth. What could you say in praise of the spider, horrid beast, which is poisonous and disfigures the ceiling with its webs?"

"What could I say? Much, my dear child, much. In the meantime, feed your little chickens and beware of cats if you want to prove the spider proverb false."

In the evening Mother Ambroisine, her large round spectacles on her nose, was knitting stockings. On her knees the cat slept and mingled its purring with the tick-tack of the needles. The children were waiting for the story of the spider. Their uncle began.

"Which of you three can tell me what spiders do with their webs, those fine webs stretched in the corners of the granary or between two shrubs in the garden?"

Emile spoke first. "It is their nest, Uncle, their house, their hiding-place."

"Hiding place!" exclaimed Jules; "yes, I think it is more than that. One day I heard, between the lilac branches, a little shrill noise—he-e-e-e!  A blue fly was entangled in a cobweb and trying to escape. It was the fly that was making the noise with its fluttering. A spider ran from the bottom of the silken funnel, seized the fly, and carried it off to its hole, doubtless to eat it. Since then I have thought spiders' webs were hunting nets."

"That is even so," said his uncle. "All spiders live on live prey; they make continual war on flies, gnats, and other insects. If you fear mosquitoes, those insufferable little insects that sting us at night until they bring blood, you must bless the spider, for it does its best to rid us of them. To catch game, a net is necessary. Now, the net to catch flies in their flight is a cloth woven with silk, which the spider itself produces.

"In the body of the insect the silky matter is, as with caterpillars, a sticky liquid resembling glue or gum. As soon as it comes in contact with the air, this matter congeals, hardens, and becomes a thread on which water has no effect. When the spider wants to spin, the silk liquid flows from four nipples, called spinnerets, placed at the end of the stomach. These nipples are pierced at their extremity by a number of holes, like the sprinkler of a watering-pot. The number of these holes for all the nipples is roughly reckoned as a thousand. Each one lets its tiny little jet of liquid flow, which hardens and becomes thread; and from a thousand threads stuck together into one results the final thread employed by the spider. To designate something very fine there is no better term of comparison than the spider's thread. It is so delicate, in fact, that it can only just be seen. Our silk threads, those of the finest textures, are cables in comparison, cables of two, three, four strands, while this one, in its unequaled tenuity, contains a thousand. How many spiders' threads are required to make a strand of the thickness of a hair? Not far from ten. And how many elementary threads, such as issue from the separate holes of the spinneret? Ten thousand. To what a degree of tenuity then this silky matter can be reduced that stretches out in threads of which it takes ten thousand to equal the size of one hair! What marvels, my children, and only to catch a fly that is to serve for the spider's dinner!"