Chapter IX. The Garden Spiders: Building the Web

Jean-Henri Fabre The Life of the Spider

garden spider

Garden Spider (Araneus Diadematus)

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 Sambe, 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 Sambe, 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 frame-work, 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 sign-post, 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 rope-construction. 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 sign-post 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. (1)

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 resting-floor, 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 right-handed. 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 tomorrow, becomes convinced that the Epeira is highly ambidextrous.

Translator's No­te: 1. .39 inch.

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