Chapter VIII. The Crab Spider

Jean-Henri Fabre The Life of the Spider

crab spider

Crab Spider (Xysticus)

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 fore-legs 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—[Greek text], 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 silk-warehouse 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 clear-sighted 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 brush-wood 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.

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