Chapter X. The Garden Spiders: my Neighbour

Jean-Henri Fabre The Life of the Spider

golden spider

Golden Garden Spider (Argiope aurantia)

Age does not modify the Epeira's talent in any essential feature. As the young worked, so do the old, the richer by a year's experience. There are no masters nor apprentices in their guild; all know their craft from the moment that the first thread is laid. We have learnt something from the novices: let us now look into the matter of their elders and see what additional task the needs of age impose upon them.

July comes and gives me exactly what I wish for. While the new inhabitants are twisting their ropes on the rosemaries in the enclosure, one evening, by the last gleams of twilight, I discover a splendid Spider, with a mighty belly, just outside my door. This one is a matron; she dates back to last year; her majestic corpulence, so exceptional at this season, proclaims the fact. I know her for the Angular Epeira (Epeira angulata, WALCK.), clad in grey and girdled with two dark stripes that meet in a point at the back. The base of her abdomen swells into a short nipple on either side.

This neighbour will certainly serve my turn, provided that she do not work too late at night. Things bode well: I catch the buxom one in the act of laying her first threads. At this rate my success need not be won at the expense of sleep. And, in fact, I am able, throughout the month of July and the greater part of August, from eight to ten o'clock in the evening, to watch the construction of the web, which is more or less ruined nightly by the incidents of the chase and built up again, next day, when too seriously dilapidated.

During the two stifling months, when the light fails and a spell of coolness follows upon the furnace-heat of the day, it is easy for me, lantern in hand, to watch my neighbour's various operations. She has taken up her abode, at a convenient height for observation, between a row of cypress-trees and a clump of laurels, near the entrance to an alley haunted by Moths. The spot appears well-chosen, for the Epeira does not change it throughout the season, though she renews her net almost every night.

Punctually as darkness falls, our whole family goes and calls upon her. Big and little, we stand amazed at her wealth of belly and her exuberant somersaults in the maze of quivering ropes; we admire the faultless geometry of the net as it gradually takes shape. All agleam in the lantern-light, the work becomes a fairy orb, which seems woven of moonbeams.

Should I linger, in my anxiety to clear up certain details, the household, which by this time is in bed, waits for my return before going to sleep:

‚What has she been doing this evening?‘ I am asked. ‚Has she finished her web? Has she caught a Moth?‘

I describe what has happened. To-morrow, they will be in a less hurry to go to bed: they will want to see everything, to the very end. What delightful, simple evenings we have spent looking into the Spider's workshop!

The journal of the Angular Epeira, written up day by day, teaches us, first of all, how she obtains the ropes that form the frame-work of the building. All day invisible, crouching amid the cypress-leaves, the Spider, at about eight o'clock in the evening, solemnly emerges from her retreat and makes for the top of a branch. In this exalted position, she sits for some time laying her plans with due regard to the locality; she consults the weather, ascertains if the night will be fine. Then, suddenly, with her eight legs wide-spread, she lets herself drop straight down, hanging to the line that issues from her spinnerets. Just as the rope-maker obtains the even output of his hemp by walking backwards, so does the Epeira obtain the discharge of hers by falling. It is extracted by the weight of her body.

The descent, however, has not the brute speed which the force of gravity would give it, if uncontrolled. It is governed by the action of the spinnerets, which contract or expand their pores, or close them entirely, at the faller's pleasure. And so, with gentle moderation she pays out this living plumb-line, of which my lantern clearly shows me the plumb, but not always the line. The great squab seems at such times to be sprawling in space, without the least support.

She comes to an abrupt stop two inches from the ground; the silk-reel ceases working. The Spider turns round, clutches the line which she has just obtained and climbs up by this road, still spinning. But, this time, as she is no longer assisted by the force of gravity, the thread is extracted in another manner. The two hind-legs, with a quick alternate action, draw it from the wallet and let it go.

On returning to her starting-point, at a height of six feet or more, the Spider is now in possession of a double line, bent into a loop and floating loosely in a current of air. She fixes her end where it suits her and waits until the other end, wafted by the wind, has fastened its loop to the adjacent twigs.

The desired result may be very slow in coming. It does not tire the unfailing patience of the Epeira, but it soon wears out mine. And it has happened to me sometimes to collaborate with the Spider. I pick up the floating loop with a straw and lay it on a branch, at a convenient height. The foot-bridge erected with my assistance is considered satisfactory, just as though the wind had placed it. I count this collaboration among the good actions standing to my credit.

Feeling her thread fixed, the Epeira runs along it repeatedly, from end to end, adding a fibre to it on each journey. Whether I help or not, this forms the ‚suspension-cable,‘ the main piece of the frame-work. I call it a cable, in spite of its extreme thinness, because of its structure. It looks as though it were single, but, at the two ends, it is seen to divide and spread, tuft-wise, into numerous constituent parts, which are the product of as many crossings. These diverging fibres, with their several contact-points, increase the steadiness of the two extremities.

The suspension-cable is incomparably stronger than the rest of the work and lasts for an indefinite time. The web is generally shattered after the night's hunting and is nearly always rewoven on the following evening. After the removal of the wreckage, it is made all over again, on the same site, cleared of everything except the cable from which the new network is to hang.

The laying of this cable is a somewhat difficult matter, because the success of the enterprise does not depend upon the animal's industry alone. It has to wait until a breeze carries the line to the pier-head in the bushes. Sometimes, a calm prevails; sometimes, the thread catches at an unsuitable point. This involves great expenditure of time, with no certainty of success. And so, when once the suspension-cable is in being, well and solidly placed, the Epeira does not change it, except on critical occasions. Every evening, she passes and repasses over it, strengthening it with fresh threads.

When the Epeira cannot manage a fall of sufficient depth to give her the double line with its loop to be fixed at a distance, she employs another method. She lets herself down and then climbs up again, as we have already seen; but, this time, the thread ends suddenly in a filmy hair-pencil, a tuft, whose parts remain disjoined, just as they come from the spinneret's rose. Then this sort of bushy fox's brush is cut short, as though with a pair of scissors, and the whole thread, when unfurled, doubles its length, which is now enough for the purpose. It is fastened by the end joined to the Spider; the other floats in the air, with its spreading tuft, which easily tangles in the bushes. Even so must the Banded Epeira go to work when she throws her daring suspension-bridge across a stream.

Once the cable is laid, in this way or in that, the Spider is in possession of a base that allows her to approach or withdraw from the leafy piers at will. From the height of the cable, the upper boundary of the projected works, she lets herself slip to a slight depth, varying the points of her fall. She climbs up again by the line produced by her descent. The result of the operation is a double thread which is unwound while the Spider walks along her big foot-bridge to the contact-branch, where she fixes the free end of her thread more or less low down. In this way, she obtains, to right and left, a few slanting cross-bars, connecting the cable with the branches.

These cross-bars, in their turn, support others in ever-changing directions. When there are enough of them, the Epeira need no longer resort to falls in order to extract her threads; she goes from one cord to the next, always wire-drawing with her hind-legs and placing her produce in position as she goes. This results in a combination of straight lines owning no order, save that they are kept in one, nearly perpendicular plane. They mark a very irregular polygonal area, wherein the web, itself a work of magnificent regularity, shall presently be woven.

It is unnecessary to go over the construction of the masterpiece again; the younger Spiders have taught us enough in this respect. In both cases, we see the same equidistant radii laid, with a central landmark for a guide; the same auxiliary spiral, the scaffolding of temporary rungs, soon doomed to disappear; the same snaring-spiral, with its maze of closely-woven coils. Let us pass on: other details call for our attention.

The laying of the snaring-spiral is an exceedingly delicate operation, because of the regularity of the work. I was bent upon knowing whether, if subjected to the din of unaccustomed sounds, the Spider would hesitate and blunder. Does she work imperturbably? Or does she need undisturbed quiet? As it is, I know that my presence and that of my light hardly trouble her at all. The sudden flashes emitted by my lantern have no power to distract her from her task. She continues to turn in the light even as she turned in the dark, neither faster nor slower. This is a good omen for the experiment which I have in view.

The first Sunday in August is the feast of the patron saint of the village, commemorating the Finding of St. Stephen. This is Tuesday, the third day of the rejoicings. There will be fireworks to-night, at nine o'clock, to conclude the merry-makings. They will take place on the high-road outside my door, at a few steps from the spot where my Spider is working. The spinstress is busy upon her great spiral at the very moment when the village big-wigs arrive with trumpet and drum and small boys carrying torches.

More interested in animal psychology than in pyrotechnical displays, I watch the Epeira's doings, lantern in hand. The hullabaloo of the crowd, the reports of the mortars, the crackle of Roman candles bursting in the sky, the hiss of the rockets, the rain of sparks, the sudden flashes of white, red or blue light: none of this disturbs the worker, who methodically turns and turns again, just as she does in the peace of ordinary evenings.

Once before, the gun which I fired under the plane-trees failed to trouble the concert of the Cicadae; to-day, the dazzling light of the fire-wheels and the splutter of the crackers do not avail to distract the Spider from her weaving. And, after all, what difference would it make to my neighbour if the world fell in! The village could be blown up with dynamite, without her losing her head for such a trifle. She would calmly go on with her web.

Let us return to the Spider manufacturing her net under the usual tranquil conditions. The great spiral has been finished, abruptly, on the confines of the resting-floor. The central cushion, a mat of ends of saved thread, is next pulled up and eaten. But, before indulging in this mouthful, which closes the proceedings, two Spiders, the only two of the order, the Banded and the Silky Epeira, have still to sign their work. A broad, white ribbon is laid, in a thick zigzag, from the centre to the lower edge of the orb. Sometimes, but not always, a second band of the same shape and of lesser length occupies the upper portion, opposite the first.

I like to look upon these odd flourishes as consolidating-gear. To begin with, the young Epeirae never use them. For the moment, heedless of the future and lavish of their silk, they remake their web nightly, even though it be none too much dilapidated and might well serve again. A brand-new snare at sunset is the rule with them. And there is little need for increased solidity when the work has to be done again on the morrow.

On the other hand, in the late autumn, the full-grown Spiders, feeling laying-time at hand, are driven to practise economy, in view of the great expenditure of silk required for the egg-bag. Owing to its large size, the net now becomes a costly work which it were well to use as long as possible, for fear of finding one's reserves exhausted when the time comes for the expensive construction of the nest. For this reason, or for others which escape me, the Banded and the Silky Epeirae think it wise to produce durable work and to strengthen their toils with a cross-ribbon. The other Epeirae, who are put to less expense in the fabrication of their maternal wallet—a mere pill—are unacquainted with the zigzag binder and, like the younger Spiders, reconstruct their web almost nightly.

My fat neighbour, the Angular Epeira, consulted by the light of a lantern, shall tell us how the renewal of the net proceeds. As the twilight fades, she comes down cautiously from her day-dwelling; she leaves the foliage of the cypresses for the suspension-cable of her snare. Here she stands for some time; then, descending to her web, she collects the wreckage in great armfuls. Everything— spiral, spokes and frame—is raked up with her legs. One thing alone is spared and that is the suspension-cable, the sturdy piece of work that has served as a foundation for the previous buildings and will serve for the new after receiving a few strengthening repairs.

The collected ruins form a pill which the Spider consumes with the same greed that she would show in swallowing her prey. Nothing remains. This is the second instance of the Spiders' supreme economy of their silk. We have seen them, after the manufacture of the net, eating the central guide-post, a modest mouthful; we now see them gobbling up the whole web, a meal. Refined and turned into fluid by the stomach, the materials of the old net will serve for other purposes.

As goon as the site is thoroughly cleared, the work of the frame and the net begins on the support of the suspension-cable which was respected. Would it not be simpler to restore the old web, which might serve many times yet, if a few rents were just repaired? One would say so; but does the Spider know how to patch her work, as a thrifty housewife darns her linen? That is the question.

To mend severed meshes, to replace broken threads, to adjust the new to the old, in short, to restore the original order by assembling the wreckage would be a far-reaching feat of prowess, a very fine proof of gleams of intelligence, capable of performing rational calculations. Our menders excel in this class of work. They have as their guide their sense, which measures the holes, cuts the new piece to size and fits it into its proper place. Does the Spider possess the counterpart of this habit of clear thinking?

People declare as much, without, apparently, looking into the matter very closely. They seem able to dispense with the conscientious observer's scru­ples, when inflating their bladder of theory. They go straight ahead; and that is enough. As for ourselves, less greatly daring, we will first enquire; we will see by experiment if the Spider really knows how to repair her work.

The Angular Epeira, that near neighbour who has already supplied me with so many documents, has just finished her web, at nine o'clock in the evening. It is a splendid night, calm and warm, favourable to the rounds of the Moths. All promises good hunting. At the moment when, after completing the great spiral, the Epeira is about to eat the central cushion and settle down upon her resting-floor, I cut the web in two, diagonally, with a pair of sharp scissors. The sagging of the spokes, deprived of their counter-agents, produces an empty space, wide enough for three fingers to pass through.

The Spider retreats to her cable and looks on without being greatly frightened. When I have done, she quietly returns. She takes her stand on one of the halves, at the spot which was the centre of the original orb; but, as her legs find no footing on one side, she soon realizes that the snare is defective. Thereupon, two threads are stretched across the breach, two threads, no more; the legs that lacked a foothold spread across them; and henceforth the Epeira moves no more, devoting her attention to the incidents of the chase.

When I saw those two threads laid, joining the edges of the rent, I began to hope that I was to witness a mending-process:

‚The Spider,‘ said I to myself, ‚will increase the number of those cross-threads from end to end of the breach; and, though the added piece may not match the rest of the work, at least it will fill the gap and the continuous sheet will be of the same use practically as the regular web.‘

The reality did not answer to my expectation. The spinstress made no further endeavour all night. She hunted with her riven net, for what it was worth; for I found the web next morning in the same condition wherein I had left it on the night before. There had been no mending of any kind.

The two threads stretched across the breach even must not be taken for an attempt at repairing. Finding no foothold for her legs on one side, the Spider went to look into the state of things and, in so doing, crossed the rent. In going and returning, she left a thread, as is the custom with all the Epeirae when walking. It was not a deliberate mending, but the mere result of an uneasy change of place.

Perhaps the subject of my experiment thought it unnecessary to go to fresh trouble and expense, for the web can serve quite well as it is, after my scissor-cut: the two halves together represent the original snaring-surface. All that the Spider, seated in a central position, need do is to find the requisite support for her spread legs. The two threads stretched from side to side of the cleft supply her with this, or nearly. My mischief did not go far enough. Let us devise something better.

Next day, the web is renewed, after the old one has been swallowed. When the work is done and the Epeira seated motionless at her central post, I take a straw and, wielding it dexterously, so as to respect the resting-floor and the spokes, I pull and root up the spiral, which dangles in tatters. With its snaring-threads ruined, the net is useless; no passing Moth would allow herself to be caught. Now what does the Epeira do in the face of this disaster? Nothing at all. Motionless on her resting-floor, which I have left intact, she awaits the capture of the game; she awaits it all night in vain on her impotent web. In the morning, I find the snare as I left it. Necessity, the mother of invention, has not prompted the Spider to make a slight repair in her ruined toils.

Possibly this is asking too much of her resources. The silk-glands may be exhausted after the laying of the great spiral; and to repeat the same expenditure immediately is out of the question. I want a case wherein there could be no appeal to any such exhaustion. I obtain it, thanks to my assiduity.

While I am watching the rolling of the spiral, a head of game rushes fun tilt into the unfinished snare. The Epeira interrupts her work, hurries to the giddy-pate, swathes him and takes her fill of him where he lies. During the struggle, a section of the web has torn under the weaver's very eyes. A great gap endangers the satisfactory working of the net. What will the spider do in the presence of this grievous rent?

Now or never is the time to repair the broken threads: the accident has happened this very moment, between the animal's legs; it is certainly known and, moreover, the rope-works are in full swing. This time there is no question of the exhaustion of the silk-warehouse.

Well, under these conditions, so favourable to darning, the Epeira does no mending at all. She flings aside her prey, after taking a few sips at it, and resumes her spiral at the point where she interrupted it to attack the Moth. The torn part remains as it is. The machine-shuttle in our looms does not revert to the spoiled fabric; even so with the Spider working at her web.

And this is no case of distraction, of individual carelessness; all the large spinstresses suffer from a similar incapacity for patching. The Banded Epeira and the Silky Epeira are noteworthy in this respect. The Angular Epeira remakes her web nearly every evening; the other two reconstruct theirs only very seldom and use them even when extremely dilapidated. They go on hunting with shapeless rags. Before they bring themselves to weave a new web, the old one has to be ruined beyond recognition. Well, I have often noted the state of one of these ruins and, the next morning, I have found it as it was, or even more dilapidated. Never any repairs; never; never. I am sorry, because of the reputation which our hard-pressed theorists have given her, but the Spider is absolutely unable to mend her work. In spite of her thoughtful appearance, the Epeira is incapable of the modicum of reflexion required to insert a piece into an accidental gap.

Other Spiders are unacquainted with wide-meshed nets and weave satins wherein the threads, crossing at random, form a continuous substance. Among this number is the House Spider (Tegenaria domestica, LIN.). In the corners of our rooms, she stretches wide webs fixed by angular extensions. The best-protected nook at one side contains the owner's secret apartment. It is a silk tube, a gallery with a conical opening, whence the Spider, sheltered from the eye, watches events. The rest of the fabric, which exceeds our finest muslins in delicacy, is not, properly speaking, a hunting-implement: it is a platform whereon the Spider, attending to the affairs of her estate, goes her rounds, especially at night. The real trap consists of a confusion of lines stretched above the web.

The snare, constructed according to other rules than in the case of the Epeirae, also works differently. Here are no viscous threads, but plain toils, rendered invisible by the very number. If a Gnat rush into the perfidious entanglement, he is caught at once; and the more he struggles the more firmly is he bound. The snareling falls on the sheet-web. Tegenaria hastens up and bites him in the neck.

Having said this, let us experiment a little. In the web of the House Spider, I make a round hole, two fingers wide. The hole remains yawning all day long; but next morning it is invariably closed. An extremely thin gauze covers the breach, the dark appearance of which contrasts with the dense whiteness of the surrounding fabric. The gauze is so delicate that, to make sure of its presence, I use a straw rather than my eyes. The movement of the web, when this part is touched, proves the presence of an obstacle.

Here, the matter would appear obvious. The House Spider has mended her work during the night; she has put a patch in the torn stuff, a talent unknown to the Garden Spiders. It would be greatly to her credit, if a mere attentive study did not lead to another conclusion.

The web of the House Spider is, as we were saying, a platform for watching and exploring; it is also a sheet into which the insects caught in the overhead rigging fall. This surface, a domain subject to unlimited shocks, is never strong enough, especially as it is exposed to the additional burden of little bits of plaster loosened from the wall. The owner is constantly working at it; she adds a new layer nightly.

Every time that she issues from her tubular retreat or returns to it, she fixes the thread that hangs behind her upon the road covered. As evidence of this work, we have the direction of the surface-lines, all of which, whether straight or winding, according to the fancies that guide the Spider's path, converge upon the entrance of the tube. Each step taken, beyond a doubt, adds a filament to the web.

We have here the story of the Processionary of the Pine, (1) whose habits I have related elsewhere. When the caterpillars leave the silk pouch, to go and browse at night, and also when they enter it again, they never fail to spin a little on the surface of their nest. Each expedition adds to the thickness of the wall.

When moving this way or that upon the purse which I have split from top to bottom with my scissors, the Processionaries upholster the breach even as they upholster the untouched part, without paying more attention to it than to the rest of the wall. Caring nothing about the accident, they behave in the same way as on a non-gutted dwelling. The crevice is closed, in course of time, not intentionally, but solely by the action of the usual spinning.

We arrive at the same conclusion on the subject of the House Spider. Walking about her platform every night, she lays fresh courses without drawing a distinction between the solid and the hollow. She has not deliberately put a patch in the torn texture; she has simply gone on with her ordinary business. If it happen that the hole is eventually closed, this fortunate result is the outcome not of a special purpose, but of an unvarying method of work.

Besides, it is evident that, if the Spider really wished to mend her web, all her endeavours would be concentrated upon the rent. She would devote to it all the silk at her disposal and obtain in one sitting a piece very like the rest of the web. Instead of that, what do we find? Almost nothing: a hardly visible gauze.

The thing is obvious: the Spider did on that rent what she did every elsewhere, neither more nor less. Far from squandering silk upon it, she saved her silk so as to have enough for the whole web. The gap will be better mended, little by little, afterwards, as the sheet is strengthened all over with new layers. And this will take long. Two months later, the window—my work—still shows through and makes a dark stain against the dead-white of the fabric.

Neither weavers nor spinners, therefore, know how to repair their work. Those wonderful manufacturers of silk-stuffs lack the least glimmer of that sacred lamp, reason, which enables the stupidest of darning-women to mend the heel of an old stocking. The office of inspector of Spiders' webs would have its uses, even if it merely succeeded in ridding us of a mistaken and mischievous idea.

Translator's No­te:

1. The Processionaries are Moth-caterpillars that feed on various leaves and march in file, laying a silken trail as they go.

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