Chapter XIII. The Garden Spiders: Pairing and Hunting
Jean-Henri Fabre The Life of the Spider
Golden Garden Spider (female)
Notwithstanding the importance of the subject, I shall not enlarge upon the nuptials of the Epeirae, grim natures whose loves easily turn to tragedy in the mystery of the night. I have but once been present at the pairing and for this curious experience I must thank my lucky star and my fat neighbour, the Angular Epeira, whom I visit so often by lantern-light. Here you have it.
It is the first week of August, at about nine o'clock in the evening, under a perfect sky, in calm, hot weather. The Spider has not yet constructed her web and is sitting motionless on her suspension-cable. The fact that she should be slacking like this, at a time when her building-operations ought to be in full swing, naturally astonishes me. Can something unusual be afoot?
Even so. I see hastening up from the neighbouring bushes and embarking on the cable a male, a dwarf, who is coming, the whipper-snapper, to pay his respects to the portly giantess. How has he, in his distant corner, heard of the presence of the nymph ripe for marriage? Among the Spiders, these things are learnt in the silence of the night, without a summons, without a signal, none knows how.
Once, the Great Peacock (1), apprised by the magic effluvia, used to come from miles around to visit the recluse in her bell-jar in my study. The dwarf of this evening, that other nocturnal pilgrim, crosses the intricate tangle of the branches without a mistake and makes straight for the rope-walker. He has as his guide the infallible compass that brings every Jack and his Jill together.
He climbs the slope of the suspension-cord; he advances circumspectly, step by step. He stops some distance away, irresolute. Shall he go closer? Is this the right moment? No. The other lifts a limb and the scared visitor hurries down again. Recovering from his fright, he climbs up once more, draws a little nearer. More sudden flights, followed by fresh approaches, each time nigher than before. This restless running to and fro is the declaration of the enamoured swain.
Perseverance spells success. The pair are now face to face, she motionless and grave, he all excitement. With the tip of his leg, he ventures to touch the plump wench. He has gone too far, daring youth that he is! Panic-stricken, he takes a header, hanging by his safety-line. It is only for a moment, however. Up he comes again. He has learnt, from certain symptoms, that we are at last yielding to his blandishments.
With his legs and especially with his palpi, or feelers, he teases the buxom gossip, who answers with curious skips and bounds. Gripping a thread with her front tarsi, or fingers, she turns, one after the other, a number of back somersaults, like those of an acrobat on the trapeze. Having done this, she presents the under-part of her paunch to the dwarf and allows him to fumble at it a little with his feelers. Nothing more: it is done.
The object of the expedition is attained. The whipper-snapper makes off at full speed, as though he had the Furies at his heels. If he remained, he would presumably be eaten. These exercises on the tight-rope are not repeated. I kept watch in vain on the following evenings: I never saw the fellow again.
When he is gone, the bride descends from the cable, spins her web and assumes the hunting-attitude. We must eat to have silk, we must have silk to eat and especially to weave the expensive cocoon of the family. There is therefore no rest, not even after the excitement of being married.
The Epeirae are monuments of patience in their lime-snare. With her head down and her eight legs wide-spread, the Spider occupies the centre of the web, the receiving-point of the information sent along the spokes. If anywhere, behind or before, a vibration occur, the sign of a capture, the Epeira knows about it, even without the aid of sight. She hastens up at once.
Until then, not a movement: one would think that the animal was hypnotized by her watching. At most, on the appearance of anything suspicious, she begins shaking her nest. This is her way of inspiring the intruder with awe. If I myself wish to provoke the singular alarm, I have but to tease the Epeira with a bit of straw. You cannot have a swing without an impulse of some sort. The terror-stricken Spider, who wishes to strike terror into others, has hit upon something much better. With nothing to push her, she swings with her floor of ropes. There is no effort, no visible exertion. Not a single part of the animal moves; and yet everything trembles. Violent shaking proceeds from apparent inertia. Rest causes commotion.
When calm is restored, she resumes her attitude, ceaselessly pondering the harsh problem of life:
‚Shall I dine to-day, or not?‘
Certain privileged beings, exempt from those anxieties, have food in abundance and need not struggle to obtain it. Such is the Gentle, who swims blissfully in the broth of the putrefying adder. Others—and, by a strange irony of fate, these are generally the most gifted—only manage to eat by dint of craft and patience.
You are of their company, O my industrious Epeirae! So that you may dine, you spend your treasures of patience nightly; and often without result. I sympathize with your woes, for I, who am as concerned as you about my daily bread, I also doggedly spread my net, the net for catching ideas, a more elusive and less substantial prize than the Moth. Let us not lose heart. The best part of life is not in the present, still less in the past; it lies in the future, the domain of hope. Let us wait.
All day long, the sky, of a uniform grey, has appeared to be brewing a storm. In spite of the threatened downpour, my neighbour, who is a shrewd weather-prophet, has come out of the cypress-tree and begun to renew her web at the regular hour. Her forecast is correct: it will be a fine night. See, the steaming-pan of the clouds splits open; and, through the apertures, the moon peeps, inquisitively. I too, lantern in hand, am peeping. A gust of wind from the north clears the realms on high; the sky becomes magnificent; perfect calm reigns below. The Moths begin their nightly rounds. Good! One is caught, a mighty fine one. The Spider will dine to-day.
What happens next, in an uncertain light, does not lend itself to accurate observation. It is better to turn to those Garden Spiders who never leave their web and who hunt mainly in the daytime. The Banded and the Silky Epeira, both of whom live on the rosemaries in the enclosure, shall show us in broad day-light the innermost details of the tragedy.
I myself place on the lime-snare a victim of my selecting. Its six legs are caught without more ado. If the insect raises one of its tarsi and pulls towards itself, the treacherous thread follows, unwinds slightly and, without letting go or breaking, yields to the captive's desperate jerks. Any limb released only tangles the others still more and is speedily recaptured by the sticky matter. There is no means of escape, except by smashing the trap with a sudden effort whereof even powerful insects are not always capable.
Warned by the shaking of the net, the Epeira hastens up; she turns round about the quarry; she inspects it at a distance, so as to ascertain the extent of the danger before attacking. The strength of the snareling will decide the plan of campaign. Let us first suppose the usual case, that of an average head of game, a Moth or Fly of some sort. Facing her prisoner, the Spider contracts her abdomen slightly and touches the insect for a moment with the end of her spinnerets; then, with her front tarsi, she sets her victim spinning. The Squirrel, in the moving cylinder of his cage, does not display a more graceful or nimbler dexterity. A cross-bar of the sticky spiral serves as an axis for the tiny machine, which turns, turns swiftly, like a spit. It is a treat to the eyes to see it revolve.
What is the object of this circular motion? See, the brief contact of the spinnerets has given a starting-point for a thread, which the Spider must now draw from her silk-warehouse and gradually roll around the captive, so as to swathe him in a winding-sheet which will overpower any effort made. It is the exact process employed in our wire-mills: a motor-driven spool revolves and, by its action, draws the wire through the narrow eyelet of a steel plate, making it of the fineness required, and, with the same movement, winds it round and round its collar.
Even so with the Epeira's work. The Spider's front tarsi are the motor; the revolving spool is the captured insect; the steel eyelet is the aperture of the spinnerets. To bind the subject with precision and dispatch nothing could be better than this inexpensive and highly-effective method.
Less frequently, a second process is employed. With a quick movement, the Spider herself turns round about the motionless insect, crossing the web first at the top and then at the bottom and gradually placing the fastenings of her line. The great elasticity of the lime-threads allows the Epeira to fling herself time after time right into the web and to pass through it without damaging the net.
Let us now suppose the case of some dangerous game: a Praying Mantis, for instance, brandishing her lethal limbs, each hooked and fitted with a double saw; an angry Hornet, darting her awful sting; a sturdy Beetle, invincible under his horny armour. These are exceptional morsels, hardly ever known to the Epeirae. Will they be accepted, if supplied by my stratagems?
They are, but not without caution. The game is seen to be perilous of approach and the Spider turns her back upon it, instead of facing it; she trains her rope-cannon upon it. Quickly, the hind-legs draw from the spinnerets something much better than single cords. The whole silk-battery works at one and the same time, firing a regular volley of ribbons and sheets, which a wide movement of the legs spreads fan-wise and flings over the entangled prisoner. Guarding against sudden starts, the Epeira casts her armfuls of bands on the front-and hind-parts, over the legs and over the wings, here, there and everywhere, extravagantly. The most fiery prey is promptly mastered under this avalanche. In vain, the Mantis tries to open her saw-toothed arm-guards; in vain, the Hornet makes play with her dagger; in vain, the Beetle stiffens his legs and arches his back: a fresh wave of threads swoops down and paralyses every effort.
These lavished, far-flung ribbons threaten to exhaust the factory; it would be much more economical to resort to the method of the spool; but, to turn the machine, the Spider would have to go up to it and work it with her leg. This is too risky; and hence the continuous spray of silk, at a safe distance. When all is used up, there is more to come.
Still, the Epeira seems concerned at this excessive outlay. When circumstances permit, she gladly returns to the mechanism of the revolving spool. I saw her practise this abrupt change of tactics on a big Beetle, with a smooth, plump body, which lent itself admirably to the rotary process. After depriving the beast of all power of movement, she went up to it and turned her corpulent victim as she would have done with a medium-sized Moth.
But with the Praying Mantis, sticking out her long legs and her spreading wings, rotation is no longer feasible. Then, until the quarry is thoroughly subdued, the spray of bandages goes on continuously, even to the point of drying up the silk-glands. A capture of this kind is ruinous. It is true that, except when I interfered, I have never seen the Spider tackle that formidable provender.
Be it feeble or strong, the game is now neatly trussed, by one of the two methods. The next move never varies. The bound insect is bitten, without persistency and without any wound that shows. The Spider next retires and allows the bite to act, which it soon does. She then returns.
If the victim be small, a Clothes-moth, for instance, it is consumed on the spot, at the place where it was captured. But, for a prize of some importance, on which she hopes to feast for many an hour, sometimes for many a day, the Spider needs a sequestered dining-room, where there is naught to fear from the stickiness of the network. Before going to it, she first makes her prey turn in the converse direction to that of the original rotation. Her object is to free the nearest spokes, which supplied pivots for the machinery. They are essential factors which it behoves her to keep intact, if need be by sacrificing a few crossbars.
It is done; the twisted ends are put back into position. The well-trussed game is at last removed from the web and fastened on behind with a thread. The Spider then marches in front and the load is trundled across the web and hoisted to the resting-floor, which is both an inspection-post and a dining-hall. When the Spider is of a species that shuns the light and possesses a telegraph-line, she mounts to her daytime hiding-place along this line, with the game bumping against her heels.
While she is refreshing herself, let us enquire into the effects of the little bite previously administered to the silk-swathed captive. Does the Spider kill the patient with a view to avoiding unseasonable jerks, protests so disagreeable at dinner-time? Several reasons make me doubt it. In the first place, the attack is so much veiled as to have all the appearance of a mere kiss. Besides, it is made anywhere, at the first spot that offers. The expert slayers (2) employ methods of the highest precision: they give a stab in the neck, or under the throat; they wound the cervical nerve-centres, the seat of energy. The paralyzers, those accomplished anatomists, poison the motor nerve-centres, of which they know the number and position. The Epeira possesses none of this fearsome knowledge. She inserts her fangs at random, as the Bee does her sting. She does not select one spot rather than another; she bites indifferently at whatever comes within reach. This being so, her poison would have to possess unparalleled virulence to produce a corpse-like inertia no matter which the point attacked. I can scarcely believe in instantaneous death resulting from the bite, especially in the case of insects, with their highly-resistant organisms.
Besides, is it really a corpse that the Epeira wants, she who feeds on blood much more than on flesh? It were to her advantage to suck a live body, wherein the flow of the liquids, set in movement by the pulsation of the dorsal vessel, that rudimentary heart of insects, must act more freely than in a lifeless body, with its stagnant fluids. The game which the Spider means to suck dry might very well not be dead. This is easily ascertained.
I place some Locusts of different species on the webs in my menagerie, one on this, another on that. The Spider comes rushing up, binds the prey, nibbles at it gently and withdraws, waiting for the bite to take effect. I then take the insect and carefully strip it of its silken shroud. The Locust is not dead, far from it; one would even think that he had suffered no harm. I examine the released prisoner through the lens in vain; I can see no trace of a wound.
Can he be unscathed, in spite of the sort of kiss which I saw given to him just now? You would be ready to say so, judging by the furious way in which he kicks in my fingers. Nevertheless, when put on the ground, he walks awkwardly, he seems reluctant to hop. Perhaps it is a temporary trouble, caused by his terrible excitement in the web. It looks as though it would soon pass.
I lodge my Locusts in cages, with a lettuce-leaf to console them for their trials; but they will not be comforted. A day elapses, followed by a second. Not one of them touches the leaf of salad; their appetite has disappeared. Their movements become more uncertain, as though hampered by irresistible torpor. On the second day, they are dead, every one irrecoverably dead.
The Epeira, therefore, does not incontinently kill her prey with her delicate bite; she poisons it so as to produce a gradual weakness, which gives the blood-sucker ample time to drain her victim, without the least risk, before the rigor mortis stops the flow of moisture.
The meal lasts quite twenty-four hours, if the joint be large; and to the very end the butchered insect retains a remnant of life, a favourable condition for the exhausting of the juices. Once again, we see a skilful method of slaughter, very different from the tactics in use among the expert paralyzers or slayers. Here there is no display of anatomical science. Unacquainted with the patient's structure, the Spider stabs at random. The virulence of the poison does the rest.
There are, however, some very few cases in which the bite is speedily mortal. My notes speak of an Angular Epeira grappling with the largest Dragon-fly in my district (AEshna grandis, LIN.). I myself had entangled in the web this head of big game, which is not often captured by the Epeirae. The net shakes violently, seems bound to break its moorings.
The Spider rushes from her leafy villa, runs boldly up to the giantess, flings a single bundle of ropes at her and, without further precautions, grips her with her legs, tries to subdue her and then digs her fangs into the Dragon-fly's back. The bite is prolonged in such a way as to astonish me. This is not the perfunctory kiss with which I am already familiar; it is a deep, determined wound. After striking her blow, the Spider retires to a certain distance and waits for her poison to take effect.
I at once remove the Dragon-fly. She is dead, really and truly dead. Laid upon my table and left alone for twenty-four hours, she makes not the slightest movement. A prick of which my lens cannot see the marks, so sharp-pointed are the Epeira's weapons, was enough, with a little insistence, to kill the powerful animal. Proportionately, the Rattlesnake, the Horned Viper, the Trigonocephalus and other ill-famed serpents produce less paralysing effects upon their victims.
And these Epeirae, so terrible to insects, I am able to handle without any fear. My skin does not suit them. If I persuaded them to bite me, what would happen to me? Hardly anything. We have more cause to dread the sting of a nettle than the dagger which is fatal to Dragon-flies. The same virus acts differently upon this organism and that, is formidable here and quite mild there. What kills the insect may easily be harmless to us. Let us not, however, generalize too far. The Narbonne Lycosa, that other enthusiastic insect-huntress, would make us pay clearly if we attempted to take liberties with her.
It is not uninteresting to watch the Epeira at dinner. I light upon one, the Banded Epeira, at the moment, about three o'clock in the afternoon, when she has captured a Locust. Planted in the centre of the web, on her resting-floor, she attacks the venison at the joint of a haunch. There is no movement, not even of the mouth-parts, as far as I am able to discover. The mouth lingers, close-applied, at the point originally bitten. There are no intermittent mouthfuls, with the mandibles moving backwards and forwards. It is a sort of continuous kiss.
I visit my Epeira at intervals. The mouth does not change its place. I visit her for the last time at nine o'clock in the evening. Matters stand exactly as they did: after six hours' consumption, the mouth is still sucking at the lower end of the right haunch. The fluid contents of the victim are transferred to the ogress' belly, I know not how.
Next morning, the Spider is still at table. I take away her dish. Naught remains of the Locust but his skin, hardly altered in shape, but utterly drained and perforated in several places. The method, therefore, was changed during the night. To extract the non-fluent residue, the viscera and muscles, the stiff cuticle had to be tapped here, there and elsewhere, after which the tattered husk, placed bodily in the press of the mandibles, would have been chewed, rechewed and finally reduced to a pill, which the sated Spider throws up. This would have been the end of the victim, had I not taken it away before the time.
Whether she wound or kill, the Epeira bites her captive somewhere or other, no matter where. This is an excellent method on her part, because of the variety of the game that comes her way. I see her accepting with equal readiness whatever chance may send her: Butterflies and Dragon-flies, Flies and Wasps, small Dung-beetles and Locusts. If I offer her a Mantis, a Bumble-bee, an Anoxia—the equivalent of the common Cockchafer—and other dishes probably unknown to her race, she accepts all and any, large and small, thin-skinned and horny-skinned, that which goes afoot and that which takes winged flight. She is omnivorous, she preys on everything, down to her own kind, should the occasion offer.
Had she to operate according to individual structure, she would need an anatomical dictionary; and instinct is essentially unfamiliar with generalities: its knowledge is always confined to limited points. The Cerceres know their Weevils and their Buprestis-beetles absolutely; the Sphex their Grasshoppers, their Crickets and their Locusts; the Scoliae (3) their Cetonia-and Oryctes-grubs. Even so the other paralyzers. Each has her own victim and knows nothing of any of the others.
The same exclusive tastes prevail among the slayers. Let us remember, in this connection, Philanthus apivorus (4) and, especially, the Thomisus, the comely Spider who cuts Bees' throats. They understand the fatal blow, either in the neck or under the chin, a thing which the Epeira does not understand; but, just because of this talent, they are specialists. Their province is the Domestic Bee.
Animals are a little like ourselves: they excel in an art only on condition of specializing in it. The Epeira, who, being omnivorous, is obliged to generalize, abandons scientific methods and makes up for this by distilling a poison capable of producing torpor and even death, no matter what the point attacked.
Recognizing the large variety of game, we wonder how the Epeira manages not to hesitate amid those many diverse forms, how, for instance, she passes from the Locust to the Butterfly, so different in appearance. To attribute to her as a guide an extensive zoological knowledge were wildly in excess of what we may reasonably expect of her poor intelligence. The thing moves, therefore it is worth catching: this formula seems to sum up the Spider's wisdom.
1. Cf. Social Life in the Insect World, by J. H. Fabre, translated by Bernard Miall: chap. xiv.
2. Cf. Insect Life, by J. H. Fabre, translated by the author of Mademoiselle Mori: chap. v.
3. The Scolia is a Digger-wasp, like the Cerceris and the Sphex, and feeds her larvae on the grubs of the Cetonia, or Rose-chafer, and the Oryctes, or Rhinoceros Beetle. Cf. The Life and Love of the Insect, by J. Henri Fabre, translated by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos: chap. xi.
4. Cf. Social Life in the Insect World, by J. H. Fabre, translated by Bernard Miall. chap. xiii., in which the name is given, by a printer's error, as Philanthus aviporus.