Chapter XII. The Garden Spiders: the Telegraph-Wire

Jean-Henri Fabre The Life of the Spider

garden weaver spider

Garden Weaver Spider

Of the six Garden Spiders that form the object of my observations, two only, the Banded and the silky Epeira, remain constantly in their webs, even under the blinding rays of a fierce sun. The others, as a rule, do not show themselves until nightfall. At some distance from the net, they have a rough and ready retreat in the brambles, an ambush made of a few leaves held together by stretched threads. It is here that, for the most part, they remain in the daytime, motionless and sunk in meditation.

But the shrill light that vexes them is the joy of the fields. At such times, the Locust hops more nimbly than ever, more gaily skims the Dragon-fly. Besides, the limy web, despite the rents suffered during the night, is still in serviceable condition. If some giddy-pate allow himself to be caught, will the Spider, at the distance whereto she has retired, be unable to take advantage of the windfall? Never fear. She arrives in a flash. How is she apprised? Let us explain the matter.

The alarm is given by the vibration of the web, much more than by the sight of the captured object. A very simple experiment will prove this. I lay upon a Banded Epeira's lime-threads a Locust that second asphyxiated with carbon disulphide. The carcass is placed in front, or behind, or at either side of the Spider, who sits moveless in the centre of the net. If the test is to be applied to a species with a daytime hiding-place amid the foliage, the dead Locust is laid on the web, more or less near the centre, no matter how.

In both cases, nothing happens at first. The Epeira remains in her motionless attitude, even when the morsel is at a short distance in front of her. She is indifferent to the presence of the game, does not seem to perceive it, so much so that she ends by wearing out my patience. Then, with a long straw, which enables me to conceal myself slightly, I set the dead insect trembling.

That is quite enough. The Banded Epeira and the Silky Epeira hasten to the central floor; the others come down from the branch; all go to the Locust, swathe him with tape, treat him, in short, as they would treat a live prey captured under normal conditions. It took the shaking of the web to decide them to attack.

Perhaps the grey colour of the Locust is not sufficiently conspicuous to attract attention by itself. Then let us try red, the brightest colour to our retina and probably also to the Spiders'. None of the game hunted by the Epeirae being clad in scarlet, I make a small bundle out of red wool, a bait of the size of a Locust. I glue it to the web.

My stratagem succeeds. As long as the parcel is stationary, the Spider is not roused; but, the moment it trembles, stirred by my straw, she runs up eagerly.

There are silly ones who just touch the thing with their legs and, without further enquiries, swathe it in silk after the manner of the usual game. They even go so far as to dig their fangs into the bait, following the rule of the preliminary poisoning. Then and then only the mistake is recognized and the tricked Spider retires and does not come back, unless it be long afterwards, when she flings the cumbersome object out of the web.

There are also clever ones. Like the others, these hasten to the red-woollen lure, which my straw insidiously keeps moving; they come from their tent among the leaves as readily as from the centre of the web; they explore it with their palpi and their legs; but, soon perceiving that the thing is valueless, they are careful not to spend their silk on useless bonds. My quivering bait does not deceive them. It is flung out after a brief inspection.

Still, the clever ones, like the silly ones, run even from a distance, from their leafy ambush. How do they know? Certainly not by sight. Before recognizing their mistake, they have to hold the object between their legs and even to nibble at it a little. They are extremely short-sighted. At a hand's-breadth's distance, the lifeless prey, unable to shake the web, remains unperceived. Besides, in many cases, the hunting takes place in the dense darkness of the night, when sight, even if it were good, would not avail.

If the eyes are insufficient guides, even close at hand, how will it be when the prey has to be spied from afar! In that case, an intelligence-apparatus for long-distance work becomes indispensable. We have no difficulty in detecting the apparatus.

Let us look attentively behind the web of any Epeira with a daytime hiding-place: we shall see a thread that starts from the centre of the network, ascends in a slanting line outside the plane of the web and ends at the ambush where the Spider lurks all day. Except at the central point, there is no connection between this thread and the rest of the work, no interweaving with the scaffolding-threads. Free of impediment, the line runs straight from the centre of the net to the ambush-tent. Its length averages twenty-two inches. The Angular Epeira, settled high up in the trees, has shown me some as long as eight or nine feet.

There is no doubt that this slanting line is a foot-bridge which allows the Spider to repair hurriedly to the web, when summoned by urgent business, and then, when her round is finished, to return to her hut. In fact, it is the road which I see her follow, in going and coming. But is that all? No; for, if the Epeira had no aim in view but a means of rapid transit between her tent and the net, the foot-bridge would be fastened to the upper edge of the web. The journey would be shorter and the slope less steep.

Why, moreover, does this line always start in the centre of the sticky network and nowhere else? Because that is the point where the spokes meet and, therefore, the common centre of vibration. Anything that moves upon the web sets it shaking. All then that is needed is a thread issuing from this central point to convey to a distance the news of a prey struggling in some part or other of the net. The slanting cord, extending outside the plane of the web, is more than a foot-bridge: it is, above all, a signalling-apparatus, a telegraph-wire.

Let us try experiment. I place a Locust on the network. Caught in the sticky toils, he plunges about. Forthwith, the Spider issues impetuously from her hut, comes down the foot-bridge, makes a rush for the Locust, wraps him up and operates on him according to rule. Soon after, she hoists him, fastened by a line to her spinneret, and drags him to her hiding-place, where a long banquet will be held. So far, nothing new: things happen as usual.

I leave the Spider to mind her own affairs for some days, before I interfere with her. I again propose to give her a Locust; but, this time, I first cut the signalling-thread with a touch of the scissors, without shaking any part of the edifice. The game is then laid on the web. Complete success: the entangled insect struggles, sets the net quivering; the Spider, on her side, does not stir, as though heedless of events.

The idea might occur to one that, in this business, the Epeira stays motionless in her cabin since she is prevented from hurrying down, because the foot-bridge is broken. Let us undeceive ourselves: for one road open to her there are a hundred, all ready to bring her to the place where her presence is now required. The network is fastened to the branches by a host of lines, all of them very easy to cross. Well, the Epeira embarks upon none of them, but remains moveless and self-absorbed.

Why? Because her telegraph, being out of order, no longer tells her of the shaking of the web. The captured prey is too far off for her to see it; she is all unwitting. A good hour passes, with the Locust still kicking, the Spider impassive, myself watching. Nevertheless, in the end, the Epeira wakes up: no longer feeling the signalling-thread, broken by my scissors, as taut as usual under her legs, she comes to look into the state of things. The web is reached, without the least difficulty, by one of the lines of the framework, the first that offers. The Locust is then perceived and forthwith enswathed, after which the signalling-thread is remade, taking the place of the one which I have broken. Along this road the Spider goes home, dragging her prey behind her.

My neighbour, the mighty Angular Epeira, with her telegraph-wire nine feet long, has even better things in store for me. One morning, I find her web, which is now deserted, almost intact, a proof that the night's hunting has not been good. The animal must be hungry. With a piece of game for a bait, I hope to bring her down from her lofty retreat.

I entangle in the web a rare morsel, a Dragon-fly, who struggles desperately and sets the whole net a-shaking. The other, up above, leaves her lurking-place amid the cypress-foliage, strides swiftly down along her telegraph-wire, comes to the Dragon-fly, trusses her and at once climbs home again by the same road, with her prize dangling at her heels by a thread. The final sacrifice will take place in the quiet of the leafy sanctuary.

A few days later, I renew my experiment under the same conditions, but, this time, I first cut the signalling-thread. In vain I select a large Dragon-fly, a very restless prisoner; in vain I exert my patience: the Spider does not come down all day. Her telegraph being broken, she receives no notice of what is happening nine feet below. The entangled morsel remains where it lies, not despised, but unknown. At nightfall, the Epeira leaves her cabin, passes over the ruins of her web, finds the Dragon-fly and eats her on the spot, after which the net is renewed.

One of the Epeirae whom I have had the opportunity of examining simplifies the system, while retaining the essential mechanism of a transmission-thread. This is the Crater Epeira (Epeira cratera, WALCK.), a species seen in spring, at which time she indulges especially in the chase of the Domestic Bee, upon the flowering rosemaries. At the leafy end of a branch, she builds a sort of silken shell, the shape and size of an acorn-cup. This is where she sits, with her paunch contained in the round cavity and her fore-legs resting on the ledge, ready to leap. The lazy creature loves this position and rarely stations herself head downwards on the web, as do the others. Cosily ensconced in the hollow of her cup, she awaits the approaching game.

Her web, which is vertical, as is the rule among the Epeirae, is of a fair size and always very near the bowl wherein the Spider takes her ease. Moreover, it touches the bowl by means of an angular extension; and the angle always contains one spoke which the Epeira, seated, so to speak, in her crater, has constantly under her legs. This spoke, springing from the common focus of the vibrations from all parts of the network, is eminently fitted to keep the Spider informed of whatsoever happens. It has a double office: it forms part of the Catherine-wheel supporting the lime-threads and it warns the Epeira by its vibrations. A special thread is here superfluous.

The other snarers, on the contrary, who occupy a distant retreat by day, cannot do without a private wire that keeps them in permanent communication with the deserted web. All of them have one, in point of fact, but only when age comes, age prone to rest and to long slumbers. In their youth, the Epeirae, who are then very wide-awake, know nothing of the art of telegraphy. Besides, their web, a short-lived work whereof hardly a trace remains on the morrow, does not allow of this kind of industry. It is no use going to the expense of a signalling-apparatus for a ruined snare wherein nothing can now be caught. Only the old Spiders, meditating or dozing in their green tent, are warned from afar, by telegraph, of what takes place on the web.

To save herself from keeping a close watch that would degenerate into drudgery and to remain alive to events even when resting, with her back turned on the net, the ambushed Spider always has her foot upon the telegraph-wire. Of my observations on this subject, let me relate the following, which will be sufficient for our purpose.

An Angular Epeira, with a remarkably fine belly, has spun her web between two laurestine-shrubs, covering a width of nearly a yard. The sun beats upon the snare, which is abandoned long before dawn. The Spider is in her day manor, a resort easily discovered by following the telegraph-wire. It is a vaulted chamber of dead leaves, joined together with a few bits of silk. The refuge is deep: the Spider disappears in it entirely, all but her rounded hind-quarters, which bar the entrance to the donjon.

With her front half plunged into the back of her hut, the Epeira certainly cannot see her web. Even if she had good sight, instead of being purblind, her position could not possibly allow her to keep the prey in view. Does she give up hunting during this period, of bright sunlight? Not at all. Look again.

Wonderful! One of her hind-legs is stretched outside the leafy cabin; and the signalling-thread ends just at the tip of that leg. Whoso has not seen the Epeira in this attitude, with her hand, so to speak, on the telegraph-receiver, knows nothing of one of the most curious instances of animal cleverness. Let any game appear upon the scene; and the slumberer, forthwith aroused by means of the leg receiving the vibrations, hastens up. A Locust whom I myself lay on the web procures her this agreeable shock and what follows. If she is satisfied with her bag, I am still more satisfied with what I have learnt.

The occasion is too good not to find out, under better conditions as regards approach, what the inhabitant of the cypress-trees has already shown me. The next morning, I cut the telegraph-wire, this time as long as one's arm and held, like yesterday, by one of the hind-legs stretched outside the cabin. I then place on the web a double prey, a Dragon-fly and a Locust. The latter kicks out with his long, spurred shanks; the other flutters her wings. The web is tossed about to such an extent that a number of leaves, just beside the Epeira's nest, move, shaken by the threads of the framework affixed to them.

And this vibration, though so close at hand, does not rouse the Spider in the least, does not make her even turn round to enquire what is going on. The moment that her signalling-thread ceases to work, she knows nothing of passing events. All day long, she remains without stirring. In the evening, at eight o'clock, she sallies forth to weave the new web and at last finds the rich windfall whereof she was hitherto unaware.

One word more. The web is often shaken by the wind. The different parts of the framework, tossed and teased by the eddying air-currents, cannot fail to transmit their vibration to the signalling-thread. Nevertheless, the Spider does not quit her hut and remains indifferent to the commotion prevailing in the net. Her line, therefore, is something better than a bell-rope that pulls and communicates the impulse given: it is a telephone capable, like our own, of transmitting infinitesimal waves of sound. Clutching her telephone-wire with a toe, the Spider listens with her leg; she perceives the innermost vibrations; she distinguishes between the vibration proceeding from a prisoner and the mere shaking caused by the wind.

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