THE CRAB SPIDER
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 forelegs
stronger than her hind-legs. The only thing wanting to complete the
resemblance is the front pair of stone gauntlets, raised in the attitude
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 brushwood 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.
Next: THE GARDEN SPIDERS: BUILDING THE WEB
Previous: THE SPIDERS' EXODUS