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THE LABYRINTH SPIDER




While the Epeirae, with their gorgeous net-tapestries, are incomparable
weavers, many other Spiders excel in ingenious devices for filling their
stomachs and leaving a lineage behind them: the two primary laws of
living things. Some of them are celebrities of long-standing renown, who
are mentioned in all the books.

Certain Mygales {36} inhabit a burrow, like the Narbonne Lycosa, but of a
perfection unknown to the brutal Spider of the waste-lands. The Lycosa
surrounds the mouth of her shaft with a simple parapet, a mere collection
of tiny pebbles, sticks and silk; the others fix a movable door to
theirs, a round shutter with a hinge, a groove and a set of bolts. When
the Mygale comes home, the lid drops into the groove and fits so exactly
that there is no possibility of distinguishing the join. If the
aggressor persist and seek to raise the trap-door, the recluse pushes the
bolt, that is to say, plants her claws into certain holes on the opposite
side to the hinge, props herself against the wall and holds the door
firmly.

Another, the Argyroneta, or Water Spider, builds herself an elegant
silken diving-bell, in which she stores air. Thus supplied with the
wherewithal to breathe, she awaits the coming of the game and keeps
herself cool meanwhile. At times of scorching heat, hers must be a
regular sybaritic abode, such as eccentric man has sometimes ventured to
build under water, with mighty blocks of stone and marble. The submarine
palaces of Tiberius are no more than an odious memory; the Water Spider's
dainty cupola still flourishes.

If I possessed documents derived from personal observation, I should like
to speak of these ingenious workers; I would gladly add a few unpublished
facts to their life-history. But I must abandon the idea. The Water
Spider is not found in my district. The Mygale, the expert in hinged
doors, is found there, but very seldom. I saw one once, on the edge of a
path skirting a copse. Opportunity, as we know, is fleeting. The
observer, more than any other, is obliged to take it by the forelock.
Preoccupied as I was with other researches, I but gave a glance at the
magnificent subject which good fortune offered. The opportunity fled and
has never returned.

Let us make up for it with trivial things of frequent encounter, a
condition favourable to consecutive study. What is common is not
necessarily unimportant. Give it our sustained attention and we shall
discover in it merits which our former ignorance prevented us from
seeing. When patiently entreated, the least of creatures adds its note
to the harmonies of life.

In the fields around, traversed, in these days, with a tired step, but
still vigilantly explored, I find nothing so often as the Labyrinth
Spider (_Agelena labyrinthica_, CLERCK.). Not a hedge but shelters a few
at its foot, amidst grass, in quiet, sunny nooks. In the open country
and especially in hilly places laid bare by the wood-man's axe, the
favourite sites are tufts of bracken, rock-rose, lavender, everlasting
and rosemary cropped close by the teeth of the flocks. This is where I
resort, as the isolation and kindliness of the supports lend themselves
to proceedings which might not be tolerated by the unfriendly hedge.

Several times a week, in July, I go to study my Spiders on the spot, at
an early hour, before the sun beats fiercely on one's neck. The children
accompany me, each provided with an orange wherewith to slake the thirst
that will not be slow in coming. They lend me their good eyes and supple
limbs. The expedition promises to be fruitful.

We soon discover high silk buildings, betrayed at a distance by the
glittering threads which the dawn has converted into dewy rosaries. The
children are wonderstruck at those glorious chandeliers, so much so that
they forget their oranges for a moment. Nor am I, on my part,
indifferent. A splendid spectacle indeed is that of our Spider's
labyrinth, heavy with the tears of the night and lit up by the first rays
of the sun. Accompanied as it is by the Thrushes' symphony, this alone
is worth getting up for.

Half an hour's heat; and the magic jewels disappear with the dew. Now is
the moment to inspect the webs. Here is one spreading its sheet over a
large cluster of rock-roses; it is the size of a handkerchief. A
profusion of guy-ropes, attached to any chance projection, moor it to the
brushwood. There is not a twig but supplies a contact-point. Entwined
on every side, surrounded and surmounted, the bush disappears from view,
veiled in white muslin.

The web is flat at the edges, as far as the unevenness of the support
permits, and gradually hollows into a crater, not unlike the bell of a
hunting-horn. The central portion is a cone-shaped gulf, a funnel whose
neck, narrowing by degrees, dives perpendicularly into the leafy thicket
to a depth of eight or nine inches.

At the entrance to the tube, in the gloom of that murderous alley, sits
the Spider, who looks at us and betrays no great excitement at our
presence. She is grey, modestly adorned on the thorax with two black
ribbons and on the abdomen with two stripes in which white specks
alternate with brown. At the tip of the belly, two small, mobile
appendages form a sort of tail, a rather curious feature in a Spider.

The crater-shaped web is not of the same structure throughout. At the
borders, it is a gossamer weft of sparse threads; nearer the centre, the
texture becomes first fine muslin and then satin; lower still, on the
narrower part of the opening, it is a network of roughly lozenged meshes.
Lastly, the neck of the funnel, the usual resting-place, is formed of
solid silk.

The Spider never ceases working at her carpet, which represents her
investigation-platform. Every night she goes to it, walks over it,
inspecting her snares, extending her domain and increasing it with new
threads. The work is done with the silk constantly hanging from the
spinnerets and constantly extracted as the animal moves about. The neck
of the funnel, being more often walked upon than the rest of the
dwelling, is therefore provided with a thicker upholstery. Beyond it are
the slopes of the crater, which are also much-frequented regions. Spokes
of some regularity fix the diameter of the mouth; a swaying walk and the
guiding aid of the caudal appendages have laid lozengy meshes across
these spokes. This part has been strengthened by the nightly rounds of
inspection. Lastly come the less-visited expanses, which consequently
have a thinner carpet.

At the bottom of the passage dipping into the brushwood, we might expect
to find a secret cabin, a wadded cell where the Spider would take refuge
in her hours of leisure. The reality is something entirely different.
The long funnel-neck gapes at its lower end, where a private door stands
always ajar, allowing the animal, when hard-pushed, to escape through the
grass and gain the open.

It is well to know this arrangement of the home, if you wish to capture
the Spider without hurting her. When attacked from the front, the
fugitive runs down and slips through the postern-gate at the bottom. To
look for her by rummaging in the brushwood often leads to nothing, so
swift is her flight; besides, a blind search entails a great risk of
maiming her. Let us eschew violence, which is but seldom successful, and
resort to craft.

We catch sight of the Spider at the entrance to her tube. If
practicable, squeeze the bottom of the tuft, containing the neck of the
funnel, with both hands. That is enough; the animal is caught. Feeling
its retreat cut off, it readily darts into the paper bag held out to it;
if necessary, it can be stimulated with a bit of straw. In this way, I
fill my cages with subjects that have not been demoralized by contusions.

The surface of the crater is not exactly a snare. It is just possible
for the casual pedestrian to catch his legs in the silky carpets; but
giddy-pates who come here for a walk must be very rare. What is wanted
is a trap capable of securing the game that hops or flies. The Epeira
has her treacherous limed net; the Spider of the bushes has her no less
treacherous labyrinth.

Look above the web. What a forest of ropes! It might be the rigging of
a ship disabled by a storm. They run from every twig of the supporting
shrubs, they are fastened to the tip of every branch. There are long
ropes and short ropes, upright and slanting, straight and bent, taut and
slack, all criss-cross and a-tangle, to the height of three feet or so in
inextricable disorder. The whole forms a chaos of netting, a labyrinth
which none can pass through, unless he be endowed with wings of
exceptional power.

We have here nothing similar to the lime-threads used by the Garden
Spiders. The threads are not sticky; they act only by their confused
multitude. Would you care to see the trap at work? Throw a small Locust
into the rigging. Unable to obtain a steady foothold on that shaky
support, he flounders about; and the more he struggles the more he
entangles his shackles. The Spider, spying on the threshold of her
abyss, lets him have his way. She does not run up the shrouds of the
mast-work to seize the desperate prisoner; she waits until his bonds of
threads, twisted backwards and forwards, make him fall on the web.

He falls; the other comes and flings herself upon her prostrate prey. The
attack is not without danger. The Locust is demoralized rather than tied
up; it is merely bits of broken thread that he is trailing from his legs.
The bold assailant does not mind. Without troubling, like the Epeirae,
to bury her capture under a paralysing winding-sheet, she feels it, to
make sure of its quality, and then, regardless of kicks, inserts her
fangs.

The bite is usually given at the lower end of a haunch: not that this
place is more vulnerable than any other thin-skinned part, but probably
because it has a better flavour. The different webs which I inspect to
study the food in the larder show me, among other joints, various Flies
and small Butterflies and carcasses of almost-untouched Locusts, all
deprived of their hind-legs, or at least of one. Locusts' legs often
dangle, emptied of their succulent contents, on the edges of the web,
from the meat-hooks of the butcher's shop. In my urchin-days, days free
from prejudices in regard to what one ate, I, like many others, was able
to appreciate that dainty. It is the equivalent, on a very small scale,
of the larger legs of the Crayfish.

The rigging-builder, therefore, to whom we have just thrown a Locust
attacks the prey at the lower end of a thigh. The bite is a lingering
one: once the Spider has planted her fangs, she does not let go. She
drinks, she sips, she sucks. When this first point is drained, she
passes on to others, to the second haunch in particular, until the prey
becomes an empty hulk without losing its outline.

We have seen that Garden Spiders feed in a similar way, bleeding their
venison and drinking it instead of eating it. At last, however, in the
comfortable post-prandial hours, they take up the drained morsel, chew
it, rechew it and reduce it to a shapeless ball. It is a dessert for the
teeth to toy with. The Labyrinth Spider knows nothing of the diversions
of the table; she flings the drained remnants out of her web, without
chewing them. Although it lasts long, the meal is eaten in perfect
safety. From the first bite, the Locust becomes a lifeless thing; the
Spider's poison has settled him.

The labyrinth is greatly inferior, as a work of art, to that advanced
geometrical contrivance, the Garden Spider's net; and, in spite of its
ingenuity, it does not give a favourable notion of its constructor. It
is hardly more than a shapeless scaffolding, run up anyhow. And yet,
like the others, the builder of this slovenly edifice must have her own
principles of beauty and accuracy. As it is, the prettily-latticed mouth
of the crater makes us suspect this; the nest, the mother's usual
masterpiece, will prove it to the full.

When laying-time is at hand, the Spider changes her residence; she
abandons her web in excellent condition; she does not return to it. Whoso
will can take possession of the house. The hour has come to found the
family-establishment. But where? The Spider knows right well; I am in
the dark. Mornings are spent in fruitless searches. In vain I ransack
the bushes that carry the webs: I never find aught that realizes my
hopes.

I learn the secret at last. I chance upon a web which, though deserted,
is not yet dilapidated, proving that it has been but lately quitted.
Instead of hunting in the brushwood whereon it rests, let us inspect the
neighbourhood, to a distance of a few paces. If these contain a low,
thick cluster, the nest is there, hidden from the eye. It carries an
authentic certificate of its origin, for the mother invariably occupies
it.

By this method of investigation, far from the labyrinth-trap, I become
the owner of as many nests as are needed to satisfy my curiosity. They
do not by a long way come up to my idea of the maternal talent. They are
clumsy bundles of dead leaves, roughly drawn together with silk threads.
Under this rude covering is a pouch of fine texture containing the egg-
casket, all in very bad condition, because of the inevitable tears
incurred in its extrication from the brushwood. No, I shall not be able
to judge of the artist's capacity by these rags and tatters.

The insect, in its buildings, has its own architectural rules, rules as
unchangeable as anatomical peculiarities. Each group builds according to
the same set of principles, conforming to the laws of a very elementary
system of aesthetics; but often circumstances beyond the architect's
control--the space at her disposal, the unevenness of the site, the
nature of the material and other accidental causes--interfere with the
worker's plans and disturb the structure. Then virtual regularity is
translated into actual chaos; order degenerates into disorder.

We might discover an interesting subject of research in the type adopted
by each species when the work is accomplished without hindrances. The
Banded Epeira weaves the wallet of her eggs in the open, on a slim branch
that does not get in her way; and her work is a superbly artistic jar.
The Silky Epeira also has all the elbow-room she needs; and her
paraboloid is not without elegance. Can the Labyrinth Spider, that other
spinstress of accomplished merit, be ignorant of the precepts of beauty
when the time comes for her to weave a tent for her offspring? As yet,
what I have seen of her work is but an unsightly bundle. Is that all she
can do?

I look for better things if circumstances favour her. Toiling in the
midst of a dense thicket, among a tangle of dead leaves and twigs, she
may well produce a very inaccurate piece of work; but compel her to
labour when free from all impediment: she will then--I am convinced of it
beforehand--apply her talents without constraint and show herself an
adept in the building of graceful nests.

As laying-time approaches, towards the middle of August, I instal half-a-
dozen Labyrinth Spiders in large wire-gauze cages, each standing in an
earthen pan filled with sand. A sprig of thyme, planted in the centre,
will furnish supports for the structure, together with the trellis-work
of the top and sides. There is no other furniture, no dead leaves, which
would spoil the shape of the nest if the mother were minded to employ
them as a covering. By way of provision, Locusts, every day. They are
readily accepted, provided they be tender and not too large.

The experiment works perfectly. August is hardly over before I am in
possession of six nests, magnificent in shape and of a dazzling
whiteness. The latitude of the workshop has enabled the spinstress to
follow the inspiration of her instinct without serious obstacles; and the
result is a masterpiece of symmetry and elegance, if we allow for a few
angularities demanded by the suspension-points.

It is an oval of exquisite white muslin, a diaphanous abode wherein the
mother must make a long stay to watch over the brood. The size is nearly
that of a Hen's egg. The cabin is open at either end. The
front-entrance broadens into a gallery; the back-entrance tapers into a
funnel-neck. I fail to see the object of this neck. As for the opening
in front, which is wider, this is, beyond a doubt, a victualling-door. I
see the Spider, at intervals, standing here on the look-out for the
Locust, whom she consumes outside, taking care not to soil the spotless
sanctuary with corpses.

The structure of the nest is not without a certain similarity to that of
the home occupied during the hunting-season. The passage at the back
represents the funnel-neck, that ran almost down to the ground and
afforded an outlet for flight in case of grave danger. The one in front,
expanding into a mouth kept wide open by cords stretched backwards and
forwards, recalls the yawning gulf into which the victims used to fall.
Every part of the old dwelling is repeated: even the labyrinth, though
this, it is true, is on a much smaller scale. In front of the
bell-shaped mouth is a tangle of threads wherein the passers-by are
caught. Each species, in this way, possesses a primary architectural
model which is followed as a whole, in spite of altered conditions. The
animal knows its trade thoroughly, but it does not know and will never
know aught else, being incapable of originality.

Now this palace of silk, when all is said, is nothing more than a guard-
house. Behind the soft, milky opalescence of the wall glimmers the egg-
tabernacle, with its form vaguely suggesting the star of some order of
knighthood. It is a large pocket, of a splendid dead-white, isolated on
every side by radiating pillars which keep it motionless in the centre of
the tapestry. These pillars are about ten in number and are slender in
the middle, expanding at one end into a conical capital and at the other
into a base of the same shape. They face one another and mark the
position of the vaulted corridors which allow free movement in every
direction around the central chamber. The mother walks gravely to and
fro under the arches of her cloisters, she stops first here, then there;
she makes a lengthy auscultation of the egg-wallet; she listens to all
that happens inside the satin wrapper. To disturb her would be
barbarous.

For a closer examination, let us use the dilapidated nests which we
brought from the fields. Apart from its pillars, the egg-pocket is an
inverted conoid, reminding us of the work of the Silky Epeira. Its
material is rather stout; my pincers, pulling at it, do not tear it
without difficulty. Inside the bag there is nothing but an extremely
fine, white wadding and, lastly, the eggs, numbering about a hundred and
comparatively large, for they measure a millimetre and a half. {37} They
are very pale amber-yellow beads, which do not stick together and which
roll freely as soon as I remove the swan's-down shroud. Let us put
everything into a glass-tube to study the hatching.

We will now retrace our steps a little. When laying-time comes, the
mother forsakes her dwelling, her crater into which her falling victims
dropped, her labyrinth in which the flight of the Midges was cut short;
she leaves intact the apparatus that enabled her to live at her ease.
Thoughtful of her natural duties, she goes to found another establishment
at a distance. Why at a distance?

She has still a few long months to live and she needs nourishment. Were
it not better, then, to lodge the eggs in the immediate neighbourhood of
the present home and to continue her hunting with the excellent snare at
her disposal? The watching of the nest and the easy acquisition of
provender would go hand in hand. The Spider is of another opinion; and I
suspect the reason.

The sheet-net and the labyrinth that surmounts it are objects visible
from afar, owing to their whiteness and the height whereat they are
placed. Their scintillation in the sun, in frequented paths, attracts
Mosquitoes and Butterflies, like the lamps in our rooms and the fowler's
looking-glass. Whoso comes to look at the bright thing too closely dies
the victim of his curiosity. There is nothing better for playing upon
the folly of the passer-by, but also nothing more dangerous to the safety
of the family.

Harpies will not fail to come running at this signal, showing up against
the green; guided by the position of the web, they will assuredly find
the precious purse; and a strange grub, feasting on a hundred new-laid
eggs, will ruin the establishment. I do not know these enemies, not
having sufficient materials at my disposal for a register of the
parasites; but, from indications gathered elsewhere, I suspect them.

The Banded Epeira, trusting to the strength of her stuff, fixes her nest
in the sight of all, hangs it on the brushwood, taking no precautions
whatever to hide it. And a bad business it proves for her. Her jar
provides me with an Ichneumon {38} possessed of the inoculating larding-
pin: a _Cryptus_ who, as a grub, had fed on Spiders' eggs. Nothing but
empty shells was left inside the central keg; the germs were completely
exterminated. There are other Ichneumon-flies, moreover, addicted to
robbing Spiders' nests; a basket of fresh eggs is their offspring's
regular food.

Like any other, the Labyrinth Spider dreads the scoundrelly advent of the
pickwallet; she provides for it and, to shield herself against it as far
as possible, chooses a hiding-place outside her dwelling, far removed
from the tell-tale web. When she feels her ovaries ripen, she shifts her
quarters; she goes off at night to explore the neighbourhood and seek a
less dangerous refuge. The points selected are, by preference, the low
brambles dragging along the ground, keeping their dense verdure during
the winter and crammed with dead leaves from the oaks hard by. Rosemary-
tufts, which gain in thickness what they lose in height on the
unfostering rock, suit her particularly. This is where I usually find
her nest, not without long seeking, so well is it hidden.

So far, there is no departure from current usage. As the world is full
of creatures on the prowl for tender mouthfuls, every mother has her
apprehensions; she also has her natural wisdom, which advises her to
establish her family in secret places. Very few neglect this precaution;
each, in her own manner, conceals the eggs she lays.

In the case of the Labyrinth Spider, the protection of the brood is
complicated by another condition. In the vast majority of instances, the
eggs, once lodged in a favourable spot, are abandoned to themselves, left
to the chances of good or ill fortune. The Spider of the brushwood, on
the contrary, endowed with greater maternal devotion, has, like the Crab
Spider, to mount guard over hers until they hatch.

With a few threads and some small leaves joined together, the Crab Spider
builds, above her lofty nest, a rudimentary watch-tower where she stays
permanently, greatly emaciated, flattened into a sort of wrinkled shell
through the emptying of her ovaries and the total absence of food. And
this mere shred, hardly more than a skin that persists in living without
eating, stoutly defends her egg-sack, shows fight at the approach of any
tramp. She does not make up her mind to die until the little ones are
gone.

The Labyrinth Spider is better treated. After laying her eggs, so far
from becoming thin, she preserves an excellent appearance and a round
belly. Moreover, she does not lose her appetite and is always prepared
to bleed a Locust. She therefore requires a dwelling with a hunting-box
close to the eggs watched over. We know this dwelling, built in strict
accordance with artistic canons under the shelter of my cages.

Remember the magnificent oval guard-room, running into a vestibule at
either end; the egg-chamber slung in the centre and isolated on every
side by half a score of pillars; the front-hall expanding into a wide
mouth and surmounted by a network of taut threads forming a trap. The
semi-transparency of the walls allows us to see the Spider engaged in her
household affairs. Her cloister of vaulted passages enables her to
proceed to any point of the star-shaped pouch containing the eggs.
Indefatigable in her rounds, she stops here and there; she fondly feels
the satin, listens to the secrets of the wallet. If I shake the net at
any point with a straw, she quickly runs up to enquire what is happening.
Will this vigilance frighten off the Ichneumon and other lovers of
omelettes? Perhaps so. But, though this danger be averted, others will
come when the mother is no longer there.

Her attentive watch does not make her overlook her meals. One of the
Locusts whereof I renew the supply at intervals in the cages is caught in
the cords of the great entrance-hall. The Spider arrives hurriedly,
snatches the giddy-pate and disjoints his shanks, which she empties of
their contents, the best part of the insect. The remainder of the
carcass is afterwards drained more or less, according to her appetite at
the time. The meal is taken outside the guard-room, on the threshold,
never indoors.

These are not capricious mouthfuls, serving to beguile the boredom of the
watch for a brief while; they are substantial repasts, which require
several sittings. Such an appetite astonishes me, after I have seen the
Crab Spider, that no less ardent watcher, refuse the Bees whom I give her
and allow herself to die of inanition. Can this other mother have so
great a need as that to eat? Yes, certainly she has; and for an
imperative reason.

At the beginning of her work, she spent a large amount of silk, perhaps
all that her reserves contained; for the double dwelling--for herself and
for her offspring--is a huge edifice, exceedingly costly in materials;
and yet, for nearly another month, I see her adding layer upon layer both
to the wall of the large cabin and to that of the central chamber, so
much so that the texture, which at first was translucent gauze, becomes
opaque satin. The walls never seem thick enough; the Spider is always
working at them. To satisfy this lavish expenditure, she must
incessantly, by means of feeding, fill her silk-glands as and when she
empties them by spinning. Food is the means whereby she keeps the
inexhaustible factory going.

A month passes and, about the middle of September, the little ones hatch,
but without leaving their tabernacle, where they are to spend the winter
packed in soft wadding. The mother continues to watch and spin,
lessening her activity from day to day. She recruits herself with a
Locust at longer intervals; she sometimes scorns those whom I myself
entangle in her trap. This increasing abstemiousness, a sign of
decrepitude, slackens and at last stops the work of the spinnerets.

For four or five weeks longer, the mother never ceases her leisurely
inspection-rounds, happy at hearing the new-born Spiders swarming in the
wallet. At length, when October ends, she clutches her offspring's
nursery and dies withered. She has done all that maternal devotion can
do; the special providence of tiny animals will do the rest. When spring
comes, the youngsters will emerge from their snug habitation, disperse
all over the neighbourhood by the expedient of the floating thread and
weave their first attempts at a labyrinth on the tufts of thyme.

Accurate in structure and neat in silk-work though they be, the nests of
the caged captives do not tell us everything; we must go back to what
happens in the fields, with their complicated conditions. Towards the
end of December, I again set out in search, aided by all my youthful
collaborators. We inspect the stunted rosemaries along the edge of a
path sheltered by a rocky, wooded slope; we lift the branches that spread
over the ground. Our zeal is rewarded with success. In a couple of
hours, I am the owner of some nests.

Pitiful pieces of work are they, injured beyond recognition by the
assaults of the weather! It needs the eyes of faith to see in these
ruins the equivalent of the edifices built inside my cages. Fastened to
the creeping branch, the unsightly bundle lies on the sand heaped up by
the rains. Oak-leaves, roughly joined by a few threads, wrap it all
round. One of these leaves, larger than the others, roofs it in and
serves as a scaffolding for the whole of the ceiling. If we did not see
the silky remnants of the two vestibules projecting and feel a certain
resistance when separating the parts of the bundle, we might take the
thing for a casual accumulation, the work of the rain and the wind.

Let us examine our find and look more closely into its shapelessness.
Here is the large room, the maternal cabin, which rips as the coating of
leaves is removed; here are the circular galleries of the guard-room;
here are the central chamber and its pillars, all in a fabric of
immaculate white. The dirt from the damp ground has not penetrated to
this dwelling protected by its wrapper of dead leaves.

Now open the habitation of the offspring. What is this? To my utter
astonishment, the contents of the chamber are a kernel of earthy matters,
as though the muddy rain-water had been allowed to soak through. Put
aside that idea, says the satin wall, which itself is perfectly clean
inside. It is most certainly the mother's doing, a deliberate piece of
work, executed with minute care. The grains of sand are stuck together
with a cement of silk; and the whole resists the pressure of the fingers.

If we continue to unshell the kernel, we find, below this mineral layer,
a last silken tunic that forms a globe around the brood. No sooner do we
tear this final covering than the frightened little ones run away and
scatter with an agility that is singular at this cold and torpid season.

To sum up, when working in the natural state, the Labyrinth Spider builds
around the eggs, between two sheets of satin, a wall composed of a great
deal of sand and a little silk. To stop the Ichneumon's probe and the
teeth of the other ravagers, the best thing that occurred to her was this
hoarding which combines the hardness of flint with the softness of
muslin.

This means of defence seems to be pretty frequent among Spiders. Our own
big House Spider, _Tegenaria domestica_, encloses her eggs in a globule
strengthened with a rind of silk and of crumbly wreckage from the mortar
of the walls. Other species, living in the open under stones, work in
the same way. They wrap their eggs in a mineral shell held together with
silk. The same fears have inspired the same protective methods.

Then how comes it that, of the five mothers reared in my cages, not one
has had recourse to the clay rampart? After all, sand abounded: the pans
in which the wire-gauze covers stood were full of it. On the other hand,
under normal conditions, I have often come across nests without any
mineral casing. These incomplete nests were placed at some height from
the ground, in the thick of the brushwood; the others, on the contrary,
those supplied with a coating of sand, lay on the ground.

The method of the work explains these differences. The concrete of our
buildings is obtained by the simultaneous manipulation of gravel and
mortar. In the same way, the Spider mixes the cement of the silk with
the grains of sand; the spinnerets never cease working, while the legs
fling under the adhesive spray the solid materials collected in the
immediate neighbourhood. The operation would be impossible if, after

cementing each grain of sand, it were necessary to stop the work of the
spinnerets and go to a distance to fetch further stony elements. Those
materials have to be right under her legs; otherwise the Spider does
without and continues her work just the same.

In my cages, the sand is too far off. To obtain it, the Spider would
have to leave the top of the dome, where the nest is being built on its
trellis-work support; she would have to come down some nine inches. The
worker refuses to take this trouble, which, if repeated in the case of
each grain, would make the action of the spinnerets too irksome. She
also refuses to do so when, for reasons which I have not fathomed, the
site chosen is some way up in the tuft of rosemary. But, when the nest
touches the ground, the clay rampart is never missing.

Are we to see in this fact proof of an instinct capable of modification,
either making for decadence and gradually neglecting what was the
ancestors' safeguard, or making for progress and advancing, hesitatingly,
towards perfection in the mason's art? No inference is permissible in
either direction. The Labyrinth Spider has simply taught us that
instinct possesses resources which are employed or left latent according
to the conditions of the moment. Place sand under her legs and the
spinstress will knead concrete; refuse her that sand, or put it out of
her reach, and the Spider will remain a simple silk-worker, always ready,
however, to turn mason under favourable conditions. The aggregate of
things that come within the observer's scope proves that it were mad to
expect from her any further innovations, such as would utterly change her
methods of manufacture and cause her, for instance, to abandon her cabin,
with its two entrance-halls and its star-like tabernacle, in favour of
the Banded Epeira's pear-shaped gourd.





Next: THE CLOTHO SPIDER

Previous: THE GARDEN SPIDERS: THE QUESTION OF PROPERTY



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