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

of self-defence.



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

offer.



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

is concerned.



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

syllables.



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

in appearance.



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

Silky Epeira.



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

her nest.



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.





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