THE GARDEN SPIDERS: MY NEIGHBOUR





Age does not modify the Epeira's talent in any essential feature. As the

young worked, so do the old, the richer by a year's experience. There

are no masters nor apprentices in their guild; all know their craft from

the moment that the first thread is laid. We have learnt something from

the novices: let us now look into the matter of their elders and see what

additional task the needs of age impose upon them.



July comes and gives me exactly what I wish for. While the new

inhabitants are twisting their ropes on the rosemaries in the enclosure,

one evening, by the last gleams of twilight, I discover a splendid

Spider, with a mighty belly, just outside my door. This one is a matron;

she dates back to last year; her majestic corpulence, so exceptional at

this season, proclaims the fact. I know her for the Angular Epeira

(_Epeira angulata_, WALCK.), clad in grey and girdled with two dark

stripes that meet in a point at the back. The base of her abdomen swells

into a short nipple on either side.



This neighbour will certainly serve my turn, provided that she do not

work too late at night. Things bode well: I catch the buxom one in the

act of laying her first threads. At this rate my success need not be won

at the expense of sleep. And, in fact, I am able, throughout the month

of July and the greater part of August, from eight to ten o'clock in the

evening, to watch the construction of the web, which is more or less

ruined nightly by the incidents of the chase and built up again, next

day, when too seriously dilapidated.



During the two stifling months, when the light fails and a spell of

coolness follows upon the furnace-heat of the day, it is easy for me,

lantern in hand, to watch my neighbour's various operations. She has

taken up her abode, at a convenient height for observation, between a row

of cypress-trees and a clump of laurels, near the entrance to an alley

haunted by Moths. The spot appears well-chosen, for the Epeira does not

change it throughout the season, though she renews her net almost every

night.



Punctually as darkness falls, our whole family goes and calls upon her.

Big and little, we stand amazed at her wealth of belly and her exuberant

somersaults in the maze of quivering ropes; we admire the faultless

geometry of the net as it gradually takes shape. All agleam in the

lantern-light, the work becomes a fairy orb, which seems woven of

moonbeams.



Should I linger, in my anxiety to clear up certain details, the

household, which by this time is in bed, waits for my return before going

to sleep:



'What has she been doing this evening?' I am asked. 'Has she finished

her web? Has she caught a Moth?'



I describe what has happened. To-morrow, they will be in a less hurry to

go to bed: they will want to see everything, to the very end. What

delightful, simple evenings we have spent looking into the Spider's

workshop!



The journal of the Angular Epeira, written up day by day, teaches us,

first of all, how she obtains the ropes that form the framework of the

building. All day invisible, crouching amid the cypress-leaves, the

Spider, at about eight o'clock in the evening, solemnly emerges from her

retreat and makes for the top of a branch. In this exalted position, she

sits for some time laying her plans with due regard to the locality; she

consults the weather, ascertains if the night will be fine. Then,

suddenly, with her eight legs wide-spread, she lets herself drop straight

down, hanging to the line that issues from her spinnerets. Just as the

rope-maker obtains the even output of his hemp by walking backwards, so

does the Epeira obtain the discharge of hers by falling. It is extracted

by the weight of her body.



The descent, however, has not the brute speed which the force of gravity

would give it, if uncontrolled. It is governed by the action of the

spinnerets, which contract or expand their pores, or close them entirely,

at the faller's pleasure. And so, with gentle moderation she pays out

this living plumb-line, of which my lantern clearly shows me the plumb,

but not always the line. The great squab seems at such times to be

sprawling in space, without the least support.



She comes to an abrupt stop two inches from the ground; the silk-reel

ceases working. The Spider turns round, clutches the line which she has

just obtained and climbs up by this road, still spinning. But, this

time, as she is no longer assisted by the force of gravity, the thread is

extracted in another manner. The two hind-legs, with a quick alternate

action, draw it from the wallet and let it go.



On returning to her starting-point, at a height of six feet or more, the

Spider is now in possession of a double line, bent into a loop and

floating loosely in a current of air. She fixes her end where it suits

her and waits until the other end, wafted by the wind, has fastened its

loop to the adjacent twigs.



The desired result may be very slow in coming. It does not tire the

unfailing patience of the Epeira, but it soon wears out mine. And it has

happened to me sometimes to collaborate with the Spider. I pick up the

floating loop with a straw and lay it on a branch, at a convenient

height. The foot-bridge erected with my assistance is considered

satisfactory, just as though the wind had placed it. I count this

collaboration among the good actions standing to my credit.



Feeling her thread fixed, the Epeira runs along it repeatedly, from end

to end, adding a fibre to it on each journey. Whether I help or not,

this forms the 'suspension-cable,' the main piece of the framework. I

call it a cable, in spite of its extreme thinness, because of its

structure. It looks as though it were single, but, at the two ends, it

is seen to divide and spread, tuft-wise, into numerous constituent parts,

which are the product of as many crossings. These diverging fibres, with

their several contact-points, increase the steadiness of the two

extremities.



The suspension-cable is incomparably stronger than the rest of the work

and lasts for an indefinite time. The web is generally shattered after

the night's hunting and is nearly always rewoven on the following

evening. After the removal of the wreckage, it is made all over again,

on the same site, cleared of everything except the cable from which the

new network is to hang.



The laying of this cable is a somewhat difficult matter, because the

success of the enterprise does not depend upon the animal's industry

alone. It has to wait until a breeze carries the line to the pier-head

in the bushes. Sometimes, a calm prevails; sometimes, the thread catches

at an unsuitable point. This involves great expenditure of time, with no

certainty of success. And so, when once the suspension-cable is in

being, well and solidly placed, the Epeira does not change it, except on

critical occasions. Every evening, she passes and repasses over it,

strengthening it with fresh threads.



When the Epeira cannot manage a fall of sufficient depth to give her the

double line with its loop to be fixed at a distance, she employs another

method. She lets herself down and then climbs up again, as we have

already seen; but, this time, the thread ends suddenly in a filmy hair-

pencil, a tuft, whose parts remain disjoined, just as they come from the

spinneret's rose. Then this sort of bushy fox's brush is cut short, as

though with a pair of scissors, and the whole thread, when unfurled,

doubles its length, which is now enough for the purpose. It is fastened

by the end joined to the Spider; the other floats in the air, with its

spreading tuft, which easily tangles in the bushes. Even so must the

Banded Epeira go to work when she throws her daring suspension-bridge

across a stream.



Once the cable is laid, in this way or in that, the Spider is in

possession of a base that allows her to approach or withdraw from the

leafy piers at will. From the height of the cable, the upper boundary of

the projected works, she lets herself slip to a slight depth, varying the

points of her fall. She climbs up again by the line produced by her

descent. The result of the operation is a double thread which is unwound

while the Spider walks along her big foot-bridge to the contact-branch,

where she fixes the free end of her thread more or less low down. In

this way, she obtains, to right and left, a few slanting cross-bars,

connecting the cable with the branches.



These cross-bars, in their turn, support others in ever-changing

directions. When there are enough of them, the Epeira need no longer

resort to falls in order to extract her threads; she goes from one cord

to the next, always wire-drawing with her hind-legs and placing her

produce in position as she goes. This results in a combination of

straight lines owning no order, save that they are kept in one, nearly

perpendicular plane. They mark a very irregular polygonal area, wherein

the web, itself a work of magnificent regularity, shall presently be

woven.



It is unnecessary to go over the construction of the masterpiece again;

the younger Spiders have taught us enough in this respect. In both

cases, we see the same equidistant radii laid, with a central landmark

for a guide; the same auxiliary spiral, the scaffolding of temporary

rungs, soon doomed to disappear; the same snaring-spiral, with its maze

of closely-woven coils. Let us pass on: other details call for our

attention.



The laying of the snaring-spiral is an exceedingly delicate operation,

because of the regularity of the work. I was bent upon knowing whether,

if subjected to the din of unaccustomed sounds, the Spider would hesitate

and blunder. Does she work imperturbably? Or does she need undisturbed

quiet? As it is, I know that my presence and that of my light hardly

trouble her at all. The sudden flashes emitted by my lantern have no

power to distract her from her task. She continues to turn in the light

even as she turned in the dark, neither faster nor slower. This is a

good omen for the experiment which I have in view.



The first Sunday in August is the feast of the patron saint of the

village, commemorating the Finding of St. Stephen. This is Tuesday, the

third day of the rejoicings. There will be fireworks to-night, at nine

o'clock, to conclude the merry-makings. They will take place on the high-

road outside my door, at a few steps from the spot where my Spider is

working. The spinstress is busy upon her great spiral at the very moment

when the village big-wigs arrive with trumpet and drum and small boys

carrying torches.



More interested in animal psychology than in pyrotechnical displays, I

watch the Epeira's doings, lantern in hand. The hullabaloo of the crowd,

the reports of the mortars, the crackle of Roman candles bursting in the

sky, the hiss of the rockets, the rain of sparks, the sudden flashes of

white, red or blue light: none of this disturbs the worker, who

methodically turns and turns again, just as she does in the peace of

ordinary evenings.



Once before, the gun which I fired under the plane-trees failed to

trouble the concert of the Cicadae; to-day, the dazzling light of the

fire-wheels and the splutter of the crackers do not avail to distract the

Spider from her weaving. And, after all, what difference would it make

to my neighbour if the world fell in! The village could be blown up with

dynamite, without her losing her head for such a trifle. She would

calmly go on with her web.



Let us return to the Spider manufacturing her net under the usual

tranquil conditions. The great spiral has been finished, abruptly, on

the confines of the resting-floor. The central cushion, a mat of ends of

saved thread, is next pulled up and eaten. But, before indulging in this

mouthful, which closes the proceedings, two Spiders, the only two of the

order, the Banded and the Silky Epeira, have still to sign their work. A

broad, white ribbon is laid, in a thick zigzag, from the centre to the

lower edge of the orb. Sometimes, but not always, a second band of the

same shape and of lesser length occupies the upper portion, opposite the

first.



I like to look upon these odd flourishes as consolidating-gear. To begin

with, the young Epeirae never use them. For the moment, heedless of the

future and lavish of their silk, they remake their web nightly, even

though it be none too much dilapidated and might well serve again. A

brand-new snare at sunset is the rule with them. And there is little

need for increased solidity when the work has to be done again on the

morrow.



On the other hand, in the late autumn, the full-grown Spiders, feeling

laying-time at hand, are driven to practise economy, in view of the great

expenditure of silk required for the egg-bag. Owing to its large size,

the net now becomes a costly work which it were well to use as long as

possible, for fear of finding one's reserves exhausted when the time

comes for the expensive construction of the nest. For this reason, or

for others which escape me, the Banded and the Silky Epeirae think it

wise to produce durable work and to strengthen their toils with a cross-

ribbon. The other Epeirae, who are put to less expense in the

fabrication of their maternal wallet--a mere pill--are unacquainted with

the zigzag binder and, like the younger Spiders, reconstruct their web

almost nightly.



My fat neighbour, the Angular Epeira, consulted by the light of a

lantern, shall tell us how the renewal of the net proceeds. As the

twilight fades, she comes down cautiously from her day-dwelling; she

leaves the foliage of the cypresses for the suspension-cable of her

snare. Here she stands for some time; then, descending to her web, she

collects the wreckage in great armfuls. Everything--spiral, spokes and

frame--is raked up with her legs. One thing alone is spared and that is

the suspension-cable, the sturdy piece of work that has served as a

foundation for the previous buildings and will serve for the new after

receiving a few strengthening repairs.



The collected ruins form a pill which the Spider consumes with the same

greed that she would show in swallowing her prey. Nothing remains. This

is the second instance of the Spiders' supreme economy of their silk. We

have seen them, after the manufacture of the net, eating the central

guide-post, a modest mouthful; we now see them gobbling up the whole web,

a meal. Refined and turned into fluid by the stomach, the materials of

the old net will serve for other purposes.



As goon as the site is thoroughly cleared, the work of the frame and the

net begins on the support of the suspension-cable which was respected.

Would it not be simpler to restore the old web, which might serve many

times yet, if a few rents were just repaired? One would say so; but does

the Spider know how to patch her work, as a thrifty housewife darns her

linen? That is the question.



To mend severed meshes, to replace broken threads, to adjust the new to

the old, in short, to restore the original order by assembling the

wreckage would be a far-reaching feat of prowess, a very fine proof of

gleams of intelligence, capable of performing rational calculations. Our

menders excel in this class of work. They have as their guide their

sense, which measures the holes, cuts the new piece to size and fits it

into its proper place. Does the Spider possess the counterpart of this

habit of clear thinking?



People declare as much, without, apparently, looking into the matter very

closely. They seem able to dispense with the conscientious observer's

scruples, when inflating their bladder of theory. They go straight

ahead; and that is enough. As for ourselves, less greatly daring, we

will first enquire; we will see by experiment if the Spider really knows

how to repair her work.



The Angular Epeira, that near neighbour who has already supplied me with

so many documents, has just finished her web, at nine o'clock in the

evening. It is a splendid night, calm and warm, favourable to the rounds

of the Moths. All promises good hunting. At the moment when, after

completing the great spiral, the Epeira is about to eat the central

cushion and settle down upon her resting-floor, I cut the web in two,

diagonally, with a pair of sharp scissors. The sagging of the spokes,

deprived of their counter-agents, produces an empty space, wide enough

for three fingers to pass through.



The Spider retreats to her cable and looks on without being greatly

frightened. When I have done, she quietly returns. She takes her stand

on one of the halves, at the spot which was the centre of the original

orb; but, as her legs find no footing on one side, she soon realizes that

the snare is defective. Thereupon, two threads are stretched across the

breach, two threads, no more; the legs that lacked a foothold spread

across them; and henceforth the Epeira moves no more, devoting her

attention to the incidents of the chase.



When I saw those two threads laid, joining the edges of the rent, I began

to hope that I was to witness a mending-process:



'The Spider,' said I to myself, 'will increase the number of those cross-

threads from end to end of the breach; and, though the added piece may

not match the rest of the work, at least it will fill the gap and the

continuous sheet will be of the same use practically as the regular web.'



The reality did not answer to my expectation. The spinstress made no

further endeavour all night. She hunted with her riven net, for what it

was worth; for I found the web next morning in the same condition wherein

I had left it on the night before. There had been no mending of any

kind.



The two threads stretched across the breach even must not be taken for an

attempt at repairing. Finding no foothold for her legs on one side, the

Spider went to look into the state of things and, in so doing, crossed

the rent. In going and returning, she left a thread, as is the custom

with all the Epeirae when walking. It was not a deliberate mending, but

the mere result of an uneasy change of place.



Perhaps the subject of my experiment thought it unnecessary to go to

fresh trouble and expense, for the web can serve quite well as it is,

after my scissor-cut: the two halves together represent the original

snaring-surface. All that the Spider, seated in a central position, need

do is to find the requisite support for her spread legs. The two threads

stretched from side to side of the cleft supply her with this, or nearly.

My mischief did not go far enough. Let us devise something better.



Next day, the web is renewed, after the old one has been swallowed. When

the work is done and the Epeira seated motionless at her central post, I

take a straw and, wielding it dexterously, so as to respect the resting-

floor and the spokes, I pull and root up the spiral, which dangles in

tatters. With its snaring-threads ruined, the net is useless; no passing

Moth would allow herself to be caught. Now what does the Epeira do in

the face of this disaster? Nothing at all. Motionless on her resting-

floor, which I have left intact, she awaits the capture of the game; she

awaits it all night in vain on her impotent web. In the morning, I find

the snare as I left it. Necessity, the mother of invention, has not

prompted the Spider to make a slight repair in her ruined toils.



Possibly this is asking too much of her resources. The silk-glands may

be exhausted after the laying of the great spiral; and to repeat the same

expenditure immediately is out of the question. I want a case wherein

there could be no appeal to any such exhaustion. I obtain it, thanks to

my assiduity.



While I am watching the rolling of the spiral, a head of game rushes fun

tilt into the unfinished snare. The Epeira interrupts her work, hurries

to the giddy-pate, swathes him and takes her fill of him where he lies.

During the struggle, a section of the web has torn under the weaver's

very eyes. A great gap endangers the satisfactory working of the net.

What will the spider do in the presence of this grievous rent?



Now or never is the time to repair the broken threads: the accident has

happened this very moment, between the animal's legs; it is certainly

known and, moreover, the rope-works are in full swing. This time there

is no question of the exhaustion of the silk-warehouse.



Well, under these conditions, so favourable to darning, the Epeira does

no mending at all. She flings aside her prey, after taking a few sips at

it, and resumes her spiral at the point where she interrupted it to

attack the Moth. The torn part remains as it is. The machine-shuttle in

our looms does not revert to the spoiled fabric; even so with the Spider

working at her web.



And this is no case of distraction, of individual carelessness; all the

large spinstresses suffer from a similar incapacity for patching. The

Banded Epeira and the Silky Epeira are noteworthy in this respect. The

Angular Epeira remakes her web nearly every evening; the other two

reconstruct theirs only very seldom and use them even when extremely

dilapidated. They go on hunting with shapeless rags. Before they bring

themselves to weave a new web, the old one has to be ruined beyond

recognition. Well, I have often noted the state of one of these ruins

and, the next morning, I have found it as it was, or even more

dilapidated. Never any repairs; never; never. I am sorry, because of

the reputation which our hard-pressed theorists have given her, but the

Spider is absolutely unable to mend her work. In spite of her thoughtful

appearance, the Epeira is incapable of the modicum of reflexion required

to insert a piece into an accidental gap.



Other Spiders are unacquainted with wide-meshed nets and weave satins

wherein the threads, crossing at random, form a continuous substance.

Among this number is the House Spider (_Tegenaria domestica_, LIN.). In

the corners of our rooms, she stretches wide webs fixed by angular

extensions. The best-protected nook at one side contains the owner's

secret apartment. It is a silk tube, a gallery with a conical opening,

whence the Spider, sheltered from the eye, watches events. The rest of

the fabric, which exceeds our finest muslins in delicacy, is not,

properly speaking, a hunting-implement: it is a platform whereon the

Spider, attending to the affairs of her estate, goes her rounds,

especially at night. The real trap consists of a confusion of lines

stretched above the web.



The snare, constructed according to other rules than in the case of the

Epeirae, also works differently. Here are no viscous threads, but plain

toils, rendered invisible by the very number. If a Gnat rush into the

perfidious entanglement, he is caught at once; and the more he struggles

the more firmly is he bound. The snareling falls on the sheet-web.

_Tegenaria_ hastens up and bites him in the neck.



Having said this, let us experiment a little. In the web of the House

Spider, I make a round hole, two fingers wide. The hole remains yawning

all day long; but next morning it is invariably closed. An extremely

thin gauze covers the breach, the dark appearance of which contrasts with

the dense whiteness of the surrounding fabric. The gauze is so delicate

that, to make sure of its presence, I use a straw rather than my eyes.

The movement of the web, when this part is touched, proves the presence

of an obstacle.



Here, the matter would appear obvious. The House Spider has mended her

work during the night; she has put a patch in the torn stuff, a talent

unknown to the Garden Spiders. It would be greatly to her credit, if a

mere attentive study did not lead to another conclusion.



The web of the House Spider is, as we were saying, a platform for

watching and exploring; it is also a sheet into which the insects caught

in the overhead rigging fall. This surface, a domain subject to

unlimited shocks, is never strong enough, especially as it is exposed to

the additional burden of little bits of plaster loosened from the wall.

The owner is constantly working at it; she adds a new layer nightly.



Every time that she issues from her tubular retreat or returns to it, she

fixes the thread that hangs behind her upon the road covered. As

evidence of this work, we have the direction of the surface-lines, all of

which, whether straight or winding, according to the fancies that guide

the Spider's path, converge upon the entrance of the tube. Each step

taken, beyond a doubt, adds a filament to the web.



We have here the story of the Processionary of the Pine, {30} whose

habits I have related elsewhere. When the caterpillars leave the silk

pouch, to go and browse at night, and also when they enter it again, they

never fail to spin a little on the surface of their nest. Each

expedition adds to the thickness of the wall.



When moving this way or that upon the purse which I have split from top

to bottom with my scissors, the Processionaries upholster the breach even

as they upholster the untouched part, without paying more attention to it

than to the rest of the wall. Caring nothing about the accident, they

behave in the same way as on a non-gutted dwelling. The crevice is

closed, in course of time, not intentionally, but solely by the action of

the usual spinning.



We arrive at the same conclusion on the subject of the House Spider.

Walking about her platform every night, she lays fresh courses without

drawing a distinction between the solid and the hollow. She has not

deliberately put a patch in the torn texture; she has simply gone on with

her ordinary business. If it happen that the hole is eventually closed,

this fortunate result is the outcome not of a special purpose, but of an

unvarying method of work.



Besides, it is evident that, if the Spider really wished to mend her web,

all her endeavours would be concentrated upon the rent. She would devote

to it all the silk at her disposal and obtain in one sitting a piece very

like the rest of the web. Instead of that, what do we find? Almost

nothing: a hardly visible gauze.



The thing is obvious: the Spider did on that rent what she did every

elsewhere, neither more nor less. Far from squandering silk upon it, she

saved her silk so as to have enough for the whole web. The gap will be

better mended, little by little, afterwards, as the sheet is strengthened

all over with new layers. And this will take long. Two months later,

the window--my work--still shows through and makes a dark stain against

the dead-white of the fabric.



Neither weavers nor spinners, therefore, know how to repair their work.

Those wonderful manufacturers of silk-stuffs lack the least glimmer of

that sacred lamp, reason, which enables the stupidest of darning-women to

mend the heel of an old stocking. The office of inspector of Spiders'

webs would have its uses, even if it merely succeeded in ridding us of a

mistaken and mischievous idea.





THE GARDEN SPIDERS: BUILDING THE WEB THE GARDEN SPIDERS: PAIRING AND HUNTING facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

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