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In the inclement season of the year, when the insect has nothing to do

and retires to winter quarters, the observer profits by the mildness of

the sunny nooks and grubs in the sand, lifts the stones, searches the

brushwood; and often he is stirred with a pleasurable excitement, when he

lights upon some ingenious work of art, discovered unawares. Happy are

the simple of heart whose ambition is satisfied with such treasure-trove!
I wish them all the joys which it has brought me and which it will

continue to bring me, despite the vexations of life, which grow ever more

bitter as the years follow their swift downward course.

Should the seekers rummage among the wild grasses in the osier-beds and

copses, I wish them the delight of finding the wonderful object that, at

this moment, lies before my eyes. It is the work of a Spider, the nest

of the Banded Epeira (_Epeira fasciata_, LATR.).

A Spider is not an insect, according to the rules of classification; and

as such the Epeira seems out of place here. {16} A fig for systems! It

is immaterial to the student of instinct whether the animal have eight

legs instead of six, or pulmonary sacs instead of air-tubes. Besides,

the Araneida belong to the group of segmented animals, organized in

sections placed end to end, a structure to which the terms 'insect' and

'entomology' both refer.

Formerly, to describe this group, people said 'articulate animals,' an

expression which possessed the drawback of not jarring on the ear and of

being understood by all. This is out of date. Nowadays, they use the

euphonious term 'Arthropoda.' And to think that there are men who

question the existence of progress! Infidels! Say, 'articulate,' first;

then roll out, 'Arthropoda;' and you shall see whether zoological science

is not progressing!

In bearing and colouring, _Epeira fasciata_ is the handsomest of the

Spiders of the South. On her fat belly, a mighty silk-warehouse nearly

as large as a hazel-nut, are alternate yellow, black and silver sashes,

to which she owes her epithet of Banded. Around that portly abdomen, the

eight long legs, with their dark- and pale-brown rings, radiate like


Any small prey suits her; and, as long as she can find supports for her

web, she settles wherever the Locust hops, wherever the Fly hovers,

wherever the Dragon-fly dances or the Butterfly flits. As a rule,

because of the greater abundance of game, she spreads her toils across

some brooklet, from bank to bank among the rushes. She also stretches

them, but not assiduously, in the thickets of evergreen oak, on the

slopes with the scrubby greenswards, dear to the Grasshoppers.

Her hunting-weapon is a large upright web, whose outer boundary, which

varies according to the disposition of the ground, is fastened to the

neighbouring branches by a number of moorings. The structure is that

adopted by the other weaving Spiders. Straight threads radiate at equal

intervals from a central point. Over this framework runs a continuous

spiral thread, forming chords, or cross-bars, from the centre to the

circumference. It is magnificently large and magnificently symmetrical.

In the lower part of the web, starting from the centre, a wide opaque

ribbon descends zigzag-wise across the radii. This is the Epeira's trade-

mark, the flourish of an artist initialling his creation. '_Fecit_ So-

and-so,' she seems to say, when giving the last throw of the shuttle to

her handiwork.

That the Spider feels satisfied when, after passing and repassing from

spoke to spoke, she finishes her spiral, is beyond a doubt: the work

achieved ensures her food for a few days to come. But, in this

particular case, the vanity of the spinstress has naught to say to the

matter: the strong silk zigzag is added to impart greater firmness to the


Increased resistance is not superfluous, for the net is sometimes exposed

to severe tests. The Epeira cannot pick and choose her prizes. Seated

motionless in the centre of her web, her eight legs wide-spread to feel

the shaking of the network in any direction, she waits for what luck will

bring her: now some giddy weakling unable to control its flight, anon

some powerful prey rushing headlong with a reckless bound.

The Locust in particular, the fiery Locust, who releases the spring of

his long shanks at random, often falls into the trap. One imagines that

his strength ought to frighten the Spider; the kick of his spurred levers

should enable him to make a hole, then and there, in the web and to get

away. But not at all. If he does not free himself at the first effort,

the Locust is lost.

Turning her back on the game, the Epeira works all her spinnerets,

pierced like the rose of a watering-pot, at one and the same time. The

silky spray is gathered by the hind-legs, which are longer than the

others and open into a wide arc to allow the stream to spread. Thanks to

this artifice, the Epeira this time obtains not a thread, but an

iridescent sheet, a sort of clouded fan wherein the component threads are

kept almost separate. The two hind-legs fling this shroud gradually, by

rapid alternate armfuls, while, at the same time, they turn the prey over

and over, swathing it completely.

The ancient _retiarius_, when pitted against a powerful wild beast,

appeared in the arena with a rope-net folded over his left shoulder. The

animal made its spring. The man, with a sudden movement of his right

arm, cast the net after the manner of the fishermen; he covered the beast

and tangled it in the meshes. A thrust of the trident gave the quietus

to the vanquished foe.

The Epeira acts in like fashion, with this advantage, that she is able to

renew her armful of fetters. Should the first not suffice, a second

instantly follows and another and yet another, until the reserves of silk

become exhausted.

When all movement ceases under the snowy winding-sheet, the Spider goes

up to her bound prisoner. She has a better weapon than the _bestiarius_'

trident: she has her poison-fangs. She gnaws at the Locust, without

undue persistence, and then withdraws, leaving the torpid patient to pine


Soon she comes back to her motionless head of game: she sucks it, drains

it, repeatedly changing her point of attack. At last, the clean-bled

remains are flung out of the net and the Spider returns to her ambush in

the centre of the web.

What the Epeira sucks is not a corpse, but a numbed body. If I remove

the Locust immediately after he has been bitten and release him from the

silken sheath, the patient recovers his strength to such an extent that

he seems, at first, to have suffered no injury. The Spider, therefore,

does not kill her capture before sucking its juices; she is content to

deprive it of the power of motion by producing a state of torpor. Perhaps

this kindlier bite gives her greater facility in working her pump. The

humours, if stagnant, in a corpse, would not respond so readily to the

action of the sucker; they are more easily extracted from a live body, in

which they move about.

The Epeira, therefore, being a drinker of blood, moderates the virulence

of her sting, even with victims of appalling size, so sure is she of her

retiarian art. The long-legged Tryxalis, {17} the corpulent Grey Locust,

the largest of our Grasshoppers are accepted without hesitation and

sucked dry as soon as numbed. Those giants, capable of making a hole in

the net and passing through it in their impetuous onrush, can be but

rarely caught. I myself place them on the web. The Spider does the

rest. Lavishing her silky spray, she swathes them and then sucks the

body at her ease. With an increased expenditure of the spinnerets, the

very biggest game is mastered as successfully as the everyday prey.

I have seen even better than that. This time, my subject is the Silky

Epeira (_Epeira sericea_, OLIV.), with a broad, festooned, silvery

abdomen. Like that of the other, her web is large, upright and 'signed'

with a zigzag ribbon. I place upon it a Praying Mantis, {18} a

well-developed specimen, quite capable of changing roles, should

circumstances permit, and herself making a meal off her assailant. It is

a question no longer of capturing a peaceful Locust, but a fierce and

powerful ogre, who would rip open the Epeira's paunch with one blow of

her harpoons.

Will the Spider dare? Not immediately. Motionless in the centre of her

net, she consults her strength before attacking the formidable quarry;

she waits until the struggling prey has its claws more thickly entangled.

At last, she approaches. The Mantis curls her belly; lifts her wings

like vertical sails; opens her saw-toothed arm-pieces; in short, adopts

the spectral attitude which she employs when delivering battle.

The Spider disregards these menaces. Spreading wide her spinnerets, she

pumps out sheets of silk which the hind-legs draw out, expand and fling

without stint in alternate armfuls. Under this shower of threads, the

Mantis' terrible saws, the lethal legs, quickly disappear from sight, as

do the wings, still erected in the spectral posture.

Meanwhile, the swathed one gives sudden jerks, which make the Spider fall

out of her web. The accident is provided for. A safety-cord, emitted at

the same instant by the spinnerets, keeps the Epeira hanging, swinging in

space. When calm is restored, she packs her cord and climbs up again.

The heavy paunch and the hind-legs are now bound. The flow slackens, the

silk comes only in thin sheets. Fortunately, the business is done. The

prey is invisible under the thick shroud.

The Spider retires without giving a bite. To master the terrible quarry,

she has spent the whole reserves of her spinning-mill, enough to weave

many good-sized webs. With this heap of shackles, further precautions

are superfluous.

After a short rest in the centre of the net, she comes down to dinner.

Slight incisions are made in different parts of the prize, now here, now

there; and the Spider puts her mouth to each and sucks the blood of her

prey. The meal is long protracted, so rich is the dish. For ten hours,

I watch the insatiable glutton, who changes her point of attack as each

wound sucked dries up. Night comes and robs me of the finish of the

unbridled debauch. Next morning, the drained Mantis lies upon the

ground. The Ants are eagerly devouring the remains.

The eminent talents of the Epeirae are displayed to even better purpose

in the industrial business of motherhood than in the art of the chase.

The silk bag, the nest, in which the Banded Epeira houses her eggs, is a

much greater marvel than the bird's nest. In shape, it is an inverted

balloon, nearly the size of a Pigeon's egg. The top tapers like a pear

and is cut short and crowned with a scalloped rim, the corners of which

are lengthened by means of moorings that fasten the object to the

adjoining twigs. The whole, a graceful ovoid, hangs straight down, amid

a few threads that steady it.

The top is hollowed into a crater closed with a silky padding. Every

other part is contained in the general wrapper, formed of thick, compact

white satin, difficult to break and impervious to moisture. Brown and

even black silk, laid out in abroad ribbons, in spindle-shaped patterns,

in fanciful meridian waves, adorns the upper portion of the exterior. The

part played by this fabric is self-evident: it is a waterproof cover

which neither dew nor rain can penetrate.

Exposed to all the inclemencies of the weather, among the dead grasses,

close to the ground, the Epeira's nest has also to protect its contents

from the winter cold. Let us cut the wrapper with our scissors.

Underneath, we find a thick layer of reddish-brown silk, not worked into

a fabric this time, but puffed into an extra-fine wadding. It is a

fleecy cloud, an incomparable quilt, softer than any swan's-down. This

is the screen set up against loss of heat.

And what does this cosy mass protect? See: in the middle of the

eiderdown hangs a cylindrical pocket, round at the bottom, cut square at

the top and closed with a padded lid. It is made of extremely fine

satin; it contains the Epeira's eggs, pretty little orange-coloured

beads, which, glued together, form a globule the size of a pea. This is

the treasure to be defended against the asperities of the winter.

Now that we know the structure of the work, let us try to see in what

manner the spinstress sets about it. The observation is not an easy one,

for the Banded Epeira is a night-worker. She needs nocturnal quiet in

order not to go astray amid the complicated rules that guide her

industry. Now and again, at very early hours in the morning, I have

happened to catch her working, which enables me to sum up the progress of

the operations.

My subjects are busy in their bell-shaped cages, at about the middle of

August. A scaffolding is first run up, at the top of the dome; it

consists of a few stretched threads. The wire trellis represents the

twigs and the blades of grass which the Spider, if at liberty, would have

used as suspension-points. The loom works on this shaky support. The

Epeira does not see what she is doing; she turns her back on her task.

The machinery is so well put together that the whole thing goes


The tip of the abdomen sways, a little to the right, a little to the

left, rises and falls, while the Spider moves slowly round and round. The

thread paid out is single. The hind-legs draw it out and place it in

position on that which is already done. Thus is formed a satin

receptacle the rim of which is gradually raised until it becomes a bag

about a centimetre deep. {19} The texture is of the daintiest. Guy-ropes

bind it to the nearest threads and keep it stretched, especially at the


Then the spinnerets take a rest and the turn of the ovaries comes. A

continuous shower of eggs falls into the bag, which is filled to the top.

The capacity of the receptacle has been so nicely calculated that there

is room for all the eggs, without leaving any space unoccupied. When the

Spider has finished and retires, I catch a momentary glimpse of the heap

of orange-coloured eggs; but the work of the spinnerets is at once


The next business is to close the bag. The machinery works a little

differently. The tip of the belly no longer sways from side to side. It

sinks and touches a point; it retreats, sinks again and touches another

point, first here, then there, describing inextricable zigzags. At the

same time, the hind-legs tread the material emitted. The result is no

longer a stuff, but a felt, a blanketing.

Around the satin capsule, which contains the eggs, is the eiderdown

destined to keep out the cold. The youngsters will bide for some time in

this soft shelter, to strengthen their joints and prepare for the final

exodus. It does not take long to make. The spinning-mill suddenly

alters the raw material: it was turning out white silk; it now furnishes

reddish-brown silk, finer than the other and issuing in clouds which the

hind-legs, those dexterous carders, beat into a sort of froth. The egg-

pocket disappears, drowned in this exquisite wadding.

The balloon-shape is already outlined; the top of the work tapers to a

neck. The Spider, moving up and down, tacking first to one side and then

to the other, from the very first spray marks out the graceful form as

accurately as though she carried a compass in her abdomen.

Then, once again, with the same suddenness, the material changes. The

white silk reappears, wrought into thread. This is the moment to weave

the outer wrapper. Because of the thickness of the stuff and the density

of its texture, this operation is the longest of the series.

First, a few threads are flung out, hither and thither, to keep the layer

of wadding in position. The Epeira takes special pains with the edge of

the neck, where she fashions an indented border, the angles of which,

prolonged with cords or lines, form the main support of the building. The

spinnerets never touch this part without giving it, each time, until the

end of the work, a certain added solidity, necessary to secure the

stability of the balloon. The suspensory indentations soon outline a

crater which needs plugging. The Spider closes the bag with a padded

stopper similar to that with which she sealed the egg-pocket.

When these arrangements are made, the real manufacture of the wrapper

begins. The Spider goes backwards and forwards, turns and turns again.

The spinnerets do not touch the fabric. With a rhythmical, alternate

movement, the hind-legs, the sole implements employed, draw the thread,

seize it in their combs and apply it to the work, while the tip of the

abdomen sways methodically to and fro.

In this way, the silken fibre is distributed in an even zigzag, of almost

geometrical precision and comparable with that of the cotton thread which

the machines in our factories roll so neatly into balls. And this is

repeated all over the surface of the work, for the Spider shifts her

position a little at every moment.

At fairly frequent intervals, the tip of the abdomen is lifted to the

mouth of the balloon; and then the spinnerets really touch the fringed

edge. The length of contact is even considerable. We find, therefore,

that the thread is stuck in this star-shaped fringe, the foundation of

the building and the crux of the whole, while every elsewhere it is

simply laid on, in a manner determined by the movements of the hind-legs.

If we wished to unwind the work, the thread would break at the margin; at

any other point, it would unroll.

The Epeira ends her web with a dead-white, angular flourish; she ends her

nest with brown mouldings, which run down, irregularly, from the marginal

junction to the bulging middle. For this purpose, she makes use, for the

third time, of a different silk; she now produces silk of a dark hue,

varying from russet to black. The spinnerets distribute the material

with a wide longitudinal swing, from pole to pole; and the hind-legs

apply it in capricious ribbons. When this is done, the work is finished.

The Spider moves away with slow strides, without giving a glance at the

bag. The rest does not interest her: time and the sun will see to it.

She felt her hour at hand and came down from her web. Near by, in the

rank grass, she wove the tabernacle of her offspring and, in so doing,

drained her resources. To resume her hunting-post, to return to her web

would be useless to her: she has not the wherewithal to bind the prey.

Besides, the fine appetite of former days has gone. Withered and

languid, she drags out her existence for a few days and, at last, dies.

This is how things happen in my cages; this is how they must happen in

the brushwood.

The Silky Epeira (_Epeira sericea_, OLIV.) excels the Banded Epeira in

the manufacture of big hunting-nets, but she is less gifted in the art of

nest-building. She gives her nest the inelegant form of an obtuse cone.

The opening of this pocket is very wide and is scalloped into lobes by

which the edifice is slung. It is closed with a large lid, half satin,

half swan's-down. The rest is a stout white fabric, frequently covered

with irregular brown streaks.

The difference between the work of the two Epeirae does not extend beyond

the wrapper, which is an obtuse cone in the one case and a balloon in the

other. The same internal arrangements prevail behind this frontage:

first, a flossy quilt; next, a little keg in which the eggs are packed.

Though the two Spiders build the outer wall according to special

architectural rules, they both employ the same means as a protection

against the cold.

As we see, the egg-bag of the Epeirae, particularly that of the Banded

Epeira, is an important and complex work. Various materials enter into

its composition: white silk, red silk, brown silk; moreover, these

materials are worked into dissimilar products: stout cloth, soft

eiderdown, dainty satinette, porous felt. And all of this comes from the

same workshop that weaves the hunting-net, warps the zigzag ribbon-band

and casts an entangling shroud over the prey.

What a wonderful silk-factory it is! With a very simple and

never-varying plant, consisting of the hind-legs and the spinnerets, it

produces, by turns, rope-maker's, spinner's, weaver's, ribbon-maker's and

fuller's work. How does the Spider direct an establishment of this kind?

How does she obtain, at will, skeins of diverse hues and grades? How

does she turn them out, first in this fashion, then in that? I see the

results, but I do not understand the machinery and still less the

process. It beats me altogether.

The Spider also sometimes loses her head in her difficult trade, when

some trouble disturbs the peace of her nocturnal labours. I do not

provoke this trouble myself, for I am not present at those unseasonable

hours. It is simply due to the conditions prevailing in my menagerie.

In their natural state, the Epeirae settle separately, at long distances

from one another. Each has her own hunting-grounds, where there is no

reason to fear the competition that would result from the close proximity

of the nets. In my cages, on the other hand, there is cohabitation. In

order to save space, I lodge two or three Epeirae in the same cage. My

easy-going captives live together in peace. There is no strife between

them, no encroaching on the neighbour's property. Each of them weaves

herself a rudimentary web, as far from the rest as possible, and here,

rapt in contemplation, as though indifferent to what the others are

doing, she awaits the hop of the Locust.

Nevertheless, these close quarters have their drawbacks when laying-time

arrives. The cords by which the different establishments are hung

interlace and criss-cross in a confused network. When one of them

shakes, all the others are more or less affected. This is enough to

distract the layer from her business and to make her do silly things.

Here are two instances.

A bag has been woven during the night. I find it, when I visit the cage

in the morning, hanging from the trellis-work and completed. It is

perfect, as regards structure; it is decorated with the regulation black

meridian curves. There is nothing missing, nothing except the essential

thing, the eggs, for which the spinstress has gone to such expense in the

matter of silks. Where are the eggs? They are not in the bag, which I

open and find empty. They are lying on the ground below, on the sand in

the pan, utterly unprotected.

Disturbed at the moment of discharging them, the mother has missed the

mouth of the little bag and dropped them on the floor. Perhaps even, in

her excitement, she came down from above and, compelled by the exigencies

of the ovaries, laid her eggs on the first support that offered. No

matter: if her Spider brain contains the least gleam of sense, she must

be aware of the disaster and is therefore bound at once to abandon the

elaborate manufacture of a now superfluous nest.

Not at all: the bag is woven around nothing, as accurate in shape, as

finished in structure as under normal conditions. The absurd

perseverance displayed by certain Bees, whose egg and provisions I used

to remove, {20} is here repeated without the slightest interference from

me. My victims used scrupulously to seal up their empty cells. In the

same way, the Epeira puts the eiderdown quilting and the taffeta wrapper

round a capsule that contains nothing.

Another, distracted from her work by some startling vibration, leaves her

nest at the moment when the layer of red-brown wadding is being

completed. She flees to the dome, at a few inches above her unfinished

work, and spends upon a shapeless mattress, of no use whatever, all the

silk with which she would have woven the outer wrapper if nothing had

come to disturb her.

Poor fool! You upholster the wires of your cage with swan's-down and you

leave the eggs imperfectly protected. The absence of the work already

executed and the hardness of the metal do not warn you that you are now

engaged upon a senseless task. You remind me of the Pelopaeus, {21} who

used to coat with mud the place on the wall whence her nest had been

removed. You speak to me, in your own fashion, of a strange psychology

which is able to reconcile the wonders of a master craftsmanship with

aberrations due to unfathomable stupidity.

Let us compare the work of the Banded Epeira with that of the Penduline

Titmouse, the cleverest of our small birds in the art of nest-building.

This Tit haunts the osier-beds of the lower reaches of the Rhone. Rocking

gently in the river breeze, his nest sways pendent over the peaceful

backwaters, at some distance from the too-impetuous current. It hangs

from the drooping end of the branch of a poplar, an old willow or an

alder, all of them tall trees, favouring the banks of streams.

It consists of a cotton bag, closed all round, save for a small opening

at the side, just sufficient to allow of the mother's passage. In shape,

it resembles the body of an alembic, a chemist's retort with a short

lateral neck, or, better still, the foot of a stocking, with the edges

brought together, but for a little round hole left at one side. The

outward appearances increase the likeness: one can almost see the traces

of a knitting-needle working with coarse stitches. That is why, struck

by this shape, the Provencal peasant, in his expressive language, calls

the Penduline _lou Debassaire_, the Stocking-knitter.

The early-ripening seedlets of the widows and poplars furnish the

materials for the work. There breaks from them, in May, a sort of vernal

snow, a fine down, which the eddies of the air heap in the crevices of

the ground. It is a cotton similar to that of our manufactures, but of

very short staple. It comes from an inexhaustible warehouse: the tree is

bountiful; and the wind from the osier-beds gathers the tiny flocks as

they pour from the seeds. They are easy to pick up.

The difficulty is to set to work. How does the bird proceed, in order to

knit its stocking? How, with such simple implements as its beak and

claws, does it manage to produce a fabric which our skilled fingers would

fail to achieve? An examination of the nest will inform us, to a certain


The cotton of the poplar cannot, of itself, supply a hanging pocket

capable of supporting the weight of the brood and resisting the buffeting

of the wind. Rammed, entangled and packed together, the flocks, similar

to those which ordinary wadding would give if chopped up very fine, would

produce only an agglomeration devoid of cohesion and liable to be

dispelled by the first breath of air. They require a canvas, a warp, to

keep them in position.

Tiny dead stalks, with fibrous barks, well softened by the action of

moisture and the air, furnish the Penduline with a coarse tow, not unlike

that of hemp. With these ligaments, purged of every woody particle and

tested for flexibility and tenacity, he winds a number of loops round the

end of the branch which he has selected as a support for his structure.

It is not a very accurate piece of work. The loops run clumsily and

anyhow: some are slacker, others tighter; but, when all is said, it is

solid, which is the main point. Also, this fibrous sheath, the keystone

of the edifice, occupies a fair length of branch, which enables the

fastenings for the net to be multiplied.

The several straps, after describing a certain number of turns, ravel out

at the ends and hang loose. After them come interlaced threads, greater

in number and finer in texture. In the tangled jumble occur what might

almost be described as weaver's knots. As far as one can judge by the

result alone, without having seen the bird at work, this is how the

canvas, the support of the cotton wall, is obtained.

This warp, this inner framework, is obviously not constructed in its

entirety from the start; it goes on gradually, as the bird stuffs the

part above it with cotton. The wadding, picked up bit by bit from the

ground, is teazled by the bird's claws and inserted, all fleecy, into the

meshes of the canvas. The beak pushes it, the breast presses it, both

inside and out. The result is a soft felt a couple of inches thick.

Near the top of the pouch, on one side, is contrived a narrow orifice,

tapering into a short neck. This is the kitchen-door. In order to pass

through it, the Penduline, small though he be, has to force the elastic

partition, which yields slightly and then contracts. Lastly, the house

is furnished with a mattress of first-quality cotton. Here lie from six

to eight white eggs, the size of a cherry-stone.

Well, this wonderful nest is a barbarous casemate compared with that of

the Banded Epeira. As regards shape, this stocking-foot cannot be

mentioned in the same breath with the Spider's elegant and faultlessly-

rounded balloon. The fabric of mixed cotton and tow is a rustic frieze

beside the spinstress' satin; the suspension-straps are clumsy cables

compared with her delicate silk fastenings. Where shall we find in the

Penduline's mattress aught to vie with the Epeira's eiderdown, that

teazled russet gossamer? The Spider is superior to the bird in every

way, in so far as concerns her work.

But, on her side, the Penduline is a more devoted mother. For weeks on

end, squatting at the bottom of her purse, she presses to her heart the

eggs, those little white pebbles from which the warmth of her body will

bring forth life. The Epeira knows not these softer passions. Without

bestowing a second glance an it, she abandons her nest to its fate, be it

good or ill.