Popular Science Monthly/Volume 39/October 1891/The Spinning Sisterhood

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NO fairy of the old tales ever conferred upon her favorite magic gifts more potent than a weapon whose slightest touch is death, and a thread becoming as needed a ladder to scale a wall, a balloon to navigate the air, a net to supply food, and a tent or a nursery for its possessor. Yet these are the common endowments of a whole family of fellow-creatures whom we—we despise.

No being that lives is more universally detested, more remorselessly destroyed, than one who exists only to serve us, whose whole life is undying war upon our most powerful enemies. Well indeed is it for us that she possesses the two magical gifts, and that, do our worst in our blind and stupid way, we can not exterminate the race—the industrious, the patient, the silent "daughter of Arachne"—the spider. Mysterious and solitary being, dumb, probably deaf, of strong though not varied emotions, with enemies countless as the leaves of the forest, who shall penetrate the secret of her life?

Is it not enough that every bird that flies, ruthlessly robs her nursery, devours her babies, and even snatches her own soft body from the very sanctum of home; that gauzy flies steal their greedy young into her nursery to fatten upon her infants; that to monkeys, squirrels, and lizards her plump body is a sweet morsel they never resist; that frogs and toads snap her up without ceremony; that centipeds seize her in resistless grasp; that wasps paralyze and bury her alive? Are not these enough, without man joining the hosts of exterminators? Man, too—in whose service she lives!

Consider for a moment her usefulness. Count, if you can, the thousands of flies and mosquitoes eaten by one common house or garden spider in a summer. Then remember her harmlessness. Other servants we must pay: birds eat our cut-worms, our caterpillars, and our potato-beetles, but we have to pay a tax—small, it is true—in fruits, in berries, in green peas, in corn; owls and hawks, while they destroy moles and mice, indulge now and then in young chickens. But the daughter of Arachne asks no reward, neither fruit nor vegetable suffers from her touch, no humming or buzzing attends her movements. Steadily, faithfully she goes on her way doing her appointed work; and we, so wise, so far above her in the scale of being,—we murder her!

Not content with that, we call her "horrid," while in truth she is a beauty, if we only had eyes to see. The largest of the family, the Miygales, clothed in furs, and always spoken of as "monsters," even by men of science mentioned with insulting and repulsive epithets, are seen under the microscope to be really beautiful, with every hair a plume, and the clustered eyes a crown of brilliant gems.

The most congenial home of the spider is naturally in the paradise of the insect. In the Amazonian forest with its hundreds of species, ranging from the almost invisible atom that sails off on its own magic thread, to the bird-killer with eight-inch spread of legs, we of the Western world must seek our most marked specimens. One of the silent family described by a traveler has a body like frosted silver studded with gold and emeralds, legs resembling gold wire, and a net of exquisite gold-lustered silk. Brilliant red, glowing orange, velvety black, glistening white, and other colors in combination, both charming and grotesque, distinguish some of them, while others appear in disguise. Withered blossoms, growing leaf-buds, thorns, rusty pins, sticks, bits of bark, and balls of their own silk are successfully counterfeited by one and another of this wonderful family. Many of these interesting Brazilians are unwelcome to the throat of bird and beast, by reason of spines, knobs, and excrescences of the most unique and fantastic sort. In that land of extremes also is found their most remarkable work, webs covering the whole top of a tree, with broad ribbons to hold it in place; and others so strong as not to be broken by small fruits thrown violently against them.

Intelligent, too, is our little arachnid—cunning she has been called. Many instances could be given; one of the most interesting is Belt's account of the behavior of spiders in the presence of the terrible eciton ants, which sweep the country in vast armies, and devour every living thing: "All insects and small animals recognize their relentless foe and make frantic efforts to escape. The spider alone yields not to panic, but uses common sense—may not one say reason? Some that were observed, upon the first scent of danger, took to their long legs, and having two more of them than any insect, and no inclination to stop for luncheon, soon put a long distance between themselves and the savage little hosts. Others, not caring to run, neither to be eaten, simply swung themselves out into the universe by their magic thread, and there hung between heaven and earth, like a certain legendary coffin, till the uncivil enemy had passed by. Not one was so stupid as the insects, to hide and be in a moment dragged out by the murderers whom nothing escaped. Perhaps the coolest personage on the scene was a harvestman or Daddy-long-legs, who stood on the ground right among those thirsting for the drop of blood in his round dot of a body. His legs were long, and he had eight of them, as well as a head (though one could hardly say on his shoulders). There he stood, calmly lifting up leg after leg, as an ant approached it, keeping a very sharp eye out, and never allowing one of the enemy to get near enough to touch him. Sometimes he had five legs in the air, and, if an ant came near one of the three on which he rested, he could always find space to put down one of the others to complete his tripod, while he lifted the threatened one high above the head of his tormentor—a wonderful exhibition of intelligence as well as presence of mind."

Passing under a tree on some bright morning in summer, one may chance to come upon three tiny balls on a thread of silk. They are as alike as beads on a string, and seem to be bits of rubbish wound with silk; but, like the balls of "my uncle," they are a trap for the unwary. Examine them. The upper one, easiest to reach, is the bundle of rubbish it looks to be; the lower one, also convenient to reach, is the same; but, touch the middle one, and out shall rush its owner, indignantly demanding by every movement what you mean by disturbing her. It is her castle, and behind its hinged door she lies in wait for the minute creatures that she eats, while enemies that would devour her on sight pass her ingenious home without suspicion.

A still more curious maker of balls "with intent to deceive" lives in New Jersey, and has been described by Mrs. Mary Treat. She constructs her balls of loose masses of her own silk, covered with bits of rubbish, even the cast-off garments of the insects she has eaten cut into atoms and scattered over them. Of these images she prepares several, fastened in a line through the web, with a vacancy for herself. The color is gray and white, and so closely do the balls resemble her that when she takes her place among them one can hardly tell which is spicier and which imitation. What is strange, and proves all this to be an intentional disguise for herself, the balls are always of her own size; when she is small they are so, and as she grows she adds to her "doubles." The same policy protects her cocoons, strung along beside the queer, spider-like objects. It requires the sharp eyes of a naturalist to detect them.

If the spider is a good hater, none the less is she a warm friend. She is quite willing to be friendly with man, and many accounts are on record of her pleasant relations with prisoners. In this close acquaintance her individuality and character come out. A story is told of one who appeared to be wanting in a sense of humor (as others of her sex are said to be). She did not relish a joke, and peremptorily declined to be made game of. The relater had cultivated her friendship so successfully that she readily came to him and took flies from his hand. After some weeks of this amicable understanding he began to tease her. He offered a fly as usual, and, when his small friend came confidently forward to take it, he snatched it away. The first time she evidently thought it an accident, for, on seeing it held out again, she tried once more to take it. This time her tormentor let her get hold, and then drew it away. Even this she forgave, doubtless finding it hard to believe that her friend had become her enemy. But when he tried it a third time, the "last link was broken," the friendship at an end. She could not trust him, and the most tempting fly and the loudest buzzing appealed to her in vain. She refused to go near it, and in a day or two she deliberately abandoned her home and departed for parts unknown, probably soured for life.

Curious and unexpected traits of character were shown in captivity by two of the Lycosas, or running spiders, among whom—according to popular notions—are some of the most terrible of the race. The account appeared in a scientific magazine some time ago. The first member of the happy family was living contentedly in a large cigar-box with a cover of glass, accepting gratefully the fare provided, and becoming quite tame, when a second one was captured and placed in the same box, and the owner sat down to see one eat the other, the legitimate result, as he supposed, of his act. Nothing of the sort happened; on the contrary, the two seemed shy of making acquaintance. For two or three days each spider stayed on her own side of the box and made no advances, either of war or friendship, but in a week their reserve wore off and they became the best of friends. Together they ran when a fly was offered, side by side they drank from the little pool of water provided for them, and each amiably waited her turn to drink when water was given in a brush. Under this delightful and unheard-of state of things, having plenty of food and none of the work that makes the life of freedom a stern reality, they actually grew frolicsome. They chased each other around the box, playfully as two kittens; they retired to opposite corners, and then ran at each other with mouths open as if about to clinch for a fight, which the observer confidently expected to see. But on meeting each rose, stood erect on her hind feet, and laid her fore feet gently upon the head and body of her friend. Then, just as the astonished spectator looked to see them start off in a waltz, they dropped to their eight feet, ran back to their corners, and repeated the queer performance. This was a favorite amusement, with which they varied the semi-serious business of hunting flies within their small domain. They were exceedingly neat in their toilet, and after each meal every part of the body and legs was rubbed and brushed, in systematic order, and the minute heap of dust resulting carefully thrown away.

It may be thought that their refusal to justify the popular notion, and eat or be eaten, was because of their equal size or their close relationship. To test this, their keeper introduced within their box a common house spider, much smaller in size, expecting to see the vaunted bloodthirstiness which should end in the death of the intruder. How did the friends behave? They simply avoided her, as one whose ways were unfamiliar. And the stranger—did she cower in fear, or show fight? Neither. Finding herself at liberty and comfortable, she proceeded at once to business, and, when the owner of the menagerie came back after several hours, he found the new-comer had nearly filled the box with her web, while the rightful owners thereof were crowded into a corner, meekly submitting to her usurpation of their quarters.

Babyhood is almost unknown in the spider world, or at least there is very little of the helplessness of most young creatures. It is hard indeed to believe the terrible tales told by Prof. Wilder of the life that goes on in the family before the nursery doors are opened. He affirms that the cocoon of Epeira riparia contains hundreds, perhaps thousands of eggs, and that the doors of the silken tent are not opened for some weeks after hatching, which is a time of fearful orgies, brother and sister devouring each other, without fighting it is true, but none the less relentlessly enacting the tragedy of the "survival of the fittest." The professor thinks he is justified in his conclusions, but we can afford to wait for further proof, and not believe it until we must.

The young arachnid, whatever her cocoon experiences, comes out of that snug home with all her wits about her, and is a very knowing baby indeed. The young trap-door spider very early in life, having attained the size of a large pin's head, makes for herself in the ground a silk-lined residence, and defends it against friend and foe. The common house spider no sooner leaves the home nest than she

Her silken ladders out and makes
No halt, no secret, scaling where
She likes, and weaving scaffolds there."

The garden spider, too, begins life for herself very early, spinning a web as big as a silver quarter, and as pretty as her mamma's.

The crowning glory of this queen of spinners and weavers is her motherhood. Never was a mother more devoted. In spite of the fact that her family numbers anywhere from one to ten hundred, she wraps the eggs snugly in silk, and carries them everywhere she goes, or carefully secretes them; and she defends them with her life. Not one, from the least to the greatest, abandons the helpless infants to an ignorant nurse to be pinched or petted according to the humor of that functionary—not one!

When the babies outgrow the nursery, she opens the door and sometimes takes them all on her back, though they cover her like a blanket. Then she feeds them, either with ants or flies, which she crushes and holds while they crowd around and take lessons in what is to be their life business.

In a pleasant home in New Jersey, already mentioned, have been made some most interesting observations in spider ways by Mrs. Mary Treat. Her studies were mostly among the tarantulas, whose habit is to excavate underground residences, and to Mrs. Treat belongs the honor of discovering two new species. First is the tiger tarantula, named from the tigerish stripes of the legs, who lives in a burrow several inches deep, with a mysterious private room at the entrance, and a door skillfully designed, and covered with rubbish to look like the ground about it.

Of this family, Mrs. Treat had about thirty under observation when August came, and with it the spider's worst foe—the digger wasp. In her book Home Studies in Nature, is an exceedingly interesting account of the precautions of the wary spider and the persistence of the wasp.

Most of the spiders, wise enough to know their conqueror when they saw her, hermetically closed their doors when the raid began, and tried to remain behind their bolts and bars until the danger was over; but as it was two or three weeks before all the wasp babies were provided for, many a venturesome hermit grew hungry, opened the door a-crack, and cautiously peeped out. Alas! the caution was too late. So lively and so sharp in the hunt was the enemy, that scarcely one of these imprudent ones escaped the terrible fate of burial alive. Out of all Mrs. Treat's family only five remained to open their doors and enjoy life after the wasp war was over. This is entirely the rage of motherhood. At no other time in the year does the wasp molest the spider.

This tiger spider, in spite of her formidable name, is an exception to the customs of the family, in having a spouse as big as herself, who constructs a home, and lives as comfortably as she. In general the female spider only is a respectable member of society, the male being often a vagrant and living no one knows how, besides being undoubtedly the original of the "little husband no bigger than my thumb" in the old nursery rhyme.

The tarantula family, to which belong our New Jersey friends, is the most celebrated as well as the most maligned of the race, although most of the stories have been proved to be myths, and their accomplishments in the building line have brought them into favorable notice. America has its own specimens of the tarantula, one of which, perhaps the largest yet discovered, was found in South Carolina by Prof. Holmes, on his own plantation, and was sent with nest and young to the Museum of Natural History in Central Park, New York. This truly fearful arachnid had a body larger than a mouse and covered with hair, as well as the legs, which were short and stout. The nest was so firmly made that, although underground, it was easily lifted out of its place without injury. Indeed, it was no mere silk-lined hole in the ground; it was a regularly built house of clay packed into a tight wall, and hung with curtain of silk. At the bottom of this model residence was a small opening for a waste-pipe, so that no rain should drown the builder within her own doors.

The tarantula of the Pacific slope is of note particularly on account of her enemy, the tarantula hawk, or tarantula-killer. The spider is of large size and no coward. If a stick is poked at her, she does not run; on the contrary, she starts up that stick so promptly that no one less nimble will stay to interview her. The wasp that makes her life a burden is nearly two inches long, with brilliant blue body and orange wings. Like the more humble resident of New Jersey, her sting produces paralysis, and, when she has prepared the burrow in which to deposit the hopes of her family, she invariably starts out after a tarantula to furnish a supply of food for the egg she buries with it. Spiders have been found in this remarkable half-dead state several years after they were buried, still limber and apparently healthy.

Dr Horn, of Philadelphia, describes particularly this strange contest with the wasp. The insect flies round and round in gradually decreasing circles, while the spider stands half erect on her hind legs. Seizing the first favorable chance, the wasp dashes in and delivers a sting, instantly flying away and resuming the circle flight, till she sees another opportunity to strike. Two or three touches are usually enough to subdue the most savage tarantula. But the trouble is often not over for the plucky wasp even then. The battle may be without sound, but it is not without scent. The use of her sting is accompanied by an odor which is quickly recognized by any other wasp-mother in search of a spider. If one chances to strike it, she follows it up on the instant, and, if the spider is not underground, makes a fight for it. So furious is the battle that sometimes both of the combatants are killed.

In the West Indies the trap-door spider is appreciated and respected as a useful servant for its work in killing cockroaches, which, unless checked, would destroy their houses. It is bought, carried to the house, and cherished as we cherish a cat.

Quite the most interesting of this family is the second discovery of Mrs. Treat, which she called at first Tarantula turricula, or turret-building tarantula. Should one in his walks chance to notice a tiny five-sided tower rising out of the ground, elegantly made, of sticks crossed regularly at the corners in log-cabin style, and sometimes decorated with bits of moss, he would never guess that a spider was the architect. Yet such is the work of Mrs. Treat's turret-builder, and she has not only watched the process, but has taken part in it herself.

The pentagonal structure is not the home, it is but the entrance and the watch-tower on top of which the owner delights to sit and make observation of the world about her, with sharp eye to the insect supply. The real home is a burrow several inches deep. The building of the tower is most interesting, the sticks being carefully selected, fastened in place by threads of silk, and each layer covered by a close row of small balls of earth brought up from the bottom of the cave. These balls are laid on the row of sticks, pressed flat and drawn down so as to coat the inside, and when finished, therefore, the tube is smoothly plastered. Then the silken hangings are added, and her home is complete. The towers are two and a half inches high, and are strong enough to be handled.

One builder, who allowed Mrs. Treat to assist by furnishing material, proved herself to be not only very hard to suit, but to have a temper of her own, rejecting sticks that did not please her by flinging them far off, exactly as she habitually disposed of the remains of her meals. This spider, too, lived in harmony with her mate, even in so small quarters as a glass jar. But she had her own residence, into which Mr. Tarantula Turricula might look, but was far too wise to enter. Her motherly cares and anxieties were absorbing in the extreme. The bag of eggs, large as a hazel-nut, was constantly carried about, and placed where it was warmest, in the sunshine, toward the stove, or wherever the heat was. This untiring devotion continued for two months, and when the young were out she took them all on her back.

This close student of spider ways could find no inclination in the baby to kill, much less to eat, one of its own family. She tried them with a freshly killed specimen, but the young would not notice it; and when mamma saw it she examined it carefully, then flung it away with other rubbish. She fed the youngsters by crushing a fly for them.

The most serious charge brought against our little friend is of cruelty to her kind, and especially to her spouse. It would not be surprising if a creature made and equipped for the duty of insect-hunter, and to that end filled with the "rage of killing," should now and then fail to distinguish between friend and foe; but as a matter of fact, though some species may justly be accused of coolness toward their mates, others, on the contrary, live in peace with them. It must be remembered, too, that the female spider is always under the spell of her double duty, to reduce the insects and to preserve the race. As to their relations with others, though in general spider life is solitary, there are instances of gregarious living, as well as of small spiders being not unwelcome guests in the web of larger ones. The general charge of cruelty may have arisen from the conduct of some of the Epeira family, one of the largest and gayest in dress, as well as the most common and widely distributed of the spider tribes.

A noteworthy member of this family found by the naturalist in the Challenger Expedition (E. clavipes) makes a web so strong that even birds are made prisoners by it, though whether the spider devours them does not appear. On the same expedition another was observed which possessed a more imposing residence, having by way of an upper story a globular mass of irregular threads over her horizontal "first floor." In this attic lived her spouse, a minute creature after the spider fashion of mates. Between his quarters and the parlor, where madam herself, the builder and provider, had her place, hung suspended the precious egg-bags, or nurseries, three or four in number, of different ages.

The cunning—not to say the intelligence—of the race, is shown by some in their unique method of concealing themselves from a known or suspected enemy, while remaining in plain sight all the time. It is by a violent shaking of the web, which, being extremely elastic, vibrates so rapidly as to confuse the outlines of the substantial body standing in the center and causing all the commotion. Could she have invented a more ingenious way if she had been a learned scientist?

The mania for decoration has reached, or possibly it began with, the spinning sisterhood. Dr. McCook describes some curious examples. There is the bank Argiope, a personage in silver drab, who makes for her own special use a white silken carpet in the middle of her large round web. From the top of the carpet reaches a ribbon of the same, and from the bottom descends a zigzag cord like the famous "winding stair" of the old song. Resting, head down, in her place, she is able to defy ordinary enemies, for she knows the trick of shaking her web until her body is absolutely invisible. Unlike many of the family, she prepares her nursery out of the house, forming a tent by lashing leaves or grasses together, and fastening securely within it a pear-shaped cocoon. This cradle, which is to swing in its airy tent all winter, is glazed outside, but within a mass of soft, silken blankets which wrap the eggs from all harm.

A near relation of this prudent mother, the banded Argiope, in white furry coat, decorates her symmetrical web from top to bottom with ladders of white silk. Decoration reaches its lowest form in a web described by the same observer, where the cocoons, the precious cradles of the household, are covered with cast-off shells and gauzy wings left from past and gone feasts—whether as "souvenirs" of the occasions, or to disguise the true character of the cocoon, we can only guess, for we have not got at her opinions as yet.

Perhaps the most peculiar of the web-makers is figured by Prof. Wilder, who calls the wise little spinner the triangle spider, from the shape of her snare. From the point on a twig which she selects for her resting-place, or roost, as the professor calls it, she stretches a single line a few inches, and from that point spreads four long, widely diverging lines like radii. Having done this, she proceeds to cross these cables with viscid threads like the rounds of a ladder, and, when completed about two thirds the length of the radii, the whole web looks like three distinct ladders, side by side. Everything arranged to her mind, the small architect retires to her post, the single thread from which the whole hangs, and sets her trap by drawing up the slack and holding it in a loop between her feet. In this strained position she remains for hours with the motionless patience of her race. But let a fly touch her web and she is wide awake on the instant. Her trick then is to let the loop she has held go with a snap that jerks the web and is sure to still further complicate the entanglement of the struggling fly. If this is not enough to complete his capture, she repeats the operation several times. Should he not be by this time altogether subdued, she starts down her line, drawing a fresh thread after her, cutting the old ones one after another, and, at last, as the professor says, she gathers the entire net in her hands, and throws it like a blanket over the prey. If this skillful little trapper were not a poor little half-inch-long spider, what a wonderful performance that would seem!

The triangle spider too is more amiable than some of her family in giving her mate a share of her home. According to our close observer of New Jersey, the little creature, about half the size of his spouse, lives in an upper corner of her web, apparently interested in the fly-catching business merely as a spectator. Whether he ever makes a web, and where he gets his dinners, are still unknown.

Many attempts have been made to compel the "daughter of Arachne" to work in harness, so to speak, and in consideration of food and protection to give up her silken threads for our use, as the silkworm contentedly does. Fortunately for her liberty, she is a personage of so marked individuality that no way has yet been devised competent to overcome her natural inclination to have her own way. Prof. Wilder has given much study to the subject of ways and means, and has, he thinks, perfected a plan by which one of the strong-web spinners (Nephila plumipes) may be trained to weave as well as to eat in our service. By this plan each spinner is to have her own home, a wire ring surrounded by water. She is to be fed with flies, which, alas! are not to reduce the hosts of the air, but to be bred for her, and every day she is to be placed in the stocks and compelled to give up her silk. This plan may possibly be feasible, but the space and the labor required would make the silk so costly that it could not compete with the product of the contented and simple-minded silkworm.

In fact, the spider, like the cat, is a self-reliant being, who will submit to petting, will become perfectly tame, so long as the friendship is reciprocal, but will never be made a slave to serve our whims. Her sturdy independence, her ability to take care of herself and to go where she pleases, were long ago recognized; for doth not the wise man of old say, "The spider taketh hold with her hands, and is in kings' palaces"?