Popular Science Monthly/Volume 50/January 1897/Spiders and their Ways

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At my window spinning,
Weaving circles wider, wider,
From the deft beginning;

Rings and spokes, until you
Build your silken death-trap cunning—
Shall I catch you—kill you?

Nimble, shrewd as Circe;
Death's your only aim and calling,
Why should you have mercy?

Strike thee?
Not for rapine willful:
Man himself is too much like thee.
Only not so skillful.

George Horton's Songs of the Lowly.

NOT so skillful, and doubtless never will be, for to-day a spider's thread is used in the telescope because man has been unable to manufacture one so fine and delicate.

Whenever I look at the marvelous web of the great black-and-gold garden spider I remember that pretty story of the way in which the group of spiders received its name of Arachnidœ. In the olden times there was a lovely maiden named Arachne, who could weave and embroider with such deftness that the nymphs all gathered to watch her. They whispered to each other that she must have been taught by Minerva herself, who was the goddess of Wisdom. Arachne overheard them, and, denying their accusation, challenged Minerva to a trial of skill. Minerva accepted the challenge, and when the webs were woven Arachne's was wonderfully beautiful, but Minerva's far surpassed it.

Arachne was in despair and hung herself, whereupon Minerva's chagrin was so great that she transformed her into a spider, and her descendants preserve much of her skill.

We are apt to think of spiders as insects, but really they are only distantly related to insects, their first cousins being scorpions and king crabs. The spider's body consists of two parts.Spider's Claw, enlarged.It has four pairs of legs, a pair of palpi, and a pair of mandibles. The legs are jointed, and on the last joint there are three claws. The palpi are used as feelers and to hold the food. The breathing apparatus of the spider is a combination of lungs and gills. It has glands containing poison which lie partly in the head and partly in the basal joint of the mandibles. There is a tiny opening in the claw on the mandible, out of which the poison flows when the spider captures its prey. It has eight eyes. The spiders are classified largely by the different arrangements and grouping of the eyes. Some have them in one or more clusters, some in rows, and others scattered about. They appear to be able to see as well by night as by day. Near the end of the body are the spinnerets—two, three, or four pairs—out of which the silk comes for weaving the webs, nests, and cocoons.

Usually the female spider is much larger and stronger than the male. One naturalist thus graphically describes their wedded life: "Their honeymoon is of short duration, and is terminated by the bride's banqueting on the bridegroom. Doubtless she evinces taste and discrimination in her appreciation of a 'nice young man.'"

Spiders, like lobsters and other crustaceans, have the power of reproducing certain parts if they happen to meet with an injury, as legs, palpi, and spinnerets.

We find as marked differences in habits, tastes, and characters among spiders as among human beings. Some kinds prefer always living in houses or cellars, not seeming to care for any fresh air or out-of-door exercise. Mr. Jesse tells of two spiders that lived for thirteen years in opposite corners of a drawer which was used for soap and candles. Others delight in making burrows in the earth, in dwelling under stones or behind the loose bark on trees, and others live under water. Many never leave their webs, but patiently wait, hoping some insect will become entangled in the snares they have set. Others dash about and seize upon every luckless insect that crosses their path. The most adventurous of all are those that sail out into the world on one of their own little threads. Darwin tells of encountering thousands of them many leagues from land when he was taking his famous voyage in the Beagle. He says: "The little aëronaut, as soon as it arrived on board, was very active, running about, sometimes letting itself fall, then reascending the same thread. It could run with facility on the surface of the water."

In the bright autumn weather, if we observe closely, we may sometimes see some of our own small spiders ascend to the tops of trees, fences, and other high objects, rise on their toes, turn the spinners upward, throw out a quantity of silk, and sail away. They can be seen plentifully any fine day in October or November, before the cold weather, on Boston Common. They grasp the silken thread with their feet and seem to be enjoying themselves as much as the birds and butterflies.

Many instances are recorded of music-loving spiders, perhaps the most interesting being that related by Beethoven's biographer, who says: "A spider weaving its skillful though delicate trap for its daily dinner worked industriously in the corner of the ceiling until Beethoven began to play. Beethoven, who at that time had
Epeira diadema suspended by its Thread.
not thousands hanging on his baton, was rather pleased and attached to this listener, which most practically proved the value it attached to the performance by risking its life in coming nearer the enchanted instrument. And ill was it rewarded. The mother one day, perceiving the ugly animal, seized and killed it. But the boy Beethoven was so put out and so miserable at losing his strange auditor that he burst into tears and, seizing his violin, smashed it against the floor, shivering it into a thousand pieces."

Many kinds build their webs and cocoons in exposed places and take no pains to conceal them, while others cover theirs with tiny pebbles and bits of earth for protection. Some kinds of spiders abandon their egg cocoon as soon as it is finished, while others carry it about with them until the babies appear. One mother allowed herself to be torn to pieces rather than leave her cocoon.

We might compare the spiders' different modes of getting about to those of the birds. The hunting spiders leap and hop, the house spiders generally run forward, other kinds run backward and sideways with equal facility, and some, as we have seen, float about in the air. The most marvelous of the spiders' gifts is the silk-spinning. The spinnerets or spinners are little organs at the hind end of the body. Each has a number of very minute holes in it. Out of these the silk flows in a liquid form, but as

Snare of Long-bodied Garden Spider. Tetragnatha extensa.

soon as the air strikes it it hardens into a thread. The strands from the different holes all unite and form what we know as the spider's thread. There are great differences in the kinds of webs and nests which different spiders make. One of the most interesting is the web of the great black-and-gold garden spider. First she spins several lines all joined in the center like the spokes of a wheel, and attached to stems or leaves of plants at the outer edges. When the rays are finished she begins at the middle to make the spiral part. It is fascinating to watch her, as she crosses each spoke, stop and pat down the silk once or twice, then pull it to see if it is well secured before passing to the next one. When the web is finished, she makes a zigzag ladder of white silk, running from the bottom outer edge to the center. When she hangs in the middle of her web, as she does much of the time, the ladder helps to conceal her. The web is made of two kinds of silk—one smooth, the other covered with an adhesive liquid. When the insects are caught, their legs and wings are soon covered with the sticky juice, so that it is impossible for them to escape. The spider, knowing it would not be convenient to become entangled herself, spins one long, smooth thread from the center to the outside, which she uses m traveling to and fro.

The common house spider is wonderfully sagacious. Once in a while a large insect is caught in her web. She wants to take it up to her inner retreat to devour, and it is too heavy for her to carry. What is she to do? First she bites its leg, injecting some of her poison, which stupefies it. Next she throws some additional threads about it and ascends to the top, pulling the thread as hard as she can. When she has rested for a little time, she winds more threads about her victim and pulls again, each time attaching the threads at the top. In this way she finally succeeds in hoisting her feast into her house, though the process may last several days.

Who would think that our predecessors in the art of curling the hair were spiders? One species has been provided by Nature with a sort of little curling comb called the calimistra. It is on the hind legs and consists of two rows of parallel spines. The web, which she makes of bluish-white silk, is unusually pretty, as each thread is gracefully curled by drawing it between the spines.

Thoreau calls the little gossamer webs which we see spread over the grass on a dewy morning the napkins of the fairies. Even Chaucer, who wrote five hundred years ago, mentions them as a great curiosity to the people of his time. He says:

As sore wondren som on cause of thonder,

On ebb and flood, on gossamer and on mist,

And on all thing, ’til that the cause is wist.

A hundred and fifty years ago a Frenchman, M. Le Bon, made some stockings, purses, and gloves from spiders' silk. The Bermuda ladies use the thread of Nephila for sewing, and Queen Victoria was presented by the Empress of Brazil with a dress made of spiders' silk.

Spiders molt several times, each time appearing in a different color. We should hardly expect to find very brilliant or showy colors among them, yet some of them are gorgeous in the extreme. A little crab spider that built a house in my garden was the brightest lemon-yellow all over, and shone like a jewel amid the dark green of the surrounding foliage.

One of the English spiders has a black head and thorax, with an orange-red body, on which are six black spots, each ringed with white; another has a green coat with brilliant red and yellow striped trousers, for all the world like a king's jester. One dainty lady is clad in violet and white, a flaunting miss in black and flame-color, and her sister in cherry and brown.

Some of the Thomisidœ, are the exact colors of certain flowers, in the centers of which they sit all day, watching for the insects that come to get honey.

Two of the spiders' worst enemies are mud wasps and ichneumon flies. In searching recently for spiders beneath the clapboards on the south side of the house, I came across one of those curious structures which the mud wasp builds. I broke it open, and out tumbled a quantity of small spiders. The wasp's storehouse was in three compartments, and all together contained forty-nine spiders, all of the same kind and about the same size, in a torpid condition. The wasp had laid an egg in each of these spiders. She does not kill the spider, but merely stupefies it, so that when her egg hatches the larva may feed upon the luckless spider.

If one be a student of Nature he will perhaps have noticed a spider rush away and hide in her crack without any apparent reason. The moment before she had been enjoying the bright sunshine, and the student wonders why she ran away. The spider's perceptions are so keen that she knows long before he does that the sky will soon be overcast and torrents of rain descend or a cold wind begin to blow. If she stayed out she might soon be benumbed and unable to run into her house.

The water spiders are covered with hairs which shed the water, so that they never get wet. The little house under the water in which they live and raise their families is as snug and dry inside as yours and mine.

No spiders are more interesting than the trapdoor spiders and their first cousins the tarantulas. The former live in Europe and California. First, they make a burrow in the ground and then build the door. The California ones make their door of mud and sticks. It fits into the tube as a cork does into a bottle. The covers built by the European species are mere little lids, but they are always built so as to resemble the surrounding surface. One kind shows her sagacity by building a sort of double door, by which she can escape should an enemy storm her fort. At the surface is the usual door, and a few inches below this another.

When the spider hears an enemy investigating her burrow, she runs below the second door and pushes it up, so that the marauder will think he has happened upon an empty nest, the second door forming the bottom of it. The babies are born in the tubes, and remain with their mother until they are able to make nests for themselves.

These spiders spend the days in their burrows, but at night they all flock out to enjoy themselves. They fasten open their doors and make little webs over the grass. Many night-wandering beetles are caught, and then comes the banquet, which consists of the softer parts of the beetles. In the morning the closest observer could not find a trace of the preceding night's revelry, so carefully have the spiders cleared away all webs, beetle legs, and wing covers.

One group of spiders is called Lycosa, which means wolf spider. Perhaps they were named from the similarity of their habits to those of the wolf, being like him wandering and predaceous.

One of these is the tarantula, a great hairy fellow who inhabits warm countries. The species received its name from the Italian
Lycosa tarantula.
city of Tarentum, where they have been found in large numbers. There is a curious superstition connected with the tarantula's bite. If a person was bitten it was thought nothing could save his life but the playing of some lively dancing tunes. When he heard these he was supposed to be unable to resist the temptation to dance. Thus he grew very warm, and the perspiration came out in great beads all over him, each bead filled with poison. After he had danced as long as he possibly could, the poison had all escaped from his system. The tarantulas feed on small birds as well as insects. Indeed, one of the great southern species is called the bird-catching spider.

In India, where all animals are treated with consideration and even reverence, the little children often keep these spiders for pets. They tie a cord round a spider and lead it about, feeding it with worms and insects. Mother Lycosa always carries her egg cocoons out with her on her hunting expeditions, attached to the spinnerets.

Last summer I kept a garden spider for three weeks under a tumbler, and had the pleasure of watching her building her house of snowy silk, with its three entrances, and raising a large family of children. She soon learned to take flies from my hand and drink water from a leaf which I gave her fresh every day. After a time she seemed to languish and droop, so I set her free in the garden once more.

If you wish to live and thrive,

Let a spider run alive,

says the old Kentish proverb.