The How and Why Library/Insects/Section II

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II. Mrs. Garden Spider "At Home"[edit]

Mrs. Garden Spider won't come to see you and buzz by the hour. If you go to see her she'll tell you plainly that she doesn't care for society. It takes all her time to build her house, earn her living, and bring up her babies. She isn't asking favors of anyone, and she'll be obliged to you if you won't stand around and scare flies away.

But she makes such a pretty house that you feel like going anyhow. It's a gossamer wheel of a curtain. You can find it in almost any garden, stretched across a fence corner, or between the low branches of stout shrubs. You won't often see the little gray and brown mistress of it. That house is merely a sun-parlor of a net, spread in the open for the unwary fly. The lady of the house is of such a retiring nature that she prefers to live in a dark tunnel den behind the parlor. Stand out of sight—and remember Madame has from two to eight eyes in her head, and can see all around the compass—and fling a bit of dry leaf on the web. She darts out. She views that leaf with disgust, thinking the wind has played a trick on her. Very likely she will push it overboard, for she keeps her house clean and shining.

Any time a hard rain or wind comes along the pretty house may be wrecked. Then you may watch Mrs Spider build it again. She has to do it before breakfast, too, or go hungry. Get an opera glass, if you can, and watch her at a distance. She sits out on a leaf or twig or fence post, looking over the building site. The color of dead wood, half an inch long, with eight thread-like legs, and darting movements, she isn't easy to follow.

She drops, or jumps, from one support to another, paying out a tiny, gray silk cable behind her, and fastening it wherever she can. Soon she has an irregular space inclosed. Do you know how fine those lines are? You would have to lay four or five thousand of them side by side, to make a ribbon an inch wide. You can see her run around those lines and pull them with her hind foot to test their strength If one breaks she spins another.

She jumps, or drops, across the space, carrying a line, and fastens it to the farther side. She runs back to the middle, doubling the line as she goes, and jumps across at right angles. Soon, she has her .space cut into four equal parts, as neatly as mama cuts anapple pie. Then she cuts each piece in two, once and again, making eight, then sixteen pieces. Those are the spokes for the wheel web. The many crossings make a stout hub. She tests the spokes, pulling on each one and running over them. She has three claws, and fine-toothed bristle combs on her hind feet. May be she combs the snarls out and brushes away dust.

Back she goes to the hub and weaves a spiral line, crossing the spokes and gluing the joints. She does it much as your mother makes a spider wheel in lace work. After a few wide turns, she makes the crossing circles closer together, because the spokes flare farther apart. She doesn't fill in all the space out to her foundation lines. Some building sites are larger than others. She takes the best one she can find, but her web is always about the same size.

Finished? No, indeed. When men build houses they first put up the frame work, then cheap scaffolding to stand on. Mrs. Spider sets up scaffolding to walk on. She starts back from the outside edge of the wheel. This time she uses a much better silk. It is studded with little sticky beads. You heard Mrs. House Fly say she liked smooth things to walk on, didn't you? Gummy spider webs tangle in the hairs on her feet, and hold her for an instant. Mrs. Spider knows that very well. Her web is a very good sticky fly paper. As she travels back to the hub, she cuts the scaffolding away. Then she makes a silk den behind the web, and connects the web and the den with a telephone, or door bell wire, that she keeps her foot on That web is stretched like a drum-head. When a fly drops on it, it vibrates.Wonderful, isn't it? And it didn't take Mrs. Spider more than an hour to make it. If it is destroyed she seems to have plenty of material to build another. It really is Mrs. Spider who does all this work. You will nearly always find her living alone. Mr. Spider is very much smaller than she is, and he is not a worker. As the female bees do all the work, and drive the drones or males out ot the hives, or even kill them, so Mrs. Spider barely tolerates her mate and even eats him if other food is scarce. She builds her own house, catches her own food, looks after her babies, and lives all alone in a busy solitude.

A long, long time ago the work of this clever spinner and weaver was looked upon as pure magic. The Greeks made a wonder story about her. The spider was a maiden named Arachne (A-rak'ne). In a contest of spinning and weaving she proved herself better than the wise goddess Athe'na. To punish her for daring to be more clever than a goddess, Arachne was turned into a spider, and told to spend the rest of her days making her wonderful web. Unable to talk, Arachne kept the secret of her spinning until men made microscopes. Now, it seems as if this little creature could always have told men how to make spinning frames to turn cotton, silk, wool and flax fibres into yarn.

At the rear end of her abdomen are from two to eight little pin-head knobs, in pairs. These are spinnerets. Each one is covered with hollow bristles. Altogether there may be a thousand of them. From each one comes a hair of liquid silk. They all flow, or are twisted together into one thread. The spider seems able to expel, or shoot out, the silk and fasten it to any support, and to use the lengthening cable to propel herself. Haven't you seen house-spiders let themselves down from ceilings by these silk cords? Once started a web thread seems to be pulled from the spinner as fast as she travels.

The spider is not an insect, as are the fly, the ant, the bee and butterfly. She has eight legs, while insects have but six. Her body is in two parts instead of three. Her legs are jointed like a lobster's, and like the lobster and crab she is a fierce fighter, and hunter. If a leg is torn off in a fight she is usually able to grow another one. She has no wings to fly, but is a regular acrobat, doing high jumps, and long leaps, and tight-rope walking and cliff-climbing up smooth walls. You see, she has eight legs, each one with seven joints. Seven times eight are fifty-six joints, and all of them are as limber as a trapeze performer's. The spider's jaws are steel traps with bitingteeth, and behind them are little poison sacs. Few spiders could hurt you seriously, but their bites paralyze flies and other small insects.

From the two to eight little eyes in her head, to the same number of spinnerets in her tail, from the deadly jaws to the sensitive, clawed and bristled and padded foot, the spider is a wonderful little creature. She is as clean as Mrs. Fly, washing her face and brushing her hairy body and legs vigorously. She keeps her web clean and every thread mended. And she cares for her babies as tenderly as a mother bird.

Did you ever see a garden spider moving along slowly, dragging a little gray silk ball with her last pair of legs? That is the cradle she makes of silk for her eggs. It isn't fastened to her. When at home she keeps it in the den, or hangs it on a nearby twig. But when she travels she takes it with her, although it hampers her, and makes it much easier for a toad or frog or bird to snap her up. If she drops that ball she hunts for it frantically. Her babies are not hatched out as greedy little grubs, but as little specks of spiders. That is quite unlike any insect. And Mrs. Spider carries her babies on her back. They just swarm all around her like chickens around a hen. She must have to feed them at first, much as a robin feeds its nestlings.

Don't kill spiders in gardens. They eat insects, oh, a great number of them, for they are big eaters. Nearly all insects are harmful, or their grub babies are, living, as they do, on plants. The spiders' wheel and sheet webs, and tunnel dens, are very wonderful. The little creatures are patient, skillful and industrious as bees and ants. They neither use nor destroy anything useful, and they help us grow flowers and vegetables, by eating the flies and moths that lay their eggs on plants. See Spider, page 1798.