Eight-Legged Friends by Grant Allen

Story type: Essay

A singular opportunity was afforded me last summer for making myself thoroughly at home with the habits and manners of the common English geometrical spider. By the pure chance of circumstance, two ladies of that intelligent and interesting species were kind enough to select for their temporary residence a large pane of glass just outside my drawing-room window. Now, it so happened that this particular pane was constructed not to open, being, in fact, part of a big bow-window, the alternate sashes of which were alone intended for ventilation. Hence it came to pass that by diligent care I was enabled to preserve my two eight-legged acquaintances from the devouring broom of the British housemaid, and to keep them constantly under observation at all times and seasons during a whole summer. Of course this result was only obtained by a distinct exercise of despotic authority, for I know those poor spiders were a constant eyesore in Ellen’s sight–the housemaid of the moment bore the name of Ellen–but I persisted in my prohibition of any forcible ejectment, and I carried my point in the end in the very teeth of that constituted domestic authority. So successful was I, indeed, that when at last we flitted southwards ourselves with the swallows on our annual migration to the Mediterranean shores, we left Lucy and Eliza–those were the names we had given them–in undisturbed possession of their prescriptive rights in the drawing-room windows. This year they are gone, and our home is left spiderless.

They were curious and uninviting pets, I’m bound to admit, those great juicy-looking creatures. Nobody could say that any form of spider is precisely what our Italian friends prettily describe in their liquid way as simpatico. At times, indeed, the conduct of Lucy and Eliza was so peculiarly horrible and blood-curdling in its atrocity, that even I, their best friend, who had so often interceded for their lives and saved them from the devastating duster of the aggressive housemaid–even I myself, I say, more than once debated in my own mind whether I was justified in letting them go on any longer in their career of crime unchecked, or whether I ought not rather to rush out at once, avenging rag in hand, and sweep them away at one fell swoop from the surface of a world they disgraced with their unbridled wickedness. Eliza, in particular, I’m constrained to allow, was a perfect monster of vice–a sort of undeveloped arachnid Borgia, quick to slay and relentless in pursuit; a mass of eight-legged sins, stained with the colourless gore of ten thousand struggling victims, and absolutely without a single redeeming point in her hateful character. And yet, whenever any more than usually horrible massacre of some pretty and innocent fly almost moved me in my righteous wrath to rush out into the garden in hot haste and put an end at once to the cruel wretch’s existence with a judicial antimacassar, a number of moral scruples, such as could only be adequately resolved by the editor of the Spectator, always occurred spontaneously to my mind and conscience just in time to ensure that wicked Eliza a fresh spell of life in which to continue unabashed her atrocious behaviour.

Has man, I asked myself at such moments, mere human man, any right to set himself up in the place of earthly providence, as so much better and more moral than insentient nature? If the spider cruelly devours living flies and intelligent or highly sensitive bees, we must at least remember that she has no choice in the matter, and that, as the poet justly remarks, ”tis her nature to.’ But then, on the other hand, it might be plausibly argued that ’tis our nature equally to kill the creature that we see so hatefully fulfilling the law of its own cruel being. And yet again it might be pleaded by any able counsel who undertook the defence of Lucy or Eliza on her trial for her life against her human accusers, that she was impelled to all these evil deeds by maternal affection, one of the noblest and most unselfish of animal instincts. Moreover, if the spider didn’t prey, it would obviously die; and it seems rather hard on any creature to condemn it to death for no better reason than because it happens to have been born a member of its own kind, and not of any other and less morally objectionable species. Jedburgh justice oL that sort rather savours of the method pursued by the famous countryman who was found cutting a harmless amphibian into a hundred pieces with his murderous spade, and saying spitefully as he did so, at every particularly savage cut: ‘I’ll larn ye to be a twoad, I will; I’ll larn ye to be a twoad!’

Nevertheless, in spite of all this my vaunted philosophy, I will frankly confess that more than once Eliza and Lucy sorely tried my patience, and that I was often a good deal better than half-minded in my soul to rush out in a feverish fit of moral indignation and put an end to their ghastly career of crime without waiting to hear what they had to say in their own favour, showing cause why sentence of death should not be executed upon them. And I would have done it, I believe, had it not been for that peculiar arrangement of the drawing-room windows, which made it impossible to get at the culprits direct, without going out into the garden and round the house; which, of course, is a severe strain in wet or windy weather to put upon anybody’s moral enthusiasm. In the end, therefore, I always gave the evil-doers the benefit of the doubt; and I only mention my ethical scruples in the matter here lest scoffers should say, when they come to read what manner of things Lucy and Eliza did: ‘Oh yes, that’s just like those scientific folks; they’re always so cold-blooded. He could stand by and see these poor helpless flies tortured slowly to death, without a chance for their lives, and never put out a helping hand to save them!’ Well, I would only ask you one question, my sapient friend, who talk like that: Has it ever occurred to you that, if you kill one spider, you merely make room in the overflowing economy of nature for another to pick up a dishonest livelihood? Have you ever reflected that the prime blame of spiderhood rests with Nature herself (if we may venture to personify that impersonal entity); and that she has provided such a constant supply or relay of spiders as will amply suffice to fill up all the possible vacancies that can ever occur in insect-eating circles? Unless you have considered all these points carefully, and have an answer to give about them, you are not in a position to pronounce upon the subject, and you had better be referred for six months longer, as the medical examiners gracefully put it, to your ethical, psychological, and biological studies. The great point about the position in which Eliza and Lucy had placed themselves was simply this. They stood full against the light, so that we could see right through their translucent bodies, which were almost liquid to look upon, and beautifully dappled with dark spots on a grey ground in a very pretty and effective pattern. So favourable was the opportunity for observation, indeed, that we could clearly make out with the naked eye even the joints of their legs, the hairs on their tarsi–excuse the phrase–and the very shape of their cruel tigerlike claws, as they rushed forth upon their prey in a sort of carnivorous frenzy. At all hours of the day we could notice exactly what they were doing or suffering; and so familiar did we become with them individually and personally, that before the end of the season we recognized in detail all the differences of their characters almost as one might do with cats or dogs, and spoke of them by their Christian names like old and well-known acquaintances.

As the webs which Lucy and Eliza spun were several times broken or mutilated during the year, either by accident or the gardener, we had plenty of chances for seeing how they proceeded in making them. The lines were in both cases stretched between a white rose-bush that climbed up one side of the window, and a purple clematis that occupied and draped the opposite mullion. But Lucy and Eliza didn’t live in the webs–those were only their snares or traps for prey; each of them had in addition a private home or apartment of her own under shelter of a rose-leaf at some distance from the treacherous geometrical structure. The house itself consisted merely of a silken cell, built out from the rose-leaf, and connected with the snare by a single stout cord of very solid construction. On this cord the spider kept one foot–I had almost said one hand–constantly fixed. She poised it lightly by her claws, and whenever an insect got entangled in the web, a subtle electric message, so to speak, seemed to run along the line to the ever-watchful carnivore. In one short second Lucy or Eliza, as the case might be, had darted out upon her quarry, and was tackling it might main, according to the particular way its size and strength rendered then and there advisable. The method of procedure, which I shall describe more fully by-and-by, differed considerably from case to case, as these very large and strong spiders have sometimes to deal with mere tiny midges, and sometimes with extremely big and dangerous creatures, like bumble-bees, wasps, and even hornets.

In building their webs, as in many other small points, Lucy and Eliza showed from the first no inconsiderable personal differences. Lucy began hers by spinning a long line from her spinnerets, and letting the wind carry it wherever it would; while Eliza, more architectural in character, preferred to take her lines personally from point to point, and see herself to their proper fastening. In either case, however, the first thing done was to stretch some eight or ten stout threads from place to place on the outside of the future web, to act as points d’appuy for the remainder of the structure. To these outer threads, which the spiders strengthened so as to bear a considerable strain by doubling and trebling them, other thinner single threads were then carried radially at irregular distances, like the spokes of a wheel, from a point in the centre, where they were all made fast and connected together. As soon as this radiating framework or scaffolding was finished, like the woof on a loom, the industrious craftswoman started at the middle, and began the task of putting in the cross-pieces or weft which were to complete and bind together the circular pattern. These she wove round and round in a continuous spiral, setting out at the centre, and keeping on in ever-widening circlets, till she arrived at last at the exterior or foundation threads. How she fastened these cross-pieces to the ray-lines I could never quite make out, though I often followed the work closely from inside through the pane of glass with a platyscopic lens; for, strange to say, the spiders were not in the least disturbed by being watched at their work, and never took the slightest notice of anything that went on at the other side of the window. My impression is, however, that she gummed them together, letting them harden into one as they dried; for the thread itself is always semi-liquid when first exuded.

The cross-pieces, we observed from the very beginning, were invariably covered by little sparkling drops of something wet and beadlike, which at first in our ignorance we took for dew; for until I began systematically observing Lucy and Eliza, I will frankly confess I had never paid any particular attention to the spider-kind with the solitary exception of my old winter friends, the trap-door spiders of the Mediterranean shores. But, after a little experience, we soon found out that these pearly drops on the web were not dew at all, but a sticky substance, akin, to that of the web, secreted by the animals themselves from their own bodies. We also quickly discovered, coming to the observation as we did with minds unbiased by previous knowledge, that the viscid liquid in question was of the utmost importance to the spiders in securing their prey, and that unfortunate insects were not merely entangled but likewise gummed down or glued by it, like birds in bird-lime or flies in treacle. So necessary is the sticky stuff, indeed, to the success of the trap, that Lucy and Eliza used to renew the entire set of cross-pieces in the web every morning, and thus ensure from day to day a perfectly fresh supply of viscid fluid; but, so far as I could see, they only renewed the rays and the foundation-threads under stress of necessity, when the snare had been so greatly injured by large insects struggling in it, or by the wind or the gardener, as to render repairs absolutely unavoidable. The whole structure, when complete, is so beautiful and wonderful a sight, with its geometrical regularity and its beaded drops, that if it were produced by a rare creature from Madagascar or the Cape, in the insect-house at the Zoo, all the world, I’m convinced, would rush to look at it as a nine-days’ wonder. But since it’s only the trap of the common English garden spider, why, we all pass it by without deigning even to glance at it.

At night my eight-legged friends slept always in their own homes or nests under shelter of the rose-leaves. But during the day they alternated between the nest and the centre of the web, which last seemed to serve them as a convenient station where they waited for their prey, standing head downward with legs wide spread on the rays, on the look-out for incidents. Whether at the centre or in the nest, however, they kept their feet constantly on the watch for any disturbance on the webs; and the instant any unhappy little fly got entangled in their meshes, the ever-watchful spider was out like a flash of lightning, and down at once in full force upon that incautious intruder. I was convinced after many observations that it is by touch alone the spider recognizes the presence of prey in its web, and that it hardly derives any indications worth speaking of from its numerous little eyes, at least as regards the arrival of booty. If a very big insect has got into the web, then a relatively large volume of disturbance is propagated along the telegraphic wire that runs from the snare to the house, or from the circumference to the centre; if a small one, then a slight disturbance; and the spider rushes out accordingly, either with an air of caution or of ferocious triumph.

Supposing the booty in hand was a tiny fly, then Lucy or Eliza would jump upon it at once with that strange access of apparently personal animosity with seems in some mysterious way a characteristic of all hunting carnivorous animals. She would then carelessly wind a thread or two about it, in a perfunctory way, bury her jaws in its body, and in less than half a minute suck out its juices to the last drop, leaving the empty shell unhurt, like a dry skeleton or the slough of a dragon-fly larva. But when wasps or other large and dangerous insects got entangled in the webs, the hunters proceeded with far greater caution. Lucy, indeed, who was a decided coward, would stand and look anxiously at the doubtful intruder for several seconds, feeling the web with her claws, and running up and down in the most undecided manner, as if in doubt whether or not to tackle the uncertain customer. But Eliza, whose spirits always rose like Nelson’s before the face of danger, and whose motto seemed to be ‘De l’audace, de l’audace, et toujours de l’audace,’ would rush at the huge foe in a perfect transport of wild fury, and go to work at once to enclose him in her toils of triple silken cables. I always fancied, indeed, that Eliza was in a thoroughly housewifely tantrum at seeing her nice new web so ruthlessly torn and tattered by the unwelcome visitor, and that she said to herself in her own language: ‘Oh well, then, if you will have it, you shall have it; so here goes for you.’ And go for him she did, with most unladylike ferocity. Indeed, Eliza’s best friend, I must fain admit, could never have said of her that she was a perfect lady.

The chawing-up of that wasp was a sight to behold. I have no great sympathy with wasps–they have done me so many bad turns in my time that I don’t pretend to regard them as deserving of exceptional pity–but I must say Eliza’s way of going at them was unduly barbaric. She treated them for all the world as if they were entirely devoid of a nervous system. I wouldn’t treat a Saturday Reviewer myself as that spider treated the wasps when once she was sure of them. She went at them with a sort of angry, half-contemptuous dash, kept cautiously out of the way of the protruded sting, began in most business-like fashion at the head, and rolling the wasp round and round with her legs and feelers, swathed him rapidly and effectually, with incredible speed, in a dense network of web poured forth from her spinnerets. In less than half a minute the astonished wasp, accustomed rather to act on the offensive than the defensive, found himself helplessly enclosed in a perfect coil of tangled silk, which confined him from head to sting without the possibility of movement in any direction. The whole time this had been going on the victim, struggling and writhing, had been pushing out its sting and doing the very best it knew to deal the wily Eliza a poisoned death-blow. But Eliza, taught by ancestral experience, kept carefully out of the way; and the wasp felt itself finally twirled round and round in those powerful hands, and tied about as to its wings by a thousand-fold cable. Sometimes, after the wasp was secured, Eliza even took the trouble to saw off the wings so as to prevent further struggling and consequent damage to the precious web; but more often she merely proceeded to eat it alive without further formality, still avoiding its sting as long as the creature had a kick left in it, but otherwise entirely ignoring its character as a sentient being in the most inhuman fashion. And all the time, till the last drop of his blood was sucked out, the wasp would continue viciously to stick out his deadly sting, which the spider would still avoid with hereditary cunning. It was a horrid sight–a duel a outrance between two equally hateful and poisonous opponents; a living commentary on the appalling but o’er-true words of the poet, that ‘Nature is one with rapine, a harm no preacher can heal.’ Though these were the occasions when one sometimes felt as if the cup of Eliza’s iniquities was really full, and one must pass sentence at last, without respite or reprieve, upon that life-long murderess.

One insect there was, however, before which even Eliza herself, hardened wretch as she seemed, used to cower and shiver; and that was the great black bumble-bee, the largest and most powerful of the British bee-kind. When one of these dangerous monsters, a burly, buzzing bourgeois, got entangled in her web, Eliza, shaking in her shoes (I allow her those shoes by poetical licence) would retire in high dudgeon to her inmost bower, and there would sit and sulk, in visible bad temper, till the clumsy big thing, after many futile efforts, had torn its way by main force out of the coils that surrounded it. Then, the moment the telegraphic communication told her the lines in the web were once more free, Eliza would sally forth again with a smiling face–oh yes, I assure you, we could tell by her look when she was smiling–and would repair afresh with cheerful alacrity the damage done to her snare by the unwelcome visitor. Hummingbird hawk-moths, on the other hand, though so big and quick, she would kill immediately. As for Lucy, craven soul, she had so little sense of proper pride and arachnid honour, that she shrank even from the wasps which Eliza so bravely and unhesitatingly tackled; and more than once we caught her in the very act of cutting them out entire, with the whole piece of web in which they were immeshed, and letting them drop on to the ground beneath, merely as a short way of getting rid of them from her premises. I always rather despised Lucy. She hadn’t even the one redeeming virtue of most carnivorous or predatory races–an insensate and almost automatic courage.

I need hardly say, however, that the spider does not kill her prey by a mere fair-and-square bite alone. She has recourse to the art of the Palmers and Brinvilliers. All spiders, as far as known, are provided with poison-fangs in the jaws, which sometimes, as in the tarantula and many other large tropical kinds, well known to me in Jamaica and elsewhere, are sufficiently powerful to produce serious effects upon man himself; while even much smaller spiders, like Eliza and Lucy, have poison enough in their falces, as the jawlike organs are called, to kill a good big insect, such as a wasp or a bumble-bee. These channelled poison-glands, combined with their savage tigerlike claws, make the spiders as a group extremely formidable and dominant creatures, the analogues in their own smaller invertebrate world of the serpents and wolves in the vertebrate creation.

Lucy and Eliza’s family relations, I am sorry to say, were not, we found, of a kind to endear them to a critical public already sufficiently scandalized by their general mode of behaviour to their inoffensive neighbours. As mothers, indeed, gossip itself had not a word of blame to whisper against them; but as wives, their conduct was distinctly open to the severest animadversion. The males of the garden spider, as in many other instances, are decidedly smaller than their big round mates; so much so is this the case, indeed, in certain species that they seem almost like parasites of the immensely larger sack-bodied females. Now, just as the worker bees kill off the drones as soon as the queen-bee has been duly fertilized, regarding them as of no further importance or value to the hive, so do the lady-spiders not only kill but eat their husbands as soon as they find they have no further use for them. Nay, if a female spider doesn’t care for the looks of a suitor who is pressing himself too much upon her fond attention, her way of expressing her disapprobation of his appearance and manners is to make a murderous spring at him, and, if possible, devour him. Under these painful circumstances the process of courtship is necessarily to some extent a difficult and delicate one, fraught with no small danger to the adventurous swain who has the boldness to commend himself by personal approach to these very fickle and irascible fair ones. It was most curious and exciting, accordingly, to watch the details of the strange courtship, which we could only observe in the case of the cruel Eliza, the rather gentler Lucy having been already mated, apparently, before she took up her quarters in our climbing white rose-bush. One day, however, a timid-looking male spider, with inquiry and doubt in every movement of his tarsi, strolled tentatively up on the neat round web where Eliza was hanging, head downward as usual, all her feet on the thread, on the look-out for house-flies. We knew he was a male at once by his longer and thinner body, and by his natural modesty. He walked gingerly on all eights, like an arachnid Agag, in the direction of the object of his ardent affections, with a most comic uncertainty in every step he took towards her. His claws felt the threads as he moved with anxious care; and it was clear he was ready at a moment’s notice to jump away and flee for his life with headlong speed to his native obscurity if Eliza showed the slightest disposition, by gesture or movement, to turn and rend him. Now and again, as he approached, Eliza, half coquettish, moved her feet a short step, and seemed to debate within her own mind in which spirit she should meet his flattering advances–whether to accept him or to eat him. At each such hesitation, the unhappy male, fearing the worst, and sore afraid, would turn on his heel and fly for dear life as fast as eight trembling legs would carry him. Then, after a minute or two, he would evidently come to the conclusion that he had wronged his lady-love, and that her movement was one of true, true love rather than of carnivorous and cannibalistic appetite. At last, as I judged, his constancy was rewarded, though his ominous disappearance very shortly afterwards made me fear for the worst as to his final adventures.

In the end, Eliza laid a large number of eggs in a silken cocoon, in shape a balloon, and secreted, like the web, by her invaluable spinnerets. Indeed, the real reason–I won’t say excuse–for the rapacity and Gargantuan appetite of the spider lies, no doubt, in the immense amount of material she has to supply for her daily-renewed webs, her home, and her cocoon, all which have actually to be spun out of the assimilated food-stuffs in her own body; to say nothing of the additional necessity imposed upon her by nature for laying a trifle of six or seven hundred eggs in a single summer. And, to tell the truth, Lucy and Eliza seemed to us to be always eating. No matter at what hour one looked in upon them, they were pretty constantly engaged in devouring some inoffensive fly, or weaving hateful labyrinths of hasty cord round some fiercely-struggling wasp or some unhappy beetle.

We weren’t fortunate enough, I regret to say, to see Eliza’s eggs hatch out from the cocoon; but in other instances, especially in Southern Europe, I have noticed the little heap of well-covered ova, glued together into a mass, and attached to a branch or twig by stout silken cables. If you open the cocoon when the young spiders are just hatched, they begin to run about in the most lively fashion, and look like a living and moving congeries of little balls or seedlets. The common garden spider lays some seven hundred or more such eggs at a sitting, and out of those seven hundred only two on an average reach maturity and once more propagate their kind. For if only four lived and throve, then clearly, in the next generation, there would be twice as many spiders as in this; and in the generation after that again, four times as many; and then eight times; and so on ad infinitum, until the whole world was just one living and seething mass of common garden spiders.

What keeps them down, then, in the end to their average number? What prevents the development of the whole seven hundred? The simple answer is, continuous starvation. As usual, nature works with cruel lavishness. There are just as many spiders at any given minute as there are insects enough in the world or in their area to feed upon. Every spider lays hundreds of eggs, so as to make up for the average infant mortality by starvation, or by the attacks of ichneumon flies, or by being eaten themselves in the young stage, or by other casualties. And so with all other species. Each produces as many young on the average as will allow for the ordinary infant mortality of their kind, and leave enough over just to replace the parents in the next generation. And that’s one of the reasons why it’s no use punishing Lucy and Eliza for their misdeeds in this world. Kill them off if you will, and before next week a dozen more like them will dispute with one another the vacant place you have thus created in the balanced economy of that microcosm the garden.

Our observations upon Lucy and Eliza, however, had the effect of making us take an increased interest thenceforth in spiders in general, which till that time we had treated with scant courtesy, and set us about learning something as to the extraordinary variety of life and habit to be found within the range of this single group of arthropods, at first sight so extremely alike in their shapes, their appearance, their morals, and their manners. It’s perfectly astonishing, though, when one comes to look into it in detail, how exceedingly diverse spiders are in their mode of life, their structure, and the variety of uses to which they put their one extremely distinctive structural organ, the spinnerets. I will only say here that some spiders use these peculiar glands to form light webs by whose aid, though wingless, they float balloon-wise through the air; that others employ them to line the sides of their underground tunnels, and to make the basis of their marvellously ingenious earthen trap-doors; that yet others have learnt how to adapt these same organs to a subaquatic existence, and to fill cocoons with air, like miniature diving bells; while others, again, have taught themselves to construct webs thick enough to catch and hold even creatures so superior to themselves in the scale of being as humming-birds and sunbirds. This extraordinary variety in the utilization of a single organ teaches once more the same lesson which is impressed upon us elsewhere by so many other forms of organic evolution: whatever enables an animal or plant to gain an advantage over others in the struggle for life, no matter in what way, is sure to survive, and to be turned in time to every conceivable use of which its structure is capable, in the infinite whirligig of ever-varying nature.

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