The Story-Book of Science Chapter 27


THE next day the little chickens were all hatched and doing well. The hen had led them to the courtyard, and, scratching the soil and clucking, she dug up small seeds which the little ones came and took from their mother’s beak. At the slightest approach of danger, the hen called the brood, and all ran to snuggle under her outspread wings. The boldest soon put their heads out, their pretty little yellow heads framed in their mother’s black feathers. The alarm over, the hen began clucking and scratching again, and the little ones went trotting around her once more. Completely reassured, Mother Ambroisine forever renounced her proverb of the spider. In the evening Uncle Paul continued the story of the epeira.

“Since it must serve as a support to the silken network, the first thread stretched from one bank to the other must be of exceptional firmness. The epeira begins, therefore, by fixing both ends well; then, going and coming on the thread from one extremity to the other, always spinning, it doubles and trebles the strands and sticks them together in a common cable. A second similar cable is necessary, placed beneath the first in an almost parallel direction. It is between the two that the web must be spun.

“For this purpose, from one of the ends of the cable already constructed the epeira lets itself fall perpendicularly, hanging by the thread that escapes from its spinnerets. It reaches a lower branch, fastens the thread firmly to it, and ascends to the communicating bridge by the vertical thread it used for descending. The spider then reaches the other bank, still spinning, but without gluing this new strand of silk to the cable. Arrived at the other side, it lets itself slide on to a branch conveniently placed, and there fastens the end of the thread that it has spun on its way from one bank to the other. This second chief piece of the framework becomes a cable by the addition of new threads. Finally the two parallel cables are made firm at each end by divers threads starting from it in every direction and attaching themselves to the branches. Other threads go out from this point and that, from one cable to the other, leaving between them, in the middle of the construction, a large open space, almost circular, destined for the net.

“Thus far the epeira has only constructed the framework of its building, a rough but solid frame-work; now begins the work of fine precision. The net must be spun. Across the open circular space that the divers threads of the framework leave between them, a first thread is stretched. The epeira stations itself right in the middle of this thread, central point of the web to be constructed. From this center numerous threads must start at equal distances from one another and be fastened to the circumference by the other end. They are called radiating lines. Accordingly the epeira glues a thread to the center and, ascending by the transverse thread already stretched, fixes the end of the line to the circumference. That done, it returns to the center by the line that it has just stretched; there it glues a second thread and immediately regains the circumference, where it fastens the end of the second line a short distance from the first one. Going thus alternately from the center to the circumference and from the circumference to the center by way of the last thread just stretched, the spider fills the circular space with radiating lines so regularly spaced that you would say they were traced with rule and compass by an expert hand.

“When the radiating lines are finished, the most delicate work of all is still left for the spider. Each of these lines must be bound by a thread that, starting at the circumference, twists and turns in a spiral line around the center, where it terminates. The epeira starts from the top of the web and, unwinding its thread, stretches it from one radiating line to another, keeping always at an equal distance from the outside thread. By thus circling about, always at the same distance from the preceding thread, the spider ends at the center of the radiating lines. The network is then finished.

“Now there must be arranged a little ambuscade from which the epeira can survey its web, a resting-room where it finds shelter from the coolness of the night and the heat of the day. In a little bunch of leaves close together the spider builds itself a silk den, a sort of funnel of close texture. That is its usual abiding place. If the weather is favorable and the passage of game abundant, morning and evening especially, the epeira leaves its den and posts itself, motionless, in the center of the web, to watch events more closely and run to the game quickly enough to prevent its escape. The spider is at its post, in the middle of the network, its eight legs spread out wide. It does not move, pretends to be dead. No hunter on the watch would have such patience. Let us copy its example and await the coming of the game.”

The children were disappointed: at the moment when the story became the most interesting, Uncle Paul broke off his narrative.

“The epeira has interested me very much, Uncle,” said Jules. “The bridge over the stream, the cobweb with its regular radiating lines, and the thread that twists and turns, getting nearer and nearer to the center, the room for ambush and rest—all that is very astonishing in a creature that does these wonderful things without having to learn how. Catching the game ought to be still more curious.”

“Very curious indeed. Therefore, instead of telling you about the hunt, I prefer to show it to you. Yesterday, in crossing the field, I saw an epeira constructing its web between two trees on the little stream where such fine crayfish are caught. Let us get up early in the morning and go and see the chase.”

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