The secret lives of spiders: an anthology

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Giles Watson

Agelena labyrinthica

Amid wood-sage and bramble,

On dry ground at the edge of gorse

The white vortex winds. She waits

At the nadir, the spout of the spun

Funnel, half hunger and half fear.

By night, the struts of the spiral

Are strung from fallen leaves

And broken sticks, or slung

From seeding inflorescences,

Tight rungs to slake her greed.

Welcome to her labyrinth,

Her crystal castle

Of hidden snares.

Fear not, sweet

Fly.

Source material. This poem is the product of a morning’s observation of this beautiful arachnid, dubbed the “labyrinth spider” by J.H. Fabre. No less than five intricately structured, funnel-shaped webs were watched beside Bristles Wood in Dropmore, Buckinghamshire on 26th July 2003, one of them occupied by a couple, co-habiting harmoniously for the time being; the other four inhabited by hopeful spinsters. The spider lurks in wait for its prey in a silk tube adjacent to a conspicuous, funnel shaped web. The strands of the web are not sticky, but unassuming flying insects are ensnared by additional fibres, slung more or less at random across the funnel. Once an insect has flown inside, the obstacles that impede escape are nearly always insurmountable. Vibrations caused by the struggle excite the spider’s curiosity, and once it has ascertained that these are not evidence of a predator such as a bird or ichneumon wasp, the spider darts out, seizes the prey, and sucks it dry at leisure in the depths of her bower. I have likened the web to a castle in response to Fabre’s inimitable description of the visual effect achieved when these spiders’ webs are decorated with “chandeliers” of dew. See The Life of the Spider, Chapter XV.

Giles Watson (July 2003)

Araneus diadematus

Our cradle empty, we shall climb

To a high place, to catch the wind

And fly, strewing gossamer as we go,

Singly, flowing without will, to land

Wherever.

We shall know, by the compass

Blotched in white upon our backs,

Where to spin the spokes, and how

To spire the wheel; with one leg, feel

The trembling.

Approach too fast, and we shall quake,

And blur the whorl with shaking

From the underside, the compass

Pointing down, our legs the eight points

Taking.

At night we eat the orb, conserve

The silk, to spin again by morning,

Indelicately, cramming all

Into open mouths, every spoke

Consuming.

We spin the globes of nurture

After mating, span them so,

With loving claws, adore the

Minor worlds we make, compass

Turning.

Entwined in silk, their spinnerets

Are forming, massed bundles

Of eyes, and legs, and fangs

Entangling. Each of us

Expiring.

Source material. Veronica Godines, Araneus diadematus, http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu. Theodore H. Savory, The Spiders and Allied Orders of the British Isles, London, 1945, pp. 130–131. The common “Garden Spider” has a characteristic “cross” on its back, and is the archetypal orb-weaver. Immatures, already orphans by the time they emerge, go out to seek their fortunes by abseiling more or less at random on air-currents, attached to an anchor point by nothing but a thread of gossamer.

Giles Watson (July 2003)

Ero

Pirates of the spider world, we are born

Hanging from a halyard, and when grown

We wear red bandanas on our backs,

And cultivate the hairy legs of cut-throats.

Our tactics are subtle, well considered:

We do not raise our own rigging, set sails

To catch the wind, or lurk in caves,

But tug, gently, some lubber’s ropes, and wait.

The trick works every time; he thinks

We’re dinner, struggling in his snare,

And dashes out to assail us, but we

Draw cutlasses to slay him where he stands.

Source material. The genus Ero (Mimetidae) are very specialised hunters, preying exclusively on other spiders, of the genus Theridion. Ero does this by creeping up and tugging on the trip-wires of her victim, who, assuming that the commotion is being caused by an insect trapped in the web, dashes out expecting a meal. Little does the unsuspecting Theridion realise that he or she is destined to be the main course. For this reason, Bristowe (p. 23) describes Ero as a “pirate”. Taxonomists recognise Ero by the characteristic arrangement of spines on the anterior legs, and this spider is also remarkable in that it lays a few eggs inside a dark-brown cocoon, which it suspends from a single thread. Some Ero species boast brightly coloured abdomens.

Giles Watson (July 2003)

Euophrys frontalis

I will court you with the semaphore

Of yellow legs and white tarsi,

Raised perpendicular in loving salute

Like a crab doing homage.

I will ruffle my red eyebrows, jerk

My palpi at you sexily,

The yellow gooseberries of our

Abdomens drawing close.

I will do it vertically on the wall,

Desperate to impress you.

Stonecrop stems and toadflax

Shade our frantic throes.

Source material. This beautiful jumping spider is one of a number with elaborate courtship rituals, and the colouration of the male in particular has clearly evolved to enhance his display. It is plentiful throughout Britain. See Theodore H. Savory, The Spiders and Allied Orders of the British Isles, London, 1945, pp. 75–76.

Giles Watson (July 2003)

Linyphia montana

Now that I am long in the tooth, and lie

Inverted beneath my slack-strung hammock,

I champ my old chelicerae, and remember

My money spider youth in dewy spring,

Skydiving the swell on wind-stretched silk,

Flying wingless, eight legs curled, surveying

The dome of blue with upturned eyes,

Cushioned on hot air rising. I was a carefree

Spider then, the nuptials of the shared web

Before me. Now, I am grown too gross

To catch the breeze; I have difficulty

Eating dinner, my mate has slung his skin

Upon a twig, and leaves fall around me.

I look down. Gusts drag them to ground.

Source material. Linyphia montana is one of the larger of the money spiders, reaching a grand length of 7mm when fully grown. It is a very common spider, constructing a hammock-like web in bushes and hedges. Money spiders are the arachnid balloonists par excellence, covering vast distances by making use of thermals and gusts of wind. Linyphia montana is unique among spiders in having chelicerae (fangs) that continue to grow “so that they become disproportionate in size as the spider grows, literally, ‘long in the tooth’.” See Theodore H. Savory, The Spiders and Allied Orders of the British Isles, London, 1945, p. 112.

Giles Watson (August 2003)

Misumena vatia

First, time for the toning-in; this takes

Two days. You would think I was absorbing

The hue of the flower through my palps,

The way I wax with white on roses,

Grow jaundiced on goldenrod, or green

As a seasick sailor on holly-flowers.

Their scent comes to me through senses

Chemo-tactic, yet I am not sensitized

For these, but for bees and goggle-eyed

Hoverflies, drunk with nectar lust.

For these I wait, coloured in sympathy,

The pinkish, venomed tumour

At the centre of the rose.

By the code of the waggle dance

I shall find you, scent of sweetness.

Here she comes, my sterile queen,

I see her not, but feel her humming,

Taste her diaphonic questing

After nectar, brace my legs

To dodge the sting, draw my fangs

To sink them home.

My beacon,

The outfurled petal, bids me land.

And she is mine. Crablike, I

Manoeuvre like an eight legged

Swivel, let her feed awhile, gauge

The lunge for her vulnerable neck.

The surge of sun-warmed

Nectar, my reward.

Time it like lightning, too late

Thunder’s warning. Bite deeply,

Goggle eyed, and suck, as if

On milk. Hook my legs

About the flower. Deliver

Sweet death.

Pain is all I know.

Source material. Misumena vatia, also known as the flower spider or goldenrod spider (since goldenrods are one of its favourite haunts), does not use web to catch its prey. Instead, both sexes lurk amongst flower petals, waiting to pounce on insects that are attracted to the nectar. Lepidopterists tend to be particularly familiar with this spider, since, as W.S. Bristowe (A Book of Spiders, London, 1947, p. 22) remarks, “I could name several naturalists who have stalked and netted an insect on a flower only to find that it was dead and in the clutches of this spider. I have done so myself.” Misumena is also unique among English spiders in its ability to gradually change colour to match the flower in which it is lurking. This is entirely necessary, since it has been experimentally demonstrated that bees and flies will not visit a flower if a stone of a different hue is concealed within its calyx, but they will ignore stones of a similar colour. Since the female (who is considerably bulkier than the male) only achieves a length of nine millimetres, this spider is endowed with Herculean strength and (as far as Hymenoptera and Diptera are concerned) powerful venom, which enable it to immobilise insects larger than itself whilst clinging to the glabrous surfaces that are its home. Misumena is one of the “crab spiders” (Thomisidae), which are like their crustacean namesakes both in locomotion and appearance. Although spiders all have either six or eight eyes, sight is not their strongest sense. The most powerful stimuli are received through something that roughly approximates to our sense of taste, but this sense is not received through receptors in the mouth, but through the appendages, particularly the palps, which perform a similar function to the antennae of insects. This form of hyper-sensory perception is, incidentally, at its most developed amongst another branch of the Arachnid phylum, the mites, which only have rudimentary eyes, or lack them altogether.

Giles Watson (August 2003)

Pardosa amentata

She moves in jerks, and all her eyes

Reflect a patina of rusted leaves,

Stones of bird cherries, rabbit pellets,

Twigs, worm casts, weather-worn

Flints, and acorns grown wrinkled.

Brambles barb her sky, and above

A dim haze of blue and green;

Her bristled legs make rustlings

Like a breeze in miniscule. Beneath

The soft lozenge of her abdomen,

Slung maternally from spinnerets,

The buff orb of her cocoon

Cushions her progeny. Upon it,

Like a spider on a small moon,

A red mite moves in jerks.

Source material: Pardosa (Lycosa) amentata is a small wolf spider. It does not build a web to ensnare prey, but hunts on foot. The female carries her eggs in a roughly spherical cocoon, which she attaches to her spinnerets and drags along beneath her wherever she goes. The mite observed on the specimen described above may have been a parasite, or possibly only phoretic (“hitching a ride”). Undoubtedly this mite was also supporting a flora of phoretic fungi, a phenomenon that Robert Dunn (‘The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide’, BBC Wildlife Magazine, August, 2003, p. 31) whimsically describes as “metaphoresy”.

Giles Watson (July 2003)

Pisaura mirabilis

Her first labour: making a globe

For the price of a silk-wrapped fly.

Her second, to trundle with it

Over meadow and furrow,

Grass-stem and straw.

Her third, to build for it

A firmament, and hang it there.

Her fourth, to watch, and wait

And guard, a goddess waning.

Her fifth, to tear apart the stars

And set her angels free.

And last, to be no more their world.

Their tabernacle the sky.

Source material. Pisaura mirabilis is a comparatively large wolf-spider, often seen in meadows and alongside hedgerows. The male woos his mate by offering her a dead fly or other insect, wrapped up in a silk parcel. After breeding, the female is very distinctive, for she carries her large, globe-shaped cocoon beneath her sternum, grasped firmly by her falces and palps, and may be seen hurrying about in this fashion over seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Before the eggs hatch, she constructs a silken tent, making use of the tops of grass stems as supports, and hangs the cocoon within it. After hatching, she continues to assist them by tearing the tent open to let them out. The process is illustrated by a series of photographs in Theodore H. Savory, The Spiders and Allied Orders of the British Isles, London, 1945, Pls. 29, 32, 35, 37, 40.

Giles Watson (August 2003)

Scytodes thoracica

Abdomen a stretched bladder, leopard spotted

And ponderous, with legs too long, you stalk

The sleeping fly, with only six eyes, in darkness.

Bristles at your jaundiced joints will feel

The hum of her dormancy, sense

The inrush of air through spiracles at rest.

You do not rush, or even touch her yet,

But retch poison web from your open mouth,

A zigzag puke of silk, to stick her to the floor.

The fly wings strum, the feet drum ineffectually,

And Scytodes, tentative spitting spider, bites her,

Apologetically, on one leg. Waits for death,

And then, like a tender embalmer, unstitches

The silk shroud, bears her on the bier of her wings,

Whispers her orisons, while other spiders sleep.

Source material. Scytodes thoracica, the spitting spider, is nocturnal, and ranges widely at night in search of sleeping insects. It has poor vision, and only six eyes, but senses the presence of its prey through bristles on its legs. The cephalothorax of Scytodes is uniquely enlarged, since it has to house additional silk glands, which normal spiders retain in the abdomen only. When the spider wishes to make a kill, it does so by standing at a distance, and spitting zigzags of poisonous, gummy web over its victim, sticking it to the ground. Only then does the spider venture closer to the prey, delivering the death bite. When the prey has expired, the spider frees its body from the web, and carries it off, to suck it dry at leisure. The spider’s appearance is very distinctive, with its yellowish body covered with dark blotches, its domed cephalothorax, and absurdly long legs. The small genus occurs on all continents except Antarctica.

Giles Watson (July 2003)

Theridion sisyphium

He wooed me by stridulations, which only I could hear,

Gave me his sperm, then wandered off to die,

And my marbled belly grew round, like a jelly filled balloon.

I have pitched a wide tent for my little ones, tethered

Each end to a twig or leaf, and now they swarm

In miniscule, about their cone of gauze.

I hunt for them, netting insects with combed-out webs,

Vomiting beetle-juice into upturned mouths,

As they swing, in father’s image, from silk that I have spun.

Source material. Theridion sisyphium Clerck. (formerly known as T. notatum Linn.) is a small, colourful spider, common in hedgerows. The males (and some females) of the family Theridiidae have the ability to stridulate like grasshoppers, by rubbing a toothed, chitinous collar on the abdomen against a series of transverse ridges on the cephalothorax. The sound produced is inaudible to human ears, but presumably sounds like a serenade to a female Theridion. This species is one of a small number of spiders that care assiduously for their young after hatching. The greenish cocoons are inserted in a silken tent, which serves as a nursery for the immature spiders, and while they are young, the mother continues to catch food and regurgitate the juices for them individually, while they hang suspended beneath the tent. There is an illustration of this process in W.S. Bristowe, A Book of Spiders, London, 1947, p. 21. In contrast to the intricate architecture of the tent, the web used for hunting is less carefully designed, but its inadequacies are more than compensated by the spider’s ability to throw sheets of web over its prey, combed through specially adapted hairs on its tarsus.

Giles Watson (August 2003)


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