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Among insects, the labors of the bee and the ant have employed the attention and admiration of naturalists, but all their sagacity seems to be lost upon separation, and a single bee or ant seems destitute of every degree of industry, is the most stupid insect imaginable, languishes for a time in solitude, and soon dies.
Of all the solitary insects I have ever noticed, the spider is the most sagacious, and its actions, to me, who have attentively considered them, seem almost to exceed belief. This insect is formed by nature for war, not only upon other insects, but also upon its own species. Nature seems to have formed it for this condition of life.
Its head and breast are covered with a strong natural coat of mail, which is impenetrable to the attacks of every other insect, and its body is enveloped in a soft, pliable skin, which eludes the sting even of a wasp. Its legs are terminated by strong claws, not unlike those of a lobster; and their vast length, like spears, serves to keep every assailant at a distance.
Not worse furnished for observation than for attack or defense, it has several eyes, large, transparent, and covered with a horny substance, which, however, does not impede its vision. Besides this, it is furnished with a forceps above the mouth, which serves to kill secure the prey already caught in its claws or its net.
Such are the implements of war with which the body is immediately furnished; but its net to entangle the enemy seems to be what it chiefly trusts to, and what it takes most pains to render as complete as possible. Nature has furnished the body of
this little creature with a glutinous liquid, which it spins into thread, coarse or fine as it chooses.
In order to fix its threads when it begins to weave, it emits a small drop of its liquid against the wall, which, hardening by degrees, serves to hold the thread very firmly. Then, as it recedes from the first point, the thread lengthens; and when the spider has come to the place where the other end of the thread should be fixed, gathering up with its claws the thread, which would otherwise be too slack, it is stretched tight and fixed to the wall in the same manner as before.
In this way it spins and fixes several threads parallel to one another, which, so to speak, serve as the warp to the intended web. To form the woof, it spins in the same manner its thread, transversely fixing one end to the first thread that was spun, and which is always the strongest of the whole web, and the other to the wall. All these threads, being newly spun, are glutinous, and therefore stick to one another wherever they happen to touch; and in those parts of the web most likely to be torn, our natural artist strengthens them, by doubling the threads sometimes six-fold.
I perceived, about four years ago, a large spider in one corner of my room, making its web, and though the servant frequently leveled her fatal broom against the labors of the little animal, I had the good fortune then to prevent its destruction.
In three days the web was completed; nor could I avoid thinking that the insect seemed to exult in its new abode. It repeatedly traversed it round, and examined the strength of every part of it, retired into its hole, and came out very frequently. The first enemy, however, it had to encounter, was another and a much larger spider, which, having no web of its own, and having probably exhausted all its stock in former labors of this kind, came to invade the property of its neighbor.
Soon, then, a terrible encounter followed, in which the invader seemed to have the victory, and the laborious spider was obliged to take refuge in its hole. Upon this I perceived the victor using every art to draw the enemy from its stronghold. He seemed to go off, but quickly returned, and when he found all his arts vain, began to destroy the new web without mercy. This brought on another battle, and, contrary to my expectations, the laborious spider became conqueror, and fairly killed its antagonist.
Now then, in peaceful possession of what was justly its own, it waited three days with the utmost impatience, repairing the breaks of its web, and taking no food that I could perceive. At last, however, a large blue fly fell into the snare, and struggled hard to get loose. The spider gave it leave to entangle itself as much as possible, but it seemed to be too strong for the cobweb.
I was greatly surprised when I saw the spider immediately sally out, and in less than a minute weave a new net around its captive, by which the motion of its wings was stopped, and when it was fairly entangled in this manner, it was seized and dragged into the hole.
In this manner it lived, in a perilous state, and nature seemed to have fitted it for such a life; for upon a single fly it subsisted for more than a week. I once put a wasp into the nest, but when the spider came out to seize it as usual, upon perceiving what kind of an enemy it had to deal with, it instantly broke all the bands that held it fast, and contributed all that lay in its power to disengage so powerful an antagonist.
When the wasp was at liberty, I expected that the spider would have set about repairing the breaks in the net; but this, it seems, could not be accomplished, therefore the cobweb was now entirely forsaken, and a new one begun, which was completed in the usual time.
I had now a mind to try how many cobwebs a single spider could furnish; therefore I destroyed this, and the insect set about another. When I destroyed the other also, its whole stock seemed entirely exhausted, and it could spin no more. The arts it made use of to support itself, now deprived of its great means of subsistence, were indeed surprising. I have seen it roll up its legs like a ball, and lie motionless for hours together, but cautiously watching all the time; when a fly happened to approach sufficiently near, it would dart out all at once, and often seize its prey.
Of this life, however, it soon began to grow weary, and resolved to invade the possession of some other spider, since it could not make a web of its own. It made an attack upon a neighboring web with great vigor, and at first was as vigorously repulsed. Not daunted, however, with one defeat, in this manner it continued to lay siege to another's web for three days, and at length, having killed the defendant, actually took possession.
When smaller flies happen to fall into the snare, the spider does not sally out at once, but very
patiently waits till it is sure of them; for should it immediately approach, the terror of its appearance might give the captive strength sufficient to get loose; its habit then is to wait patiently, till, by useless struggles, the captive has wasted all its strength, and then it becomes a certain and easy conquest.
The insect I now describing lived three years; every year it changed its skin and got a new set of legs. I have sometimes plucked off a leg, which grew again in two or three days. At first it dreaded my approach to its web; but at last it became so familiar as to take a fly out of my hand, and upon my touching any part of the web, would immediately leave its hole, prepared either for defense or an attack.
To complete this description it may be observed that the male spiders are much smaller than the female. When the latter come to lay, they spread a part of their web under the eggs, and then roll them up carefully, as we roll up things in a cloth, and thus hatch them in their hole.
If disturbed in their holes, they never attempt to escape without carrying their young brood in their forceps away with them, and thus frequently are sacrificed to their parental affection.
As soon ever the young ones leave their artificial covering, they begin to spin, and almost sensibly seem to grow bigger. If they have the good fortune, when even but a day old, to catch a fly, they begin to eat with good appetites; but they live sometimes three or four days without any sort of sustenance, and yet still continue to grow larger, so as every day to double their former size,