|The Story Book of Science|
|by Jean Henri Fabre|
|The wonders of plant and animal life told with rare literary charm by Uncle Paul in conversations with three children. Besides such stories as the ants' subterranean city, the spider's suspension bridge, and the caterpillars' processing, he unlocks the mystery behind thunder and lightning, clouds and rain, the year and its seasons, and volcanoes and earthquakes. Ages 9-12 |
NCLE PAUL had said: "Let us get up early in the morning."
No one had to be called. One sleeps little when one is going
to see an epeira hunt. About seven o'clock, with the sun
shining bright, they were at the border of the stream. The
cobweb was finished. Some dewdrops hanging to the threads
shone like pearls. Hence the spider was not yet in the
center of the net; no doubt it was waiting, before descending
from its room, for the sun to dissipate the morning
dampness. The party sat down on the grass for breakfast, at
the very foot of the alder-tree to which were fastened the
cables of the net. Blue damsel-flies flew from one tuft of
rushes to another and chased each other
play-  fully. Beware,
you giddy ones, who will not know how to avoid the web by
passing over and under it! Ah! it has happened; so much the
worse for the victim. When one plays foolishly with one's
companions, one must at least look where one is going. A
dragon-fly is caught in the meshes of the web. With one wing
free it struggles to escape. It shakes the web, but the
cables hold in spite of the shaking. Threads in
communication with the resting-room warn the epeira, by
their agitation, of the important things taking place in the
net. The spider hastily descends, but it does not get there
in time. With a desperate stroke of its wing the dragon-fly
frees itself and escapes, tearing a large hole in the web.
"Oh! how well it got out!" cried Jules. "A little more and
the poor thing would have been eaten alive. Did you see,
Emile, how quickly the spider ran down from its hiding place
when it felt the web move! The hunt begins badly; the game
escapes and the net is torn."
"Yes, but the spider is going to mend it," his uncle
And, in fact, as soon as it had recovered from its
misadventure, the epeira renewed the broken threads with
delicate dexterity. The darning finished, the damage could
hardly be detected. The spider now takes its place in the
center of the network: the right moment for the chase has
come, apparently, and it is advisable for it to pounce upon
the game as quickly as possible, to avoid other
misadventures. It spreads its eight feet in a circle, to
receive the slightest movement that may come at
 any point of
the web, and it waits, completely motionless.
The dragon-flies continue their evolutions. Not one is
caught: the recent alarm has rendered them circumspect; they
fly around the web to pass beyond it. Oh! oh! what is that
coming so giddily and striking its head against the network?
It is a little bumble-bee, all velvety and black, with a red
stomach. It is caught. The epeira runs. But the captive is
vigorous and formidable; perhaps it has a sting. The spider
mistrusts it. It draws a thread from its spinneret and
passes it quickly over the bee. A second silk string, a
third, a fourth, soon subdue the captive's desperate
efforts. Here is the bee strangled but still full of life,
and menacing. To seize it in that state would be great
imprudence: the epeira's life would be at stake. What must
be done so as to leave nothing to fear from this dangerous
prey? The spider possesses, folded under its head, two
sharp-pointed fangs, which let flow a little drop of poison
through a hole in their extremities. That is its hunting
weapon. The epeira approaches cautiously, opens its fangs,
stings the bee, and immediately moves aside. In the
twinkling of an eye it is all over. The poison acts
instantly: the bee trembles, its legs stiffen, it is dead.
The spider carries it off to its silken chamber to suck it
at leisure. When nothing but the skin is left, the spider
will throw the remains of the bee far from its domicile, so
as not to soil its web with a corpse that might frighten
"It was done so quickly," complained Jules, "I
 did not see
the spider's poisonous fangs. If we were to wait a little
longer, another bumble-bee might perhaps come and then I
should see it better."
"It is not necessary to wait," replied Uncle Paul. "If we
proceed skilfully we can make the spider recommence its
hunting manœuvers. All of you look attentively."
Uncle Paul searched among the field flowers for a moment and
caught a large fly; then, holding it by one wing, put it
near the web. The insect, beating about, gets entangled in
the threads. The web shakes, the spider leaves its bee and
runs, delighted with the fortunate chance that brings him
prey again so quickly. The same manœuvers begin again.
The fly is first strangled; the epeira opens its pointed
fangs, stings the fly a little, and all is over. The victim
trembles, stretches itself out, and ceases to move.
"Ah! that time I saw it," said Jules, satisfied at last.
"Claire, did you notice the fineness of the spider's fangs?"
asked Emile. "I am sure that in your needle-case you haven't
any such fine-pointed needles."
"I dare say not. As for me, what surprises me the most is
not the fineness of the spider's fangs, but the quickness of
the victim's death. It seems to me that a fly as large as
this one ought not to die so quickly even from the coarser
pricks of our needles."
"Very true," assented her uncle. "An insect transfixed by a
pin still lives a long time; but if it is only pricked by
the fine point of the spider's
 fangs, it dies almost
instantly. But then, the spider takes care to poison its
weapon. Its fangs are venomous; they are perforated by a
minute canal through which the spider lets flow at will a
scarcely visible little drop of liquid called venom, which
the creature makes as it makes the silk liquid. The venom is
held in reserve in a slender pocket placed in the interior
of the fangs. When the spider pricks its prey, it makes a
little of this liquid pass into the wound, and that suffices
to bring speedy death to the wounded insect. The victim
dies, not from the prick itself, but from the dreadful
ravages wrought by the venom discharged into the wound."
Here Uncle Paul, in order to give his hearers a better view
of the poisonous fangs, took the epeira with the tips of his
fingers. Claire uttered a cry of fear, but her uncle soon
"Don't be uneasy, my dear child: the poison that kills a fly
will have no effect on Uncle Paul's hard skin."
And with the aid of a pin he opened the creature's fangs to
show them in detail to the children, who were quite
"You must not be too frightened," he continued, "at the
quick death of the fly and of the bumble-bee, and so look on
spiders as creatures to be feared by us. The fangs of most
of them would have great difficulty in piercing our skin.
Courageous observers have let themselves be bitten by the
various spiders of our country. The sting has never produced
any serious results; nothing more than a redness less
painful than that produced by the sting
 of a mosquito. At
the same time, persons with a delicate skin ought to beware
of the large kinds, were it only to spare themselves a
passing pain. Without any excessive alarm we avoid the
wasp's sting, which is very painful; let us avoid the
spider's fangs in the same way without uttering loud cries
at the sight of one of these creatures. We will resume the
subject of the venomous insects. But it is late; let us go."
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