Thursday, July 28, 2011

Cunning

We've had our fair share of soft days this summer, when a fine cool mist hangs in the air. Not days for lolling on the beach or walking in the hills, but perfect for spider watching.

The meadow behind the house is chock-a-block with silken tents, like a bedouin encampment. And along the lane to the village every gorse bush in the hedge has its porch bedecked with dew, a glistening amorphous web the size of a handkerchief folded over the prickly leaves, each silken hankie gathering to a thumb-thick tunnel of more robust white webbing, and in each tunnel the architect waits licking his chops.

This is the gorse-web spider, Agelena labyrinthica, and he (or she) is ubiquitous. Every gorse bush has its apartments with glittering balconies. During the mating season the sexes live together, producing a silky egg cocoon in July. Now they wait in their tubular hiding places for whatever prey might stumble into the web.

In dry weather you'd never know they were there, so fine is the silk, so carefully hidden is the cavern. Presumably the gorse-web spider chooses gorse because it is drier than other plants. But in the mist everything is revealed, a stunning array of the builder's art, a practice honed over the eons. Fossil spiders with spinnerets (silk glands) on their abdomens are known from the Devonian and Carboniferous periods of Earth history, 300 to 400 million years ago. As I walk home from the village I stop at every web and try to tease the homeowner out of his lair, tossing bits of grass onto the web. But no, he is not to be fooled. There he lurks down that silvery tunnel, waiting for the real thing. I probe with a long stalk of grass; he retreats deeper into his bower.

"What refinement of art for a mess of flies!" exclaimed the great entomologist J. Henri Fabre, in his The Life of the Spider. "Nowhere, in the whole animal kingdom, has the need to eat inspired a more cunning industry."