Life of the Spider

by JH Fabre

J.H. Fabre became one of the greatest entomologists in history; not because he was a faculty member of a prestigious University like Oxford, Cambridge, or Harvard, but because he, like Darwin, was a great observer. He would sit for days and observe the habits of one insect or spider in a small lot near his home in rural France. His ability to communicate his observations in over a dozen books became a must read in the early 1900’s for children and adults. Napoleon III wanted to bring him to Paris to be the national scholar of France. Fabre refused the invitation and he returned home to continue observing and teaching.

Life of a spider

Fabre was one of the first scientists to recognize pheromones. He placed a small box with a female moth near a screened window in his lab. He observed several male moths, of the same species, actively flying on the outside of the screen. He was one of the first to observe and understand the effects of insect sex-attractant pheromones back in the 1880’s; about 100 years before modern scientists were able to identify their molecular structure, synthesize, and use them commercially.

Life of a spider 2

Here is an example of his poetic prose about spiders from his book called “The Life of a Spider” written in English in 1912:

“The Spider has a bad name: to most of us, she represents an odious, noxious animal, which everyone hastens to crush under foot. Against this summary verdict the observer sets the beast’s industry, its talent as a weaver, its wiliness in the chase, its tragic nuptials and other characteristics of great interest. Yes, the Spider is well worth studying, apart from any scientific reasons; but she is said to be poisonous, and that is her crime and the primary cause of the repugnance wherewith she inspires us. Poisonous, I agree, if by that we understand that the animal is armed with two fangs which cause the immediate death of the little victims which it catches; but there is a wide difference between killing a Midge and harming a man. However immediate in its effects upon the insect entangled in the fatal web, the Spider’s poison is not serious for us and causes less inconvenience than a Gnat-bite. That, at least, is what we can safely say as regards the great majority of the Spiders.”


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