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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Down in jungleland: Six to Tango

Spiders are master craftspeople when they are not eating their own kind.

Written by Ranjit Lal | Updated: September 17, 2017 12:01:31 am
Spider Spiders have a terrifying love life: the gallant gentlemen dice with death with every romantic entanglement. (Source: Thinkstock Images)

When I first saw it, I thought it was just another ant drunkenly staggering back home after an all-night binge at the local watering hole. Its six legs were hopelessly uncoordinated in their movements and it really wasn’t going anywhere in any direction. Then I peered closely and realised that the ant — one of those typical large black ants that proliferate during the rains — had been snagged in an invisible web. And the web spinner, tucked safely in a high corner, was just waiting and watching it fixedly. She was about the size of a bead, a small peppercorn, black and shiny — one third or less the size of the ant. The ant struggled, but to no avail. Eventually its movements slowed down, it was tiring. Then it remained still. The beady black lady trundled down in a trice and approached it from its rear. Breakfast had just been served.

“Hah!” I thought, “Ma’am, you just got lucky this time!” It really didn’t seem to be a great place to set up a web — in a corner of the plinth separating the showering area from the rest of the bathroom. How many ants would come this way?

Well, over the next week, she made seven kills! This was obviously a frequently used pathway by the ants and they didn’t seem to realise that it was a deadly dangerous one, too, especially if you were returning from a party. Their seven desiccated corpses now litter the corner and madam is still waiting, a little rounder and shinier than before and just as deadly.

And, suddenly, I was noticing spiders everywhere. It might just be the gossamer rainbow gleam of a single thread strung between two garden plants that catches the eye — look closely and you’ll spot the lady busily spinning. On the leaves of the coleus and other plants in the garden, the lynx spiders crouch — pale straw-yellow. Their egg cases, enshrouded by silk, will be fiercely guarded. Though, once the babies are out and running helter-skelter on their tightropes, it can become a free-for-all buffet with the siblings happily dining off one another (in some cases the mom joins the festivities too). A crab spider, pearl-white and translucent, pounces on an excited furry bee on a madhumalti, and holds it in an embrace, as if it were a returning war veteran. One bite and the poison does its work. The bee hums to a standstill, its wings quivering. The tiny jumping spiders are my favourites: chocolate brown, sometimes striped, with glassy obsidian eyes; they posture fiercely on walls like boxers showing off before a bout and flick-leap in the blink of an eye. There are tiny all-metal versions of these too, in silvery-gold — fabulously bling! I’ve spotted them several times on the metallic silver-green bodywork of the car as well as on leaves.

These tiny-tot spiders are so full of fierce charisma, you can’t help liking them. As for the larger ladies (lady spiders may be one hundred times the size of their gentlemen partners and may use them as dietary supplements during the torrid honeymoon) that spin their webs in the garden, it’s best to give them space and privacy. On dewy mornings, there is perhaps nothing as eye-catching as a full orb web strung with dew-drop pearls catching the early light. The striped (like a jailbird really), spiky landlady, sprawled dead centre (an Argiope — garden spider) just waits. Any unfortunate creature blundering in is mummy-wrapped in silk, trussed up properly and left for when madam is really hungry. In the hills and jungles, there are even larger hairy monsters: some excavate silken tunnels in earth-banks, others in sink holes.

Yet others sling their web across your path. If you blunder in, better hope to not be wrapped up in a shroud! But yes, you can feel the tensile strength of that silk as you barge into it — almost like manjha — and it’s difficult to get it off your face (especially if it’s tangled in your hair). They say spider silk is six times stronger than a steel wire of a similar diameter and, of course, we are salivating at the thought of all we can do with stuff that strong and light (so far not much luck with synthesising it). The giant wood spiders in forests are the things of nightmares and look like they can happily dispatch even sparrows.

Spiders are renowned for their terrifying (for the gents) love life: the gallant little gentleman dices with death with every romantic entanglement. He may bring her gifts — a silk-wrapped cockroach, or he may twang her web like a harp (but, alas, music can literally be the food of love!) to put her in a trance. But he still may end up being the date and also the dinner. In some cases, even if he has his fling and beats it, he may masochistically return to be sacrificed. Shades of the Blue Whale challenge here, you might think, but the noble sod has done it only so his (and her) little horrors can thrive on the extra protein that his body will supply them through the nourishment it gives their monster mom. Like a dreadful Bollywood tear-jerker with reversed roles! (Rest easy, no producer will go anywhere near this kind of gender-casting). On one occasion, up in the hills, I came across a giant lady being waited upon (in the far corners of her huge web) by what seemed to be three or four small gentlemen. I couldn’t be sure if they were her boyfriends or just grown-up teens, who had refused to completely leave home and were just lounging around.

Either way, they were dicing with death.

Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher.

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