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Saturday, 26 April 2014

Capturing a spider's web

Before you start, ask yourself if you really need to destroy a spider's web. These photos do a pretty goof job of capture. though you will need to click on the photos to see larger versions.

As you can see, there is another way to capture a spider's web, and that is with a camera.

In another entry, I have shown a web, captured at night with a flash, but I am rather fond of getting shots of webs that are covered in dew or festooned with rain drops.

The one on the left, above, is a bit different: it was attached to a road sign and catching the late afternoon sun. I had to shoot into the sun, but by moving around a bit, I had the camera in the shadow of the sign, while the web showed up well against the trees behind.


You really want to catch a web?  OK, here's how.

First up, you need the right sort of web. Leaf-curling spiders like this won't leave the web for you, so this sort of web is No Good At All.



What you need:
A large sheet of stiff black paper or cardboard, an old cardboard box, a can of white spray paint, newspaper, an assistant and a pair of sharp scissors. You can also use black paint and white cardboard, if you prefer. You can even use paper, but you need to tape it to a piece of cardboard the same size (or larger). You also need a place well away from buildings, washing or anything else that will be spoiled by a coat of paint. Talk to an adult!

Your assistant will probably need goggles and a breathing mask: think about this!

What you do:

The best place to find large numbers of spiders is in heathy bushland, close to a swamp or a creek, as there will be more insects around in those places. On the other hand, you can probably find a suitable candidate in your garden.

The week I wrote this piece, I found a suitable candidate several days in a row, stretched over the path I had to walk along to collect the morning paper. In the end, I collected it on a straw broom and moved it to a garden tree where we would not keep breaking it down.

On a calm day, about two hours after sunrise, when the dew has dried from the webs, choose a large web. If she is still in her web, persuade the spider gently to take shelter while you spray and steal the centre of her web. The paint will not be at all healthy for the spider.

While your assistant holds a large piece of scrap cardboard behind the web to catch most of the paint which misses, spray the web with paint from about 50 cm away, being careful not to paint your assistant. Do both sides, then put away the cardboard and the paint.

You only have one go at collecting the web, so choose the part which you want carefully. Push the black cardboard flat against the web, which sticks to the paper because the paint is still wet. Hold the cardboard into the web, and get your helper to cut around the edges of the web with the scissors.

Carry the cardboard indoors to a safe place and leave the paint to dry for half an hour or so while you tear down all the left-over parts of the web with paint on them, as orb weavers eat and re-use their webs. When the paint is dry, you can spray it with artist's fixative, or cover it in cling-wrap.

"Will you walk into my parlour?" said a spider to a fly.
"'Tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy."
— Mary Howitt (1799-1888) The Spider and the Fly.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Scary spiders

I freely admit that some spiders are scary, and you have to know what you are doing.

On the left is a funnelweb spider (Atrax sp.) that I found in the Snowy Mountains about thirty years ago.  I was shooting with a Pentax SLR with close-up rings, and I didn't get all that close, and I was a bit nervous — which explains why the shot is a bit blurry.

The rest is probably down to nerves! The shot on the right is a close-up of the fangs of a dead relative, an unnamed mygalomorph spider.  One has every right to be scared of animals like the one above!

Or indeed, of the one on the left. Discretion being better than valour, I freely confess that this redback, photographed in one of the nursery houses, was most sincerely dead. I don't think anybody has died from a redback bite for a LONG time, but the bites are very painful, they say.

The redback is a close relative of the American Black Widow and the New Zealand katipo — and the Australian redback is good at stowing away. One made it to Tristan da Cunha some years ago, from memory it was in some NASA equipment that was shipped there from rural New South Wales.

The thing is: you don't need to get close to spiders to study them, you can engage in historical research. That aside, their eyes "glow in the dark" when you shine a bright light on them, because the eyes reflect some of the light back at you.

At night, you can spotlight spiders on open ground and examine them. Here is my ever-helpful wife posing with a strong light behind her ear: walk out in the garden, look for glowing eyes in the grass and then move in on them.

Just get as close as is comfortable to the glowing eyes, look at them, talk to them nicely, and move on.

And you can use this link to get some historical newspaper information.

This is part of a new series, all of which are tagged Nature Study.  Look for this tag at the end of this post and click on it to find the other related pieces. I have also gone back and retro-tagged previous articles that fit, so you will actually find quite a horde of them, so that you need to look at two sets of older posts as well.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Playing with dragons

There really ARE dragons, all over Australia.

Not the fire-breathing flying beasts in story books, these are lizards in the family Agamidae, and one of my reference books says Australia has 78 species, which means I still have quite a few to find.


The dragon you see here is a bearded dragon from the Flinders Ranges in South Australia. I was out in dry country near the dingo fence, and I went off the road looking for interesting stuff.

That's a good way to find interesting things, though as you can see from the top two shots, this beastie was well camouflaged in the red soil.

While I know how to handle these animals, I don't make a habit of it, unless they are on a road and need to be moved. In this case, I wanted to show the other people in the party what one of these looked like, but more importantly, I needed pictures of how to do it for a book, so I picked it up.

The dragon didn't like it: you can't see his tail, because he was lashing my leg with it, and his spiny skin was trying to puncture my hands. I am old and tough, so I put up with it for a while.

The trick is to hold the body firmly but gently between the front and hind legs, and if you can, wear gloves!  I tentatively identify it as a Central Bearded Dragon, Pogona vitticeps, based mainly on the location, and a couple of mug shots found on the web.

My local dragons are Eastern Water Dragons, Intellagama lesueurii, and they are settling in very well in suburban Sydney. They are good swimmers,and if you have a licence, they make good pets, but I prefer to see them in the wild. I have never seen any good reason to pick any if them up.



These animals rely strongly on vision, as you can see here. With all those spines, they are probably not too worried about predators, but I rather suspect that this animal knows us when we arrive at a particular beach.

You see, we know what they like to eat, and we usually go there for a meal, and when we do, there is always some fruit in the pack.

They will eat strawberries and blueberries, but grapes are a particular favourite!

Now you know what to do.


This is part of a new series, all of which are tagged Nature Study.  Look for the tag at the end of this post and click on it to find the related pieces. I have also gone back and retro-tagged previous articles that fit.

This one was mainly written for Eabha and Eamon.

Looking at spiders 2

Other tricks that are worth trying include catching webs with raindrops on them, or using flash in the dark. Note that (aside from a mild trauma from the flash {maybe}) for the spider, these do no harm to animals.

Now look at the webs below left: There is always something new to learn, and I have NO idea at all what sorts of spiders make these webs that lie flat on the ground, but they are quite common in grasslands and open heath.

I have seen these webs from Cape York to Victoria, but I have always  been with people who were in a rush, so they remain unknown.

I suspect that the spiders making these webs catch small hopping crustaceans and  things like that.

The joy of going out and looking is that there is always something that requires an answer.

The other way is to find dead spiders and pose them. Dead huntsmen occasionally show up in our garage, and if they are fairly fresh, they can be placed in a jar with a damp tissue, which softens them so they can be posed and support in place with pins as they dry again.

None of those pins goes through the spider: they just support it while it dries, letting me get the pose on the right.

This is part of a new series, all of which are tagged Nature Study.  Look for the tag at the end of this post and click on it to find the related pieces. I have also gone back and retro-tagged previous articles that fit.

Bear with me.  I'm going to stay with spiders for a bit.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Looking at spiders 1

I took up spiders in 1958 when I saw Keith McKeown's Australian Spiders. The frontispiece was of a jumping spider like the one on the left, but the photo showed it face-on, and I fancied a resemblance to my Latin teacher. Any life form that could mimic Latin teachers had to be OK.

Then, with my (very) distant Scots ancestry, the St Andrews Cross Spider (right) was interesting. They insist on putting a saltire in their web, and then put two legs along each line. Why?

The best guess I have seen is that they do it to make themselves look larger to potential predators. They are a nice easy target, and usually found in the nursery where I work as a volunteer

Over the years, I have come up with some wrinkles to make snapping easier. That jumping spider kept springing away, so I put in a glass salad bowl, with blue card in the bottom. Then I just had to wait until it got tired of leaping.

I used to wonder how orb-weavers (left) avoided getting caught in their vertical webs, but as the side-shot on the right shows, the webs are NOT vertical. The web is just a blur because most of it is out of the focal field, but you can see the angle.

Later, I decided to try capturing the web better, and started working with card sheets, and as you can see on the left, not all cards are equal. The blue background hides the web completely. Still, the plain background is less distracting that out-of-focus brickwork.


This is part of a new series, all of which are tagged Nature Study.  Look for the tag at the end of this post and click on it to find the related pieces. I have also gone back and retro-tagged previous articles that fit.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Take a dose of millipedes

I am working on a new book which has the working title Not Your Usual Treatment, and it will include bizarre folk remedies, quack operations and bizarre devices, all used to "treat" in some way a real or fancied condition. The exact form will emerge from the research and the digging, and here is an example of a "find" and where it has led me, so far.

The hunt began when I was poring over Buchan's 1790 Domestic Medicine. I can't prove it yet, but I suspect that much early colonial medicine was influenced by this volume, or its competitors, and I was fascinated with the huge list of ailments that were amenable to treatment with "Peruvian bark", which is a sort of antique code for quinine.  It was the bark of the cinchona tree.

In the middle of that hunt, I found a gem, but to understand it you will need to know that chin-cough is a dialect word for whooping cough.

The millepedes, or wood-lice, are greatly recommended for the cure of a chin-cough. Those who chuse to make use of these infects, may infuse two ounces of them bruised in a pint of small white-wine for one night. Afterwards the liquor may be strained through a cloth, and a table-spoonful of it given to the patient three or four times a-day.

William Buchan, Domestic Medicine, 287.

Buchan expressed his reservations about the cure, a few chapters later:

Many dirty things are recommended for the cure of the jaundice ; as lice, millepedes, &c. But these do more harm than good, as people trust to them, and neglect more valuable medicines; be sides they are seldom taken in sufficient quantity to produce any effects. People always expect that such things should act as charms, and consequently seldom persist in the use of them. Vomits, purges, fomentations, and exercise, will seldom fail to cure the jaundice when it is a simple disease; and when complicated with the dropsy, a scirrhous liver, or other chronic complaints, it is hardly to be cured by any means.

William Buchan, Domestic Medicine, 373.

a woodlouse
a millipede
But there was a taxonomic problem here. The millepede (or millipede as we now write it) is a juliform diplopod, a beastie with many, many pairs of legs, two pairs to each segment. More importantly, I recalled reading in an old textbook (possibly Grassé's Traité de Zoologie) that the diplopods secrete hydrocyanic acid, which would make ingesting them a bit risky.

three views of dead slaters
On checking, I discovered that they actually secrete benzoquinones which are nasty, but not deadly. Still, I wouldn't swallow a diplopod, especially one which had been annoyed by being crushed!

Wood-lice on the other hand are terrestrial crustaceans, known also as pill-bugs, sow-bugs, slaters or grammar sows, among other names, and I guessed that this was what was meant. I confirmed this from a couple of old sources, but I wondered why the millipedes were having their good name delivered to a bunch of land crustaceans, with a different shape and may fewer legs.

Sir Francis Bacon, Lord Verulam, had the answer for me:

Millepedes or Woodlice, which roll themselves into Balls, are bred chiefly under Logs of Timber, but not in the Timber…

Francis Bacon, Philosophical Works, vol, 3, 115 (about 1625).

A pill bug!!
A juliform diplopod.
So there we have it: they are grouped because some of the slaters, the ones called pill-bugs, roll up to protect their bellies, and so do juliform diplopods.

Before Linnaeus, any sort of criterion could be applied, if it suited you, and so the millipede was a wood-louse or vice versa, if that suits you.

An addendum posted April 5: I have been doing some further checking and Theophilus Redwood, in his A Supplement to the Pharmacopoeia, London, 1857, at page 163, explains that the correct animal to use is the Oniscus armadillo, which is the beast above, to the right. He says:

Millepedes are prepared by exposing then to the vapour of hot  alcohol, which kills them, In this state they are always contracted into the globular form, and thus are distinguished from the wood-lice, which have sometimes been confounded with them.


Statue of Sir Hans Sloane,
Chelsea Physic Garden.
I wondered about how widespread the practice of medicinal use of wood-lice was, and I landed once again in a favourite place, the garden of Hans Sloane, which I visited in London, eight years ago. The garden is now better known as the Chelsea Physic Garden, and it is a delight to those who know a bit of medical botany.  Where does Sloane come in? Well, it was once his garden.

Portrait of Sir Hans Sloane,
Chelsea Physic Garden.
Sloane was Anglo-Irish and trained as a medical botanist in London and France, but went to Jamaica with the Duke of Albemarle in 1687. The result was his great Natural History of Jamaica and a dead ex-pirate, because he helped treat that wicked old retired pirate and ex-Governor of Jamaica Henry Morgan, whose main problem was too much grog. (As a side note, one of the themes I am playing with is the use of alcohol for medicinal purposes, but that's for later.)


Sloane and another medico called Fulke Rose treated the poor bloke with millipedes and oil of scorpions. Luckily, a number of his other patients thrived, because Sloane had taken a good supply of "Peruvian bark" with him, and that meant that he could treat malaria (and if Buchan is to be trusted (he couldn't be), Sloane could also treat pleurisy, TB, diphtheria, spotted fever, smallpox, measles, scarlet fever, sore eyes, and just about every other ailment in the book,

Sloane did one other useful thing: he tasted cocoa in water and found it bitter, but mixed it with milk and gave it as a medicine. Aside from that and his membership of the Royal Society, Sir Hans Sloane, as he became, leaves the picture now.

But how were "millepedes" prepared?  In the early 1600s, John French offered this recipe for aqua magnanimitatis: the water of magnanimity, which was good for deafness:

"Take of ants or pismires a handful, of their eggs two hundred, of millepedes or woodlice one hundred, and of bees one hundred and fifty. Digest all these in two pints of spirit of wine, being very well impregnated with the brightest soot. Digest them together the space of a month, then pour off the clear spirit and keep it safe."

Thomas Willis (1621-1675) thought the stuff would do for headaches: as a rule, when one preparation is accorded multiple powers, that indicates something dodgy—but then aspirin eases headaches and thins the blood, so it's not a perfect rule. Here's Willis:

We ought not to omit, or postpone the use of Millepedes or Woodlice, for that the juicew of them, wrung forth, with the distilled Water, also a Powder of them prepared, often-times brings notable help, for the Curing of notable and pertinacious Headaches.

Thomas Willis, Pathologiae cerebri.

The idea of medical millipedes was still around in the 19th century, going on Knapp's 1829 Journal of a Naturalist:

We may even now, perhaps, swallow a few matters, the arcane of the needy or the daring, in the various compositions of powders, draughts, and pills, which are not quite agreeable to our palates or out stomachs; but our forefathers had more to encounters, as they had more faith to support them, when they were subjected, for the cure of their maladies, to such medicines as album græcum, or the white bony excrement of dogs, bleached on the bank, for their heartburns and acidities; the powder produced from burnt mice, as a dentifrice; millepedes or woodlice, for nephritic and other complaints; and the ashes of earthworms, administered in nervous and epileptic cases.

John Leonard Knapp, Journal of a Naturalist, 1829, 337.

And I dug up a 1906 reference in Nature which took me back to William George Black's Folk-Medicine, published in 1883:

A relation of mine was in the cottage of a wise woman at Penzance about two years ago, and found that she was still in the habit of prescribing in scrofulous cases grammar sows, sow-pigs, millepedes or woodlice, to be swallowed as a pill. According to the Penzance woman, the sufferer must himself secure his medicine, but she had a corner in her little garden where nothing was grown but mint and thyme, and there the sow-pigs were reared. As a concession to modern feelings, patients are now allowed to wear this disagreeable medicine in a little bag round the neck, if they shrink from the heroic remedy of swallowing it.

William George Black, Folk-Medicine 1883, 198.

There was also a footnote which gives us a few more names and shows that the practice was widespread in Britain:

Miss M. L. B. 17 October, 1878. "In the Eastern Counties they are called old-sims and sow-bugs, and in other parts St. Anthony's hogs. Their Latin name is porcellio scaber. The Welsh have several names for this insect, — gwrach-y-coed, i.e. the withered old woman of the wood; gwrach-y-lludw.
But how safe were  you, swallowing these things?  Not very, I suspect, given a tale that Edward Wright passed on to the Royal Society in 1755. Wright was in Paris and keen to observe the small animals that Buffon and Needham had been reporting as developing in sealed bottles, which appeared to be cases of spontaneous generation of life. In the way of Fellows of the Royal Society, he experimented and recorded. Details are from Edward Wright, Microscopical Observations, Phil. Trans., 1755, 698.

On May 1, 1752, at 11 in the morning, Wright "…made an infusion of dried millepedes, or wood-lice, such as are commonly kept in the apothecaries' shops. These he put unbruised into a small phial, so as to make it half full; then poured on them as filled it neck and all, stopped it with a well masticated cork, and put it in a pocket, where it was kept in a mild degree of warmth." On examining it that night, he found it "…swarming with oblong, slender, flattish animalcules…"

You can see them on the right. Those are bacteria, I would say, and they can only have come from the dried wood-lice, I think.  Take a dose of wood lice, and you might be in trouble!


Mind you, others who were taxonomically challenged might have been in trouble as well. Imagine what would happen if somebody managed to confuse millipedes with one of these chaps. Centipedes would not be nice to swallow.



So, you see where the idle eye can lead you down some curious by-ways!

PS: I am indebted to my good friend, Marian Drabkin, who found me a Huffington Post article which adds a bit more detail on wood-lice and indicates that they were also good for tooth-ache. I don't think I am finished with this topic just yet...in fact I know I'm not, because I keep coming upon more recipes for "millepedes".


* * * * * * *
This blog covers quite a few different things, so I tag each post. I also blog about history, and I am currently writing a series of books called Not your usual... and the first two have been accepted by Five Mile Press, The offcuts appear here with the tag Not Your Usual... . For a taste of Australian tall tales, try the tags Speewah or Crooked Mick.   For a miscellany of oddities, try the tag temporary obsessions. And language us covered under the tags Descants and Curiosities, while stuff about small life is under Wee beasties.