Smart approach to house spider survey

House spider in silhouette

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The summer heat might be fading but things are hotting up for house spiders.

If you're not afraid of them, autumn is the best time of year to see one of the arachnids as males come out of their usual hiding places in search of a mate.

And according to the Society of Biology, which has launched a new recording scheme, the spiders may have started early.

Thanks to a smartphone app they have already received 3,000 reports - including sightings in August - but there have been few previous studies of this kind for accurate comparison.

Dr Geoff Oxford from the University of York and the British Arachnological Society cites his paper published in 1987 that suggested sightings of house spiders peaked in late September but the spiders' movements were not recorded earlier in the year, so their exact behavioural patterns remain to be revealed.

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Dr Rebecca Nesbit and colleagues at the Society of Biology hope that by encouraging people to study spiders they can shed light on their seemingly mysterious habits.

To make it easy for citizen scientists to record spiders on their patch, the biologists have released a phone application to gather valuable data for scientists in situ - and get to know the spiders we share our homes with.

"We are trying to collect as much data as possible from around the UK. It is amazing how much there is still to discover about even the animals that live closest to us, but scientists can't collect this much information alone," said Dr Nesbit.

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There are five closely related species of house spider in the UK from the genus Tegenaria which means "mat" in reference to their sheet-like webs.

These are the large brown spiders you sometimes see scuttling across the kitchen floor or stuck in the bath.

"When male large house spiders stop in the middle of a room, they are not planning who to scare next, as often assumed. They are just exhausted," explains Dr Oxford.

"Like a cheetah they can run very fast for a short distance, and then have to stop to recover."

Although they sometimes live indoors, these spiders are most likely to be found living in sheds or wood piles.

Males are easy to identify due to the pedipalps protruding from their head - structures that resemble boxing gloves which are used to transfer sperm to females.

Male house spider palps Male large house spiders are recognisable by their "palps"

"I find large house spiders a fascinating group of species. They are awesome and beautiful to examine close up," says Dr Oxford.

"From a research angle, some of the species hybridise and provide a fascinating window on geographical distributions and the evolution and possible fusion [or loss] of species through hybridisation."

He also adds that spiders play an important role as "nature's safest insecticides": snacking on midges, mosquitoes and other insects.

The recording scheme encourages the public to photograph and identify the spiders they find and provides information on the most frequently encountered species.

Dr Oxford lists the following as the ten spiders you're most likely to encounter around your home: Large house spiders (T. saeva and T. gigantea), the common house spider (T. domestica), the cardinal spider (T. parietina) in the south of England, the daddy long legs spider (Pholcus phalangioides), the European garden spider (Araneus diademata) and orb-weaver (Zygiella x-notata) can often be found on windows, lace web weavers (Amaurobius similis and A. fenestralis) live in the crevices of external walls and on hot days the black and white striped jumping spider (Salticus scenicus) hunts on exposed walls.

Large house spiders

T. saeva and T. gigantea

T. saevea are large hairy spiders most often seen in houses in Wales and south west England. In the East and Midlands of England and Scotland you are more likely to encounter T. gigantea. You can only tell the two species apart by close examination of their genitals.

Large house spider

Common house spider

T. domestica

The smallest of the Tegenaria spiders, it is known as the barn funnel weaver in the US. As with all house spiders it weaves a web mat with a funnel-like retreat in one corner.

Common house spider

Cardinal spider

T. parietina

This species is the largest house spider found in the UK and its leg span can reach over 12cm. Its common name comes from a story that the ones living in Hampton Court used to frighten Cardinal Wolsey.

Cardinal spider via Wikimedia Commons

Daddy long legs spider

Pholcus phalangioides

This skinny-limbed spider is also known as the cellar spider but it is most likely to be found upside down in an untidy web near the ceiling.

Daddy long legs spider

European garden spider

Araneus diademata

Also known as the garden cross spider, this arachnid has a pattern of white dots on its back and weaves the distinctive orb webs familiar to gardens.

European garden spider

Orb-weaver

Zygiella x-notata

Arachnologists call the constructions of this spider "missing sector orb webs" because it leaves a section unwoven. This section contains the signal thread that vibrates to alert the spider to prey on its web.

Orb weaver spider

Lace web weavers

Amaurobius similis and A. fenestralis

These nocturnal spiders weave silken webs on external walls and hide in crevices during the day.

A. fenestralis were named after their habit of living near windows (fenestra in Latin) whereas A. similis are more likely to be found on trees.

Lace web weaver

Jumping spider

Salticus scenicus

The Latin name of this small spider means "theatrical jumper" because it is known to change its behaviour when watched by humans.

Its black and white markings have also earned it the moniker of the zebra spider. It does not weave a web, instead using its precise eyesight to locate its prey before pouncing.

Zebra jumping spider

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The Society of Biology's house spider survey runs through the autumn and you can also submit records to the British Arachnological Society's spider and harvestman recording scheme.

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