Poisonous spiders hitch a ride to Ulster
A venomous huntsman spider has found its way into Northern Ireland by hitching a lift on a rally car imported from Australian
The arachnid, which resembles a flattened tarantula, was brought to the Agri Food and Biosciences Insititute (AFBI) in Newforge Lane in Belfast for identification by a pest control firm hired to clear the car out.
Invertebrate expert Dr Archie Murchie of AFBI said several foreign spiders have found their way into Northern Ireland lately, but insists there is little likelihood of them establishing colonies.
This is in contrast to the situation in southern England where rising temperatures have sparked calls to scientists from worried householders who have found alien spiders in their homes and gardens.
One such species, the false black widow (Steadota paykuliana) was once found only on rare occasions in imported goods but has now colonised in the Plymouth area.
Another example of the same species was found in Northern Ireland two weeks ago. A Warrenpoint pensioner who found it lurking in a bunch of grapes brought the live false black widow to the AFBI laboratory by bus.
Imported fruit is a well known route for alien species to reach Northern Ireland but less predictable was the banded huntsman or giant crab spider from Australia which was carried in on an imported rally car.
Dr Murchie said the spider had found its way into the car while the vehicle was sitting in the Outback.
“My colleague Stephen Jess dealt with the query. It looks like a flattened tarantula — it’s a very fast moving spider. It come in to us through a pest control firm. A guy who was interested in rallying had brought in a vehicle that had those spiders in the car,” he said.
“Although quite vicious looking, the huntsman is generally non-aggressive, although it can give a nasty bite if provoked. They’ll give you a bite but they are not one of the really toxic spiders that are life threatening.
“The second is a false black widow spider which came in on grapes. The bite is not fatal but can be painful. According to the Natural History Museum website, the bite itself is not usually felt but, within a short space of time, a local burning sensation is followed by radiating pain which is far more severe than a bee or wasp sting.”
Another false black widow was found in Northern Ireland in June when it crawled out of a bunch of red grapes bought in a supermarket.
“We’ve certainly had a raft of them coming in at the minute. Whether that is a wee blip or a long term, I don’t know,” Dr Murchie said.
“With invasive species in general, you find that with global warning insects are surviving longer in winter so we’re seeing a change in distribution. Some of the species we wouldn’t have expected to find established in the past are now beginning to get a bit of a foothold in the UK as they extend their range.
“But it’s probably a wee bit too cold in Northern Ireland for these spiders. The climate in the south of England is quite different to here.”
Meanwhile, the prize for the most unpredictable invasion route goes to the American freshwater flatworm (Phagocata woodworthi) which is thought to have been introduced into Loch Ness on monster hunting equipment.
One spider species spreading across England is Segestria florentina, or the tube web spider. It used to be limited to east London's docks and ports on the South Coast but can now be found as far as the Midlands.
Unlike native spiders, it can become aggressive when cornered and, although not venomous, has been known to bite.
“I received a call recently from a father whose 18-month-old child had picked one up. It gave him a hell of a fright,” Mr Hine said.
Matt Shardlow, a director of Buglife, which wants stricter controls on imports that might contain non-native species, added: “Fruit imports don't bring over that many foreign spiders. The big problem is pot plants, as the soil they are in can harbour all sorts of species.”