Deadly black widow spiders, banana spiders and scorpions have been found crawling out of shipments to Northern Ireland, it can be revealed today.
Scientists have just identified a spider found in a punnet of red grapes from a supermarket last week as a false black widow spider — just as dangerous as the real black widow.
Paul Moore from the Agri Food and Bioscience Institute said: "The man was about to feed the grapes to his youngster and this popped out.
"You never know what you are going to get when you get a bunch of bananas or a bunch of grapes."
Not only have black widows been found in consignments of fruit and vegetables brought into the province, but some were found in the packaging of machinery that had been shipped in from Texas, according to Dr Archie Murchie, of the Agri Food and Biosciences Institute.
"We have had several instances of black widow spiders being found in packaging or on fruit," Dr Murchie said.
"A bite from one of these guys results in severe groin pain at the very least."
Scientists are on the alert for invasive insects and other creepy crawlies hitch hiking on packaging and are especially concerned about the harlequin beetle — the most invasive ladybird in the world.
In just a few years, the harlequin beetle has swept across Britain, but has yet to establish breeding populations in Northern Ireland — although one was found in a shipment of celery in a Tesco store here last November.
The swift advance of the harlequin throughout Britain — even as far north as the Orkneys — has sent shockwaves through the scientific community. The aggressive beetle poses a serious risk to native wildlife, including our native ladybirds, and is not above giving humans a nasty nip as well.
"We haven't had any more yet but we are bracing ourselves. It's only a matter of time," Dr Murchie said.
"Invasive species are coming in all the time — 90% of our fruit is imported and 50% of of our vegetables, so you get hitch hikers every so often."
Most insect species can co-exist in their own natural habitat without any problems, but when released into virgin territory a few can multiply and spread unhindered from their natural constraints.
Invasive alien species are the second most important threat to biodiversity after habitat loss.
"The harlequin is the most invasive ladybird on earth. If it established in Ireland as it has done in England, then it could outcompete our own ladybirds and prey on our native insects," Dr Murchie said.
The movement of insects into Ireland is the subject of a public talk by Dr Murchie at the Agri Food and Biosciences Institute in Belfast on Thursday June 26 , one of the highlights of National Insect Week.
He described how scientists are also on the alert for the arrival of insects travelling on their own steam, such as malarial mosquitoes and the midge that spreads bluetongue virus.
But not all the wide-ranging insects are as unwelcome, he stressed.
"Many of us are aware of the great migrations undertaken by birds, but we may not be so aware of the movements of insects. However, many species of butterfly, locusts and dragonflies can also undergo incredible migrations. Some of these are very welcome," he said.
"Populations of the Painted Lady butterfly migrate each year from North Africa to Europe to Ireland. Whilst in America, the Monarch butterfly undergoes an epic annual migration from the cornfields of Idaho to the secluded mountain valleys of Mexico — all of this on wings so delicate that careless handling would tear them to shreds."
The free public lecture 'Hop, skip and creep: the influx of insects into Ireland' will be held on Thursday June 26 at 3pm to 4pm at AFBI headquarters at Newforge Lane.
Further information about local events for National Insect Week are available on the website at www.nationalinsectweek.co.uk.