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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 October 2006, 09:13 GMT 10:13 UK
If one crawls across the carpet...
By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News

Giant African millipede (Natural History Museum)
Giant African millipedes are sometimes kept as pets
We all take our work home with us from time to time; except with Stuart Hine, those are not papers he's got in his briefcase.

Stuart is the manager of the Natural History Museum's Insect Enquiry Service.

You'll have seen him on the TV and in the papers recently, answering questions about spiders and daddy-longlegs.

He's the man people call when they think they've got an unusual bug - or want to know why their corner of Britain seems to be overrun with the little blighters this year.

He gets a steady stream of deliveries to his tight office in the museum's magnificent Waterhouse building on London's Exhibition Road; and lack of space means some new arrivals into the service occasionally get to lodge with Stuart himself.

Bugs in a Jiffy

Currently enjoying home comforts is a giant African millipede (Archispirostreptus sp) which came into the museum from Islington in north London.

Smart suburbia is not in its usual range; there has to be some explanation as to how so exotic a creature could have got there. And Stuart reckons he knows.

Scorpion (BBC)
A European scorpion - but unusual for the UK
"I went to collect it thinking it might be an escaped pet but the lady who found it had recently put bark chipping down in her garden. It could have come in with that if the chippings originated in Africa - but there it was, wandering across her decking."

Rattling around in a Perspex box on Stuart's desk is another interloper - a scorpion (Euscorpius italicus). It's small but don't let that fool you - a little prick from this fellow and you'd think you'd been stung by a bee.

It more than likely came in from Portugal, a passenger in someone's luggage as they jetted back from holiday.

The scorpion was sent to Stuart in a Jiffy bag. When he opened the package, the creature climbed out. One has to be slightly wary of padded envelopes on his desk.

The British winters

At the moment, it's all about spiders. One in particular has been keeping the phone lines buzzing. It's the wasp spider (Argiope bruennichi), a centimetre-sized arachnid with bright yellow stripes.

Stuart Hine (Natural History Museum)
It is going to be exceptional for anything exotic to turn up
Stuart Hine
This invader from the continent has been on the south coast of England since the 50s, but in the last 10-15 years, its numbers and range have increased sharply. It's now being seen in Surrey and Wiltshire. Recordings are up 200% on last year.

"People assume it's because it is getting so hot in the summer. It's not; it's because the winters are less severe," explains Hine.

"We've now got three or four parasitic wasps and a couple of social wasps, for example. These creatures are on the northern extreme of their range in Europe. Things ebb and flow; they've been coming in for hundreds, probably thousands, of years.

"When the cycle of weather is favourable, they colonise; when it goes colder, they retreat back again. Now, of course, it looks as though we're no longer in a cycle and things are going in one direction."

Unexpected 'bargains'

A beneficiary is the daddy-longlegs spider, Pholcus phalangioides, (not to be confused with crane flies, also known as daddy-longlegs). Once a rare sight on the southern coast, it is now widespread in south-east homes.

Of course, you'd think the English Channel would be a natural barrier to the northern march of Europe's insects - and it is - but international trade and our jet-set lifestyles offer these interlopers a toll-free bridge.

Wasp spider (Natural History Museum)
Wasp spiders are pushing north from their south-coast stronghold
The classic example is the banana spider (Heteropoda venatoria) which - you guessed it - is occasionally seen with shipments of bananas.

It's quick and will certainly give you a bite, but Hine says people need to calm their fears that climate warming and globalisation is going to the see the UK overrun with dangerous arachnids.

"In general, 99.99% of anything you are likely to find in your home is going to be a common British spider," he says.

"It is going to be exceptional for anything exotic to turn up. In the case of banana spiders, for example, you have to remember that they will have been chilled, spent perhaps weeks at sea and probably washed. Most - if they get as far as the supermarket - will be dead."

The Natural History Museum's Insect Information Service mainly takes calls from members of the public relating to insects that they have found in their home or garden, however it also provides an identification service for commercial companies.

The commercial enquiries mainly concern the specific identification of pests and inclusions associated with crops, and stored, shipped or processed food products.


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