Brazilian spiders invade a British parking lot

Someone abandoned a box of Brazilian spiders in a parking lot in Derbyshire (which, irrelevantly, is pronounced Darbyshire, not that the spiders cared).

The were big spiders. Or at least they were baby spiders that will grow big enough to eat birds, something I know because they’re called Brazilian bird-eating spiders. If that isn’t enough to freeze the blood of an arachnophobe, they’re a kind of tarantula.

You can stop reading now if you’re going to have nightmares. If you’re not going to sleep at all, you can stop reading a couple of paragraphs ago.

The box was hit by a car, or “a vehicle” as the articles I’ve read put it, which could mean a car and could mean a truck, a tractor, a motorcycle, a kid’s scooter, or a skateboard. I think those last two are vehicles. Anyway, the box was hit by something with wheels and the driver told a woman in the parking lot that he thought he’d seen two bigger spiders scuttling away without a backward glance at their offspring.

Spiders aren’t particularly doting parents.

No, not Brazilian spiders but still (read on) a rare and relevant photo. It’s of a rhododendron in bloom. Ooh, is that a spider there on the right?

The woman called the RSPCA–the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals–which collected the spiders and brought them to a specialist, who when last heard from was keeping them warm in the hope that more eggs would hatch, even though (or possibly because) when he opened the little pots they came in one ran up his arm.

And where did mommy and daddy spider go? No one knows. The BBC (and everyone else who wrote about it) reports that “no bodies were found so it is assumed they may have escaped.” 

They all seem to be rewording, and sometimes quoting wholesale from, the same press release.

Full grown, the spiders measure ten inches from non-existent toenail to non-existent toenail. That is, the papers and the BBC helpfully explain, the size of a dinner plate, although dinner plates vary in size, so you can’t count on them being a perfect fit for yours. In addition to small birds, they eat lizards, mice, and insects. But they like a warm, damp climate and were let loose in a warm, dry one (we’ve had a heatwave and a drought here lately; when that ends, if it ever does or if it has [I write this stuff well ahead of time], they’ll find themselves in a cold, damp climate, which will suit them equally badly), so they may not make it.

On the other hand, they may have crawled down to the foot of your bed and be waiting for you to snuggle in tonight.

Sorry. I could’ve gone all day and not typed that.

Imported species are a major issue in Britain. The place is an island. That means (do I have to explain everything?) that it’s surrounded by water, and often a lot of it. As a result, most non-native species need help to get here. That tempts people to think they can be controlled, but an awful lot of non-native species got all the help they needed a long time ago.

We’ll get to that. In the meantime, it’s now illegal to release non-native species into the wild, or to allow them to escape, and it has been since 1981. See above for how successful that’s been.

Okay, I don’t really know how successful it’s been. All learned when I tried to find out is that a group of Buddhists released 361 American lobsters and 35 Dungeness crabs as part of a religious ceremony and got hit, in what I can’t help thinking is a secular ceremony, with fines and compensation and victim surcharges that added up to £28,220. Or over £15,000, depending on which source you read.

The government does try to stay on top of this and maintains a Non-native Species Secretariat, whose list of non-native species includes everything from the American skunk cabbage to the Siberian chipmunk, not to mention the sacred ibis, the killer shrimp, and the rhododendron.

I’ve never seen–or heard of, until now–a sacred ibis. Maybe I don’t hang out at churches enough. But rhododendrons? At least in Cornwall, they’re everywhere, including my backyard. They were introduced into Britain from the Alps in the seventeenth century, and in the eighteenth century, a British collector sent 600 dried specimens home from China. I haven’t been able to find out whether anything grew from his samples or if they just sat around as non-growing curiosities. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that Britons began importing them from China in serious numbers.

That’s about the time that Britain went rhododendron mad, and as a result the gardens of many large estates have endless species of them. One not far from us, Lanhydrock, is now owned by the National Trust and has hillsides of them. They’re beautiful in the spring, and if you come in the back way you, perfectly legally, don’t have to pay the hefty admission price.

But those are the fancy ones. Some propagate themselves. A species from Armenia took to Britain well enough that some regions are “overrun” with it, according to an online history of the plant. I’m hoping you don’t need to know when the Armenian one was imported, because I have no idea. What matters here is that they’re not a native species but they settled into the landscape and claimed it as their own.

The buddleia, or butterfly bush, did the same thing and now grows along railroad lines, in backyards, in (yes, in) walls, and pretty much anywhere people don’t pull it up. It’s a persistent little beast and it took me about five years to get rid of one that had planted itself in between two bits of paving in my backyard. It was introduced to Europe from China in the nineteenth century, and Defra–the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs–considers it invasive and in 2014 asked gardeners to clip the seedheads after it was done flowering to keep it from spreading any further. Since it will happily grow taller than me and my partner if I were standing on her shoulders, this is a lot to ask.

At the same time, it’s not an irrational thing to ask. It can “cause damage to buildings, such as crumbling brickwork – its tiny wind-blown seeds can germinate in decaying mortar.”

Who am I quoting from there? Sorry–I’ve lost the link. Someone who knows what they’re talking about. Possibly Defra. 

Butterflies and bees love the plant, and they need all the help they can get these days, but even on conservation sites, where you’d think it would be valued, it can become a problem, squeezing out other plants that butterflies also need.

Enough about plants. Non-native birds and animals include the gray squirrel and the edible dormouse, which is more politely called the fat dormouse, because who likes to scurry through the world with edible as part of their name? The Romans introduced the fat dormouse to Britain, and ate them, but they don’t seem to have escaped into the wild until a century ago.

A certain number of humans (we are a difficult species, and you could construct a convincing argument that we’re not native to Britain either) get up in arms about the incomers, sometimes for good reason and sometimes just because they’re incomers.

What’s a good reason? The fat dormouse can chew through wiring in houses and strip the bark from trees. Mink that escaped from mink farms can force water voles out of areas where they were established. The Chinese mitten crab burrows into riverbanks and may undermine flood defenses. Himalayan balsam grows fast enough and spreads madly enough to smother other plants.

So basically, sometimes they throw off the balance of the ecosystem (whatever kept them in check in their home territories is absent here) and sometimes they annoy us.

The most annoying of the non-native plants is probably Japanese knotweed, which is so invasive that it can grow through walls, pipes, and pavement. It can damage foundations. It plays rock music at such a high volume that the walls of Jericho crumble. If you own a home and the stuff moves onto your property, the price of your home just bungee-jumped off a bridge, but not necessarily with the bungee attached. You may not be able to sell the place at all, because many companies won’t approve a mortgage if the stuff’s present.

Google “Japanese knotweed” and the first things that come up are offers to (a) get rid of the stuff and (b) sue someone for letting it get there or letting you buy the place to begin with. Which demonstrates that the U.S. didn’t copyright the idea of suing people as a way to solve your problems. You can’t copyright ideas, only their unique expression.

That’s probably why non-native species haven’t copyrighted the idea of annoying humans. Farmers (to generalize) blame the badger, which is native, for spreading bovine TB and for digging holes that their cattle break legs in. The government–after endless controversy about its effectiveness, never mind its humaneness–has backed a badger cull. 

The native fox will kill lambs when it gets a chance. Nature is not sentimental.

But for some people, being non-native is a good enough reason to get rid of a species. Every so often, a newspaper opinion piece will call for the extirpation of a relatively benign non-native species like the rhododendron, so that Britain can return to the innocence and beauty it had back in [you can choose your century here, because introductions have been going on at least since the Romans ruled the place and probably well before that].

Tear up all the rhododendrons. Eliminate the gray squirrels. Get rid of the butterfly bushes. Off with their heads. 

I probably hear those voices more loudly than they merit. It’s the paranoia that comes of living in an age when anti-immigrant sentiment is running wild. I  can’t help thinking that this urge to return Britain to a time when it was free of non-native plants and animals is related to the myth that there once was, and could be again, a Britain free of non-native humans. At which point this non-native human would remind you that we’re all imports here, and we’re all mixed, and that waves of immigration started at the end of the last ice age and have been going on pretty much continually ever since.

Oddly enough, even the most strident voices aren’t calling for the elimination of onions and garlic, which are also non-native. Even though both grow wild. They’re quietly accepted as either British or close enough not to call any attention to themselves. They’ve been here so long that when they write they use a -que when they spell cheque.

86 thoughts on “Brazilian spiders invade a British parking lot

  1. I had no idea that buddleia, or butterfly bush, came from China. You forgot to mention wallabies and various “big cats” (living wild on various moors).

    I’m quite keen on the idea of re-introducing species that have died out in the UK like wild boar (unfortunately, people complained about them digging up their gardens) and beavers (good for flood management), but no one has been brave enough to bring back wolves, yet!

    Of course, my favourite stories involve “fake beasts” like the dog mistaken for a lion. or the stuff toy mistaken for a tiger!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m too tired to follow the links right now, but I look forward to exploring the depths of human absurdity. I’m in your debt. For a while, we had the Beast of Bodmin running around either the moors or the newspapers, or possibly both. I’m not sure anyone ever figured out what–or if–it was, but it was supposed to be some sort of big cat.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Buddleia is banned in Seattle, USA where I used to live because it was so invasive there. Depending on the climate (and we all know how that’s rapidly changing) invasive species crowd out the natives and we end up with a less diverse ecosystem. Thanks Ellen for presenting a serious message with your usual touch of creative humour!

      Liked by 2 people

        • In it’s native Japan the Knot Weed is apparently a puny plant, because it has so many diseases and predators that keep it in check. But in the UK it has none of those factors to keep it in check, so it’s able to run rampant with impunity.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Similar things have happened with fish and other aquatic species in the US, but I can’t come up with any names right now. One of them, I remember, was brought over as a plant for aquariums and got loose somehow (somebody probably poured out a tank in the local pond) and was spread by the propellers of people’s outboard motors.


  2. Oh dear…this is really going to crank up the locals’ arachnophobia!
    A few small points…mommy and daddy spider , much like the human kind, are not always good parents. But…and it’s quite a big “but”, some spiders do practice matriphagy
    And some are extremely protective of their young.
    Also, having mated, if the male got away without becoming dinner, they are unlikely to mate again.

    Just a couple of small points to keep in mind when the journalists are tired of heatwaves/floods/Brexit and want something else to sell their trash.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It did cross my mind that the spiders weren’t exactly living in natural conditions and playing happy families may not be a spider’s idea of–well, not of anything. It may not be a spidery thought.


  3. When I was a teenager I went on a holiday with my friend digging ponds in Bolton, Lancs. It was part of a conservation thingy to restore old ponds in the grounds of some stately home or other.

    We spent a lot of it cutting down and burning rhododendrons, I never really objected to them but that is what the owners wanted.

    I had a very odd idea of a holiday when I was a teen…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Who let the Brazilian spiders out indeed…you just never know where they might have travelled from with assistance. It is interesting to hear how some would rather non-native species not exist. The rhododendron is a very popular plant in Australia.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Just to be fair to the people who don’t like non-native species (which I don’t think I really was in my post): Some of them do get loose in a new environment where there aren’t any predators or pests to keep them in check, so they become a menace. Still, rhododendrons are beautiful.


  5. The Brother Gardeners: careens back and forth between England and the US 1n 1733.The colonial farmer John Bartram shipped boxes of American specimens to a London cloth merchant Peter Collison and the collection of exotic species began. Bertram and others “scoured the globe” to bring exotic species to England, which much success. Likely many Brits assume that the trees and flowers in their parks are indigenous but many of them came from across the pond and did better there than here.

    Appropos of nothing except the paragraph on spiders, I heard a very nice MPR profile about Florence the Spider. She’s a tarantuala who is trained to be nice to people with arachnophobia and eventually desensitize them with her winning ways.

    Liked by 1 person

    • American trees from the West Coast generally do well in the UK. Sitka spruce for example. However Eastern US species do less well here, because they are attuned to a climate with very cold winters and a definite transition to spring warmth. In the British Isles, winters are variable – sometimes cold and sometimes not – and the timing of the onset of spring varies from year to year. When the Eastern American tree in Britain senses longer days and warmer spring weather it bursts into flower, only for the flowers to blasted by a sudden spring frost, which kills the flowers and checks the growth of the tree. After a few years of this sort of thing, some species tend to give up altogether!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I can’t say I blame them. Sounds awful. (Can you tell, I found myself identifying with the transplanted East Coasters? Probably because that’s how I felt when I moved to Minnesota from New York.)


  6. I have a monster butterfly tree just outside my front window, but as I live in an apartment that I don’t own it is someone else’s problem. Even if it was mine I would keep it, as I enjoy the color and the butterflies.
    As to those spiders…how close are you to Derbyshire? Have you considered a move, perhaps to a different island country, or can those things swim?

    Liked by 1 person

    • They don’t swim, but like the Cornish saints (who came over from Ireland in various interesting and improbable ways) they can paddle leaves and millstones. So I might as well stay put, but thanks for the thought.

      We have a couple of butterly bushes that we have to cut down every fall or they’d take over our house and the neighbors’ both. But the bees and butterflies just love them.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Phew! What a post. Starts out with spiders and ends with a reflection on xenophobia. In Maine, purple loosestrife is reviled. Ditto for bittersweet. I tend to have a tolerant attitude toward newcomers—be they plant, animal, or human—unless they cause massive destruction. H-m-m-m, maybe I should revise my opinion. In the U.S.,, the newcomers really wrecked the place and pretty much wiped out the native population to boot. As such, we really don’t have any right to wag our fingers at anyone or anything else.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good point.

      I can’t get exercised about most incoming species, but I do remember reading about zebra mussels being a real menace, doing everything from blocking pipes to getting library cards and then not returning the books.


  8. Hi Ellen,
    Your post reminds me of an incident long time ago, in 1972, when I kind of imported a juniper bush to the UK. I had stayed with a family in Bournemouth the year before and knew the husband was a keen gardener. So, when I came back in 1972 to the same family, I brought a juniper with me, which I had grown myself in Germany. Well, I should have read about importing plants before I started out from Germany. But I only read the stuff just before boarding the Hovercraft [mentioning that type of transport, you know it was a long, long time ago!] in Boulogne. As I didn’t just want to dump that shrub in France, and not wanting to be caught with it in a random check at the British customs [here speaks the law-abiding (former) German civil servant], I went through the “something to declare” line in Dover, opened the trunk and showed the bush to the official. Well, he didn’t know what that was, and I couldn’t come up with the proper English term. All I remembered was that one can make gin from the berries. But that was a fact I didn’t want to mention, lest I would be considered a drunkard who wanted to distill his own booze. Anyway: finally it occurred to me that the Latin name is “Juniperus”. When I mentioned this, he knew: “Ah, it’s a juniper!” With that information, he looked it up and found out that it was not a prohibited plant. I could take it in. All I had to do was to sign some paperwork. Well, as it’s usual with me when I have to sign things like that, I don’t read what I am signing, but just scribble my name on the appropriate line and be done with it. Only after arriving in Bournemouth I read what I had, with my signature, agreed to. For the time being that bush could remain in England, but the government might send someone by within 6 weeks to decide it’s final fate. Needless to say, I would have had to pay all the costs if it needed to be destroyed. And what is more, the paper said that I would be held responsible for all the costs if any disease or whatever would spread from this. You can possibly imagine how fervently I prayed for the 6 weeks to be over without any visit from a government official. A long six weeks that was!
    Anyway: nobody came to check, and that bush led a happy life in GB – and I led a happy life ever after! :D

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Where I live English Ivy is a real problem. It climbs up trees and eventually kills them. There are islands of English Ivy in US forests. It has invaded my yard and likes to climb my trees.
    I also have privet hedge. That spreads all over. A treat from Japan. As is kudzu, nandina and lots of other invasive plants.

    Pythons have gone into the wild in Florida. They live in the Everglades. They don’t seem to have any natural ememies. They kill and eat deer and alligators. Changing landscape for sure.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. This is a great post, wonderfully informative and in your typical humorous style that I am a huge fan of. That said, all I can think of is “spiders the size of a dinner plate.”

    Yep, that’s it. Reading comprehension suffered greatly when I got to that line.

    Have a wonderful weekend.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Another delightful read, Ellen. Thank goodness you add humor to potential terror. Since I’m on the other side of the pond, so to speak, I won’t have to worry about spiders. Unless they can swim…. 😳

    Liked by 1 person

  12. If the scientists don’t want the adults to propagate, why are they hoping that the young ones will? I would hate to see a British Jurassic Park where we hear about Britons being eaten by super-spiders.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The whole thing about invasive species–and I’d have been smart to mention this but don’t think I did–is about the ones that get loose, not the ones in labs and zoos and pots in somebody’s windowsill. In this case, the adults may be out there in the wilds of a British parking lot while the young ones are in someone’s nice warm lab.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Michigan apparently is fighting against the Japanese Knotweed as well—which I did not know. More omnipresent where I live is Purple Loosestrife. I had to look up the name, but honestly it’s everywhere. And it’s a bit like unmatched socks and redundant Tupperware lids—it multiplies the minute your back is turned. Its main claim to fame is killing the wetlands by slowly choking them out. (That’s one sick plant, if that’s how it gets its kicks!)

    But, it is at least very pretty from a distance. That’s probably why people let it get a foothold in the first place. How can something that pretty be bad? (I’m sure there’s some tie-in somewhere about attractive predators and human fallibility in spotting danger. But I don’t want to Google that!) I hope you are safely tucked away from your current invasive nightmare. That’s one advantage invasive plants have over animals, at least they don’t usually crawl between our sheets.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Back when we lived in Minnesota, a neighbor gave us a cutting of a trumpet vine. It grew up the side of the house, had beautiful orange blossoms, and it was strong and healthy. And before we knew it, it was ready to reach in and strangle us in our bed. I think I prefer spiders the size of dinner plates–something I only say because I’ve never een one. Then it reached the roof and was plotting to tear up the shingles. That was when we cut it down. And cut it down again. And pulled up all the little shoots it sent out to try again in different spots.

      Et cetera. Just when it looked like the only solution was to (a) burn down the house or (b) destroy the entire state, we began to win the battle. Which is a long-winded way of saying that I’m not sure I agree with you.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Interesting, on that I just picked what I thought was a seed pod from the neighbor’s trumpet vine to send to a cousin in California. It grows from cuttings? Either that, or I don’t know what a trumpet vine actually is. (Stops to Google images.) no, that’s what it is. Anyhow, I’ll have to think whether I want to inflict the strangler on this particular cousin, I actually like her. Thanks for the heads-up!

        Liked by 1 person

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