By KATHERINE HOBY and NZPA

Wanted - dead or alive, preferably dead.

Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry officials are concerned that 10 scorpions that stowed away in a shipment of Portuguese wine bottles and then escaped on to a Hawkes Bay vineyard could breed in the warm weather.

MAF spokesman Dr Derek Belton said officials had searched for the escapers since Wednesday.

Dr Belton said entomologists were confident the scorpions would be found and would not spread.

"We think 30m is about as far as they could have got.

"We can't rely on the weather to kill them off as it has been quite warm.

"If they survived and could breed, they could establish in the area, but we will be doing all we can to prevent that."

Dr Belton said the biggest hurdle to finding the scorpions was the time between the sighting and reporting of them.

"We are very concerned that we were not notified for three weeks," he said.

"People should notify immediately in this situation and not wait."

Officials were told about the scorpions only after a chance remark to an entomologist.

A winery employee saw the scorpions when he was unpacking the empty wine bottles in May.

He did not realise the significance of his find because he did not know that scorpions were not found in this country.

"It appears the employee was brushing the scorpions off the pallet when one turned and raised its tail in a scorpion-like manner."

The scorpions are thought to be between about 3cm and 5cm in length, light brown and likely to be of the Buthus occitanus variety.

They can inflict a painful sting but are not deadly.

The consignment was fumigated before it left Portugal and must have been reinfected before shipment or in transit.

MAF staff had unpacked pallets of bottles from four other Hawkes Bay wineries but found no sign of the pests.

The original sighting area was being kept under surveillance and ultraviolet lights were being used at night to try to spot the scorpions.

"We would like to find a live one and take a look at it," Dr Belton said.

"But that will not stop us going ahead with a process of cleaning and treating the area this week."

Meanwhile, in Britain, police are trying to trace a man who handed in a black widow spider to a reptile house yesterday, claiming to have found it in a consignment of wine from Australia.