The problem with wasps

Phil Lester, a biologist at Victoria University, is leading a national Biological Heritage Challenge research team to tackle one of New Zealand’s worst pests – wasps. They kill bees and nestlings, and out-compete adult birds for food – especially in the South  Island beech forests.

The team is investigating a number of methods for reducing or eliminating them, and most rely on the very latest gene technologies. They hope to use wasps as a model for tackling other pests.

One method is gene silencing, that is stopping the expression of particular genes and thus interfering with an essential physiological process, like skeleton building. Peter Dearden of Genetics Otago is leading this part of the research, and NZ Genomics Ltd is currently sequencing the complete wasp (Vespula vulgaris) genome.

Another possible technique arising from DNA analysis is to nurture, and introduce into the wild, large populations of wasps with mutations in their mitochondrial DNA, which might render their progeny sterile. This is called the Trojan female technique. The work is led by Dan Tompkins of Landcare Research and Neil Gemmell at the University of Otago.

Max Suckling at Plant and Food Research Ltd is investigating the synthetic production of pheromones to lure wasps into traps, or reduce the wasps’ mating success.

And Simon Fowler (Landcare Research) is looking at the possibility of biocontrol with mite parasites.

Jacqueline Beggs (University of Auckland) is meanwhile thinking about how to apply these technologies in the field, and Dr Ocean Mercier (Victoria  University) is determining the cultural acceptability to Maori of the various control techniques. Each potential method has its advantages.

The first (German) wasp arrived in a consignment of aircraft parts in 1945. The common wasp arrived from Europe some time around 1970. Like many other introduced species, they loved their new country and quickly grew to pest proportions. Phil says when you go into some beech forests, you’ll hear the buzz of wasps rather than birdcalls.

One of the main tasks of the Biological Heritage Challenge is to concert the scientific effort to find solutions to our many problems with pests.

Leader: Phil Lester, Victoria University