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Bid for more cash to tackle wasp problem

11 April 2014

Entomologists are trying to drum up increased funding to fight a huge wasp problem.

Warm and dry weather stretching back well over a year, and the rapid spread of giant willow aphids which produce honeydew - a favourite wasp food - is behind the spread.

Wasps have hit the headlines after people discovered monster nests near their homes, or after the insects launched aggressive attacks including including one on primary school children and adults stung when a nest was disturbed at Tahunanui Beach.wasp3

Professor Phil Lester from Victoria University's School of Biological Sciences said the rapid spread of the willow aphids, which had arrived in this country in the past few years, had made the wasp problem worse.

"These aphids are effectively fuelling the wasps.

"They're [wasps] really aggressive. They're probably the most harmful animal we have in New Zealand."

At Victoria, research looking at potential biological control using pathogens and parasites was at an early stage.

"Many New Zealanders, including us entomologists, are pretty desperate for a wasp control option. So there's all sorts of avenues being investigated," Phil says.

For now, there were baits that could be used to kill wasps but a lack of registration of effective pesticides for wasp control limited their use.

"My desire would be to work towards something that was environmentally sustainable, like a biological control agent, whether that's something in New Zealand that we could exploit, or something that we need to bring in from overseas," Phil says.

Two invasive species of social wasps are the major problem in New Zealand. German wasps, which have spread to most of the North Island and parts of the upper South Island, and common wasps which almost completely displaced german wasps from beech forests in the upper South Island because of their superior competitiveness.

The Department of Conservation said wasp densities in South Island's 1 million hectares of honeydew beech forests were the highest recorded anywhere on Earth at around 34 nests per hectare.

Dr Darren Ward of Landcare Research said higher wasp numbers affected the breeding success of some birds and also had an impact on some lizard and bug populations.

A group had been set up to lobby central government about the problem, while a study funded by DOC and the Ministry for Primary Industries was trying to put a figure on the economic cost of wasps, Darren says. "Wasps don't just affect native habitats. They have quite a big health impact. They kill many, many thousands of beehives each year. They're also in vineyards and orchards. They will eat grapes and spoil fruit."

It had been estimated wasp abundance in the forests would need to be reduced by more than 80 per cent to conserve vulnerable invertebrate species.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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Climate change impacts tuatara population

11 April 2014

A new study involving researchers from Victoria University of Wellington shows climate change could ultimately result in the extinction of a population of tuatara.

Dr Nicky Nelson, Dr Kristine Grayson and Susan Keall from Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences, in collaboration with the Department of Conservation and University of Western Australia, provide a case study of a natural population of tuatara on North Brother Island in the Cook Strait of New Zealand.

The research, published this week in the international scientific journal PLOS ONE, shows that as a result of warming temperatures, there is an accelerating decline in the proportion of adult female tuatara in the population.

tuatara

"Our research reveals that as the male-bias in the population increases, female tuatara body condition, fertility rates and survival decline," says Dr Nelson.

Projected temperature increases for New Zealand are expected to further tip the hatchling sex ratio towards males-owing to the pattern of temperature-dependent sex determination in tuatara where males hatch at warmer temperatures.

Dr Nelson says understanding the mechanisms underlying population declines is critical for preventing the extinction of endangered populations.

"If we understand the causes of decline for species, we can consider our options for management, particularly under the various scenarios for climate warming."

Population viability models predict that without management, intervention or an evolutionary response the North Brother Island population will ultimately be made up entirely of males and become extinct.

The study demonstrates that the sex ratio in tuatara populations can be an underappreciated threat to long-term viability, particularly in populations that appear numerically stable.

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Huge wasp numbers concern

27 March 2014

Entomologists are frantically trying to drum up increased funding to fight a huge wasp problem that has been made even worse by the recent arrival of another invader.

Warm and dry weather stretching back well over a year is one reason for the large numbers of wasps this summer and early autumn. A second is the rapid spread of giant willow aphids which produce honeydew, a favourite wasp food.

In the past month or so wasps have hit the headlines numerous times after people discovered monster nests near their homes, or after the insects launched aggressive attacks.

Among the incidents:

* Sheep farmer Janet Kelland was attacked by hundreds of wasps after stepping on a nest in a remote area northwest of Taumarunui. At one point she feared she would not survive.

* New Plymouth woman Diana Cole watched a wasp nest grow bigger by the day on a wood chopping block. Then one day it rolled free onto her driveway and she took the opportunity to run it over, ending the problem.

* A nest containing thousands of wasps was found built around a ponga stump in a backyard in the Taranaki town of Normanby. Exterminator Neville Prestidge said it was the largest nest he had encountered in 14 years doing the job.

* Nine pupils from a Nelson primary school and a woman were taken to hospital after being stung when a wasp nest was disturbed at Tahunanui Beach.

waspProfessor Phil Lester from Victoria University's School of Biological Sciences said the rapid spread of the invasive willow aphids, which had arrived in this country in the past few years, had made the wasp problem even worse than it would otherwise have been.

"It (willow aphids) seems like a massive problem. It's just making the wasp population worse. These aphids are effectively fuelling the wasps."

Now the willow aphids had come along, wasps were going to have to be a higher priority. "It's a huge problem."

"People end up in hospital fairly regularly, and people will die," Lester said.

"They're (wasps) really aggressive. They're probably the most harmful animal we have in New Zealand."

Researchers around the country and overseas were working on ways to control the wasp population.

At Victoria, research looking at potential biological control using pathogens and parasites was at an early stage.

"Many New Zealanders, including us entomologists, are pretty desperate for a wasp control option. So there's all sorts of avenues being investigated," Lester said.

For now, there were baits that could be used to kill wasps but a lack of registration of effective pesticides for wasp control limited their use. Pesticide companies needed to be on board to register toxic chemicals - poison baits - so it was legal to use them to kill wasps.

"There are chemicals around that are really, really, really effective but we need those to be registered," Lester said.

"It's a relatively quick fix that should really be happening quicker."

Ideally it would be preferable not to use large amounts of toxic, or even mildly toxic, chemicals in the environment.

"So my desire would be to work towards something that was environmentally sustainable, like a biological control agent, whether that's something in New Zealand that we could exploit, or something that we need to bring in from overseas."

Two invasive species of social wasps are the major problem in New Zealand.

German wasps are native to Europe and northern Africa. In this country they were first found at an air force base near Hamilton in 1945. Within a few years they had spread to most of the North Island and parts of the upper South Island.

Common wasps are native to Europe and parts of Asia. They were confirmed as established in Dunedin in 1983, although museum specimens show queens were collected from Wellington as early as 1978. They rapidly spread throughout New Zealand and almost completely displaced german wasps from beech forests in the upper South Island because of their superior competitiveness.

According to the Department of Conservation, wasp densities in South Island beech forests - covering more than 1 million hectares of conservation areas in the South Island - are the highest recorded anywhere on earth.

Researchers put those densities at up to 370 wasps per square metre of tree trunk and 34 nests per hectare. The high densities are due to the availability of honeydew being produced by insects.

Dr Darren Ward of Landcare Research said higher wasp numbers affected the breeding success of some birds and also had an impact on some lizard and bug populations.

"They do a lot more damage to the native environment. They eat a lot more food, usually native bugs, and they also eat the honeydew (produced by aphids) ... That's basically a really good sugar resource important for native birds, native lizards and native bugs, and the wasps get it first."

A group had been set up to lobby central government about the problem, while a study funded by DOC and the Ministry for Primary Industries was trying to put a figure on the economic cost of wasps, Ward said.

"Wasps don't just affect native habitats. They have quite a big health impact. They kill many, many thousands of beehives each year. They're also in vineyards and orchards. They will eat grapes and spoil fruit."

Lester and Ward are among authors of a paper published this year on critical issues facing New Zealand entomology, developed in consultation with the Entomological Society of New Zealand.

A list of nine priorities includes limiting the effects of invasive invertebrates, particularly german and common wasps in honeydew beech forests.

It had been estimated wasp abundance in the forests would need to be reduced by more than 80 per cent to conserve vulnerable invertebrate species, the paper said.

"We believe that a sustained, dramatic reduction of wasp densities is necessary for conservation, especially in honeydew beech forests."

Pesticides would be useful in relatively small areas, but biological control was the only viable option for sustained wasp control.

Lester and Ward were also among the authors of an article in the New Zealand Science Review last year which said that apart from the direct manual application of insecticides to nests, toxic baits had been the only successful control tool for wasps so far.

Researchers using a protein bait containing the broad-spectrum insecticide fipronil had been highly effective in controlling wasps, but commercial restrictions around end-uses of fipronil in this country had prevented any wasp bait products containing the toxin being manufactured for commercial purposes.

In a Landcare Research report Ward said social wasps were pests in may temperate regions of the world.

"Consequently, a sizeable amount of research effort has been focused on developing control strategies. However, despite these efforts, wasps continue to be a major problem."

Along with poisoned baits and biological control, possible ways to control wasp populations included interference with wasp pheromones - chemicals secreted by an organism to communicate with other members of the same species; and RNA interference, a natural biological process that could turn-off specific genes.

- © Fairfax NZ News 

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Strengthening forecasting systems in the Pacific

25 February 2014

Roan Plotz

Ancient wisdom can be put to practical use when combined with modern weather forecasting tools, according to Victoria University of Wellington PhD candidate Roan Plotz.

Roan, a traditional ecological knowledge scientist for the Climate and Ocean Support Program in the Pacific (COSPPac), is working with Pacific meteorological services on collating traditional weather and climate knowledge, verifying the information and using it to make seasonal forecasts more useful to Pacific Island communities.

The first step, says Roan, is to identify what local people use to predict what weather is coming and then monitor those traditional indicators to see if they correlate to actual weather patterns.

“In parts of the Pacific, for example, people believe there is a strong correlation with the amount of fruiting and how much rainfall will fall in the next season. This has been shown to be true,” says Roan.

The ultimate goal of the study, funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, is to bridge the gap between traditional indicators and scientific techniques to improve weather and climate forecasting abilities.

“The Pacific Islands are vulnerable to sea level rise and severe weather events and have always kept a close eye on the seasons,” says Roan.

“Many communities favour traditional ways—such as reading signs of nature, animals and plants—over scientific ways, partly due to lack of exposure to modern forecasting tools.”

After assessing traditional indicators, it is hoped that the Pacific Met Services will be better placed to inform their local communities about what should be monitored in order to help them better adapt to an increasingly variable climate.

“It’s much more relevant if we can tell people for a fact that monitoring a certain tree, or plant, or animal allows you to forecast as accurately as modern forecasting tools.”

Roan’s experience with indigenous knowledge had its origins in his PhD study of the tick bird and black rhinoceros relationship. With the support of the Centre of Biodiversity and Restoration Ecology at Victoria University, Roan explored the validity of the African tick bird’s indigenous name ‘The Rhino’s Guard’.

“Unknown at the time, my PhD research led to my current role in the Pacific. My training in ecological science at Victoria and field experiences in Africa gave me the foundation I needed.”

Roan submitted his PhD thesis last year and now works for the COSPPac program at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology in Melbourne.

For more information contact Roan Plotz on +61 (3) 9669 4640 or r.plotz@bom.gov.au

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University looks to upgrade science facility

12 February 2014

New SBS building

Victoria University is planning to spend up to $100 million on a School of Biological Sciences at its Kelburn campus.

The university has applied for resource consent for the new block to replace the school's substandard current home in the Kirk Building.

The proposed new school has been designed by architects Warren and Mahoney and the proposed location would be in front of the Alan MacDiarmid building at the top of Kelburn Pde.

The 12,000-square-metre four-storey building would provide teaching, research, laboratories and academic administration space.

Campus Services director Jenny Bentley said a financial feasibility study was being run alongside the resource consent process. It would need to be proven to be value for money before any final decision to proceed.

If it did go ahead, tenders were expected to be called before the middle of the year and approval would be sought from the Victoria University Council in June.

Construction was likely to start in late 2014 and should be completed by late 2017.

Once built, the university planned to start work on upgrading the nearby Kirk Building from early 2018 to early 2020.

The university told Wellington City Council that biological sciences was a key strategic research and teaching area and student numbers in this department were growing.

However, the Kirk Building, where the school is now based, was not fit for the purpose. It failed to meet the university's seismic rating or health and safety standards.

"The current condition of the building's laboratories and physical environment is considered to be a deterrent to staff recruitment and student retention," the university said.

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New knowledge about treating multiple sclerosis

4 February 2014

New information that could lead to improved treatment of multiple sclerosis (MS) has been uncovered by Victoria University of Wellington scientists.

A study carried out at Victoria, and recently published online in the international scientific journal PLOS ONE, holds promise for patients suffering from secondary progressive MS, an advanced form of the disease, which causes nerve degeneration leading to impaired vision and coordination, and eventually, paralysis.

PhD student Madeleine White and Dr Anne La FlammeThe study focused on understanding how a new MS drug, MIS416, developed by the New Zealand biotech company Innate Immunotherapeutics, is able to help patients with secondary progressive MS, a form of MS with few effective treatments.

The team of scientists includes Dr Anne La Flamme, an Associate Professor in Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences and head of the MS Research Programme at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, PhD student Madeleine White, and Dr Gill Webster from Innate Immunotherapeutics.

“We know this drug works, but we are not sure why. This study has helped us understand the pathways that are driving the disease and how the medication alters the immune system, giving us a better idea of why MIS416 works as well as insight into how to treat patients and predict who will do better on this sort of medication,” says Dr La Flamme.

Most people believe MS revolves around T cells, says Dr La Flamme, but the Victoria study reveals that targeting other cells in the central nervous system can significantly reduce advanced forms of MS.

For more information contact Dr Anne La Flamme on 04-463 6093 or anne.laflamme@vuw.ac.nz. You can read the full article here

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