Phil Lester

Insect Ecology School of Biological Sciences


Teaching in 2017

Prof Phil Lester profile picture

Research projects

I work on the population dynamics and ecology of social insects. Invasive ants and social wasps in the Pacific region are a particular focus. I am interested in the boom-and-bust dynamics of invasive species and the potential role of pathogens and the insect immune system in these population collapses. Can we encourage other invasive populations to collapse? We are also examining interactions between bacteria and viruses in honey bees as a method of mitigating the effects of parasitic Varroa mites.

Our work spans the full spectrum from very applied entomology (e.g. invasive ant or wasp control) to much more theoretical or conceptual work (e.g. wasp learning and foraging behaviour). Other work examining ecological or evolutionary theory include projects examining how humans have inadvertently driven positive selection for invasive genotypes of Argentine ants. At the 'front end' of our applied work is Pacific Biosecurity led by Dr Monica Gruber. We started Pacific Biosecurity as a not-for-profit organisation with the goal of building resilience to the threat of invasive insects throughout the Pacific region. I also am a project leader in New Zealand’s National Science Challenge, examining Novel Pest Control Technologies using invasive social wasps as a model system.

I currently sit on the editorial boards of the journals Biological Invasions, Myrmecological News and Integrative Zoology. I have been previously awarded a Fulbright Senior Scholar Fellowship, and a RSNZ James Cook Fellowship. Funding for our group comes from a variety of sources including the RSNZ Marsden Fund. I currently am the President of the Royal Society of NZ (Wellington Branch), I have been a previous Head of School for the School of Biological Sciences, and a prior President of the Entomological Society of New Zealand.

Here you can find detail on my research group at Victoria University. There is information on current and for prospective students, examples of media coverage of our work, as well as additional information on our research.

Media coverage on our work

Twitter: @pjlester

Our work has attracted media attention from a range of different sources. Below I’ve given a selection of our coverage over the last decade, which will give you an idea of what we do:

Nature: “Pesticide makes invading ants suicidally aggressive

Science: “Newly discovered insect virus could combat invasive ants

New Scientist: “New Zealand’s invasive ants mysteriously vanish”

National Geographic: “Alien Wasps Abduct, Drop Ants to Get Food

Science Daily: “What will the wasp plague be like this year?

New York Times: “Argentine Ants Carry Virus Deadly to Honeybees”

The Guardian: “Why climate change is good news for wasps”

TVNZ’s One News New Zealand: “Wasps in NZ: The Worst in the World”

TVNZ’s Rural Delivery: “The search for a biological control of the Argentine ant”

Radio New Zealand: “Featured Guest Interview”

Selected publications

I’ve authored or co-authored around 120 publications in peer-reviewed journals. A full list of my publications plus pdf copies of this work can be found on Research Gate. Selected publications include:

Lester PJ, Sébastien A, Suarez AV, Barbieri RF & Gruber MAM. 2017. Symbiotic bacterial communities in ants are modified by invasion pathway bottlenecks and alter host behaviour. Ecology 98: 861–874.

Lester PJ, Haywood J, Archer ME & Shortall CR. 2017. The long-term population dynamics of common wasps in their native and invaded range. Journal of Animal Ecology 86: 337-347.

Lester PJ & MAM Gruber. 2016. Booms, busts and population collapses in invasive ants. Biological Invasions 18: 3091-3101.

Brenton-Rule EC, Barbieri RF & Lester PJ. 2016. Corruption, development and governance indicators predict invasive species risk from trade. Proceedings of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences 283: 20160901.

Lester PJ, Bosch PJ, Gruber MAM, et al. 2015. No evidence of enemy release in pathogen and microbial communities of common wasps (Vespula vulgaris) in their native and introduced range. PLoS One 10: e0121358.  

Sebastien A, Lester PJ, Hall RJ, Wang J, Moore NE & Gruber MAM. 2015. Invasive ants carry novel viruses in their new range and form reservoirs for a honeybee pathogen. Biology Letters 11:  20150610.

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