Tackling New Zealand’s wasp problem

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington researchers are working to discover next-generation pest control technologies to help address New Zealand’s invasive wasp problem.


Invasive wasp species—species that are not native to New Zealand—cause huge problems for the biodiversity, economy, and health of the human population. They cause particular issues for New Zealand wildlife, as they can breed extremely well and compete easily for the same food sources as native birds.

New Zealand researchers, including the University’s Professor Phil Lester and Dr Ocean Mercier, are involved in a project to help manage these invasive wasp species. Alongside University of Otago researchers and Genomics Aotearoa, they have managed to sequence the genomes of three wasp species, two of which are invasive in New Zealand. By understanding the genomes of these wasps, these researchers can look at better pest management solutions.

“We are using these genomes to look for specific genes we could target in a pest control programme,” Professor Lester says. “The ultimate aim would be to make pesticides that target these specific genes. Because they target certain genes found in wasps, the pesticides would only affect these wasps—meaning that any other animal would be safe from the effects.”

Another method of pest control Professor Lester and his colleagues are looking at involves targeting specific genes, perhaps by genetic modification techniques, such as the genes that allow wasps to produce sperm.

“We are using an approach called CRISPR—an approach that won the Nobel Prize this year—to figure out how we can affect the genes of these invasive wasp species in a highly targeted way. What we are aiming to do is change the gene that wasps use to make sperm, rendering them sterile and helping keep the population under control that way.

“There is still a lot of work to do in this area, including gaining government and public support for this genetic work, but we are confident in the science.”

Professor Lester and his colleagues are continuing the development of pest control using genetic approaches, with genetics work, modelling, and a project led by Dr Mercier on understanding and incorporating Māori and public opinion into the science.

“With any new technology, it’s critical that social, ethical and cultural considerations are guiding scientific decisions,” Dr Mercier says.

Professor Lester says new pest control methods could benefit the economy and biodiversity of New Zealand.

“We are hoping this work will be a stepping-stone for environmentally-friendly and highly-specific control for many different pest species.

“The beginning of this project started with sampling wasps in alpine forests of Pelorus River. That forest is beautiful, but is literally buzzing with wasps in the autumn, and they are voracious predators. It would be fantastic to walk in that forest without these hyper-abundant pests and hear instead just the sound of our native birds.”