The birds and the bees (and the wasps?)

Posted by Theo Van Noort @TVanNoort

All manner of pollination interactions exist, from the simple to the bizarre, even downright exploitative, involving plants and animals of all growths, walks and flights of life (disclaimer: I don’t know of any fish that carry pollen, but apparently they can influence pollination interactions…).

Broadly speaking, New Zealand’s plants have simple flower morphology, with flowers generally being small, white and attractive to a wide suite of potential flower visitors.


Melanostoma fly visiting small, white and attractive Akepiro (Olearia furfuracea) flowers. Photo: Theo Van Noort

New Zealand has no native social bees or wasps, so these unspecialised native plants rely heavily on solitary insects, particularly native bees (check out this previous blog by Anna) as well as flower visiting flies, moths, butterflies and beetles to provide pollination services. Native plants with more specialised pollinator interactions also exist, particularly involving native birds, but bats and even lizards have played a role in the evolution of New Zealand’s flowering flora too.

Introduced organisms can integrate with existing pollination networks and may augment them with some degree of resilience to the ongoing native biodiversity loss. A classic example of this is the European honeybee.However, the impact of new organisms in a pollinator network can be unpredictable. An introduced flower visitor might not provide adequate pollination to a flowering plant but nonetheless remove nectar, “robbing” the plant of its ability to lure in other effective pollinators.


European honeybee visiting Kaihua, New Zealand jasmine (Parsonsia heterophylla). Photo: Theo Van Noort

Of course the opposite may be true, where a new flower visitor may be rather effective at pollinating a certain plant. This latter interaction can be concerning from a biosecurity point of view when it results in “facultative mutualisms” between invasive plants and introduced flower visitors- improving the ability of each to succeed in and further disrupt ecosystems. This is demonstrated in the interaction between the invasive plant scotch broom and honeybees here.

My Masters thesis is focused on the ecology of Vespula wasps (here’s my previous blog). As part of my work I’ve been exploring the behaviour and role of these aggressive insects in pollination networks in New Zealand. Sugar resources are known to enormously influence the ecology of Vespula wasps, as seen in honeydew beech forests in the South Island, so it is interesting to consider how another ubiquitous (albeit less abundant) sugar source, nectar, may also be influencing their behaviour and ecology. While I’m still making sense of the data, one major outcome is that I spend much more time stopping to sniff the flowers (and check out any other flower visitors that might have stopped by!)

Wasp METful.png

Vespula wasp on rata (Metrosideros fulgens) flower. Photo: Theo Van Noort

Theo Van Noort is an MSc student in the Centre for Biodiversity & Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. He is investigating the attractiveness of different lures to Vespula wasps, as well as their potential role in pollination and seed dispersal. He is supervised by Jacqueline Beggs and Imogen Bassett

Whats in a Name? Taxonomy in the 21st Century

Posted by Tom Saunders.

Something revolutionary happened in 1735.

A Swedish botanist by the name of Carl Linnaeus forever changed the way humans relate to the living world. He published a manuscript called Systema Naturae, and with it, developed a system called binomial nomenclature. We know this system as the genus and species name that every organism is assigned when their species is described. Since the day of Linnaeus, our view of the living world has widened considerably, as new methods of observation and analysis have opened our eyes to the complexity of life that thrives all around us. We can now see microscopic structures like the variations in beetle genitalia that help to define their species; or we can zoom right out and observe the patterns that structure entire ecosystems, and how each species interacts with one another. But for all of our technological advances, and all of the insight we have gained into the living world, we still face a massive challenge: we know only a fraction of the species that inhabit our planet. Yes, humans have catalogued and described 1.9 million species. But most estimates of the total number of species on earth are between 5-10 million! Over half of these species will be insects, so we’d better get a move on!

The father of Taxonomy.

The father of Taxonomy.

Getting Lusius

I am currently in the process of describing a new species of parasitoid wasp. ‘My’ species is endemic to New Zealand (found nowhere else), although the genus (Lusius) is found all around the world. Very few specimens from this genus have been collected though, and the same is true of the species in New Zealand. The process of describing a species follows a basic template:

  1. Collect specimens or gain access to those that have already been collected.
  2. Establish that the species under consideration is in fact undescribed by comparing it to similar species.
  3. Gather different sorts of data that can form the basis of the description.
  4. Prepare the description, and publish it in a scientific journal.

Sounds deceptively simple, but describing a species can be a lot of work!

I’m currently in the process of step 3. I’ve measured just about every part of the anatomy of 20 specimens that represent the different areas in New Zealand where this species has been captured. I will combine these measurements and some DNA sequences with descriptions of colouration and sculpture to form the description. After it is published, the name will be valid. Here are some images of my species:

9-ovipositor 7-forewing 3-face 1-lateral

Why Describe Species?

Taxonomy (the scientific study of describing, identifying, classifying, and understanding the relationships between living organisms) is the foundation of biology. Without proper species descriptions and names, no one can communicate about living things. The vast biological collections that contain about 3 billion specimens of animals, plants, fungi, and microbes worldwide, are not dusty old cupboards rotting away in museum attics. For from it! They are sites of active research that provide valuable insights into:

  • what species exist, where, and in what numbers
  • what those species may be used for (food, fibre, fuel, medicine)
  • how environmental or anthropic events may be impacting species based on historical collection records
  • how life evolved, how species are related, and where humans fit into the picture

Describing species brings us one step closer to understanding all of these things on a broader scale. In an age characterised by environmental flux and extinction, the need for taxonomy has never been greater.


Tom Saunders is a Master’s student at the Centre for Biodiversity and Biosecurity, within the School of Biological Sciences, at The University of Auckland. He is supervised by Dr Darren Ward (Landcare Research). You can find out more about Tom and his research at

When a blessing becomes a curse…. A case of invasive Prosopis juliflora

Posted by Tshego Chilume @tschilume

When you live in an arid environment with temperatures that can go up as high as 47oC the prospect of the introduction of any tree into your area is music to your ears. This was the case for the people of Kgalagadi Desert when Prosopis juliflora and Prosopis grandulosa were introduced into the desert to control desertification and the constant moving sand dunes. For the first time large trees were seen around the district and communities had natural shade, fodder for their livestock and kids had playgrounds covered from the scorching sun. It was all merry; what could go wrong in such a beautiful scene? You would think nothing!


Except Prosopis is one of the worst invasive plant taxa in the world, it is capable of eradicating all woody plant species in its invaded habitat. Because there wasn’t much woody vegetation in Kgalagadi District, I figured there was no need to worry, however Kgalagadi Desert is known for its shrubs, cactus and grasses that have adapted to the harsh environment of their native ecosystem and are a valuable source of water and food for the locals, their livestock and wildlife. Forty years ago, the introduction was apparently met with dancing, celebrations and slaughtering of cattle (something Batswana do a lot when they have something to be happy about). But as time went on, a massive commotion has started between the relevant government agencies and communities. The impact of Prosopis is becoming increasingly apparent and difficult to ignore and everyone needs someone to blame for this. Prosopis is perceived to have caused the loss of native grasses, shrubs, reduction in borehole water yields, poisoning livestock and causing allergies to people. The communities blame the department of forestry for the introduction, forestry blames political pressure while the politicians blame the communities for insisting on a quick solution and the department of forestry for not doing enough research prior to the introduction.

The situation is that a solution to this social unease was necessary and back then there was very little funding available for research in issues of environmental issues. Even today, funding for research in environmental issues comes from donors outside Botswana. While this bickering continues, the impacts of Prosopis in Botswana have never been quantified and the current control practices were brought about by the public outcry.

This brings me to my current research on quantifying the ecological impacts of Prosopis juliflora in Gantsi District, the most ecologically and economically valuable district of Botswana. Gantsi district is home to one of the largest wildlife management areas in the world, Central Kalahari Game Reserve and in close proximity to the Okavango Delta (a world heritage site). This research will provide the impacts associated with Prosopis juliflora on the soil chemical variables and vegetation of Gantsi District. The research will improve our understanding of the effects of Prosopis and enable government to make informed decisions on the control measures and development of Prosopis management programmes.

tshegoTshegofatso Sputnik Chilume is an MSc student in the Centre of Biodiversity and Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. She is supervised by Cate Macinnis-Ng and Keotshepile Kashe (Okavango Research Institute, University of Botswana) quantifying the ecological impacts of Prosopis juliflora in Gantsi District, Botswana.

Diversity on our doorstep

Posted by Darren Ward @nzhymenoptera

New Zealand is a weird place for biodiversity. When discussed, perhaps most often mentioned is the ‘high degree of endemism’. This is the proportion of species found only in NZ and nowhere else in the world. Overall, about 90% of insect species in NZ are endemic. Along with endemism, the “total number of estimated species”, or the “number of undescribed species” are also often mentioned. An estimated 20,000 invertebrate species live in New Zealand and about 50% are undescribed.

But what is almost never mentioned is the number of undescribed species that are literally at your doorstep. You don’t have to go to remote field locations to find new species. Even in Auckland, NZ’s biggest city, there is a massive number of ‘undescribed’ and ‘unknown’ species.

Kuschel (1990) perhaps first bought this to our attention with his long running survey during the 1970s-1980s, literally in his backyard. In the Auckland suburb of Lynfield, he collected 130 species of beetles that were undescribed. In total >700 endemic beetle species were found.

Recently, we have been studying the diversity of parasitoid wasps in the Waitakere ranges, a large forest on the doorstep of Auckland city. Our study discovered 136 species of parasitoid wasps from ten locations (Kendall & Ward 2016). 80% of them are undescribed.

Just last week, a new species of parasitoid wasp, Synopeas motuhoropapense Buhl 2016, was described from Motuhoropapa Island (one of the small islands in the Noises Island group in the Hauraki Gulf). It was described along with 14 other species of micro wasps (<2mm in length) from around New Zealand. What is remarkable is that these 15 new species were described from <100 specimens in total, that’s a new species for every ~6 specimens.

Such biodiversity projects are an important part of understanding how the world works, but also give a sense of wonder about how we live with a massive diversity of weird and wonderful little critters.


Darren Ward is an entomologist in the New Zealand Arthropod Collection at Landcare Research, and a senior lecturer at the School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland.

Buhl PN. 2016. Keys to species of Ceratacis and Synopeas from New Zealand, with the description of new species (Hymenoptera: Platygastridae), International Journal of Environmental Studies.

Kendall L, Ward DF. 2016. Habitat determinants of the taxonomic and functional diversity of parasitoid wasps. Biodiversity & Conservation. 25(10), 1955-1972i

Kuschel, G. 1990. Beetles in a suburban environment: a New Zealand case study. Auckland: DSIR Report No3.

50 by 50? Yeah…nah

New Zealand’s climate change targets

Posted by Alice Baranyovits @ABaranyovits

New Zealand has a lot to be proud about, it’s an absolutely fantastic country, in fact according to the Telegraph it’s ‘the best country in the world’ and has been for the last 4 years. It’s also a bit of a world leader; in 1893 it became the first self-governing country to give women the vote, it was the first country to introduce the 8 hour working day, zorbing and bungee jumping and need I mention rugby?


New Zealand – the best country in the world

But there is another area where New Zealand is one of the world’s leaders and for once it’s a bad thing (and I’m not talking about the ridiculous house prices) and that’s in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per capita. In 2011, New Zealand was the fifth highest GHG emitter per capita out of 40 Annex 1 countries (listed here). New Zealand’s emissions per capita, whilst below countries such as Australia and the US, are well above most European countries, China and the world average – check out this graph. This was one of the points brought up during an excellent Royal Society talk I attended on Tuesday night at the Auckland Museum entitled ’10 things you didn’t know about climate change’.

Now I’m not going to go into everything Prof. Tim Naish and Prof. James Renwick discussed during their fascinating but somewhat depressing talk. One of the key take home messages was something I would have hoped everyone is already well aware of, and that’s climate change is happening, its human induced, and it will have impact on the way we live our lives sooner rather than later.

What I do want to talk about is something else that was mentioned during the presentation and that’s the idea of a GHG emission free New Zealand by 2050.  We will already hopefully be celebrating being Predator Free that year so why not go two for one and make it an even more momentous year by becoming GHGs free as well? Imagine the celebrations!

Unfortunately New Zealand’s current climate policy is well off that – with a proposed reduction in net emissions of 50% below 1990 levels by 2050, the ‘50 by 50’. A 5% reduction is proposed for 2020 and then an 11% reduction by 2030. Sadly, things don’t seem to be heading in the right direction; as of 2014 New Zealand’s gross GHG emissions had reached 81.1 million tonnes, that’s a 23% increase on the 1990 levels. Even if the 2050 target of a 50% reduction is reached that’s still well below the targets set by many other countries (e.g. Denmark, & the UK) and the targets proposed by the UNFCCC – an 80-95% reduction for Annex 1 countries, which includes New Zealand.

Both the Royal Society and organisations such as Generation Zero think New Zealand can and should do better. That we should be striving to be a world leader in this too and proving once and for all that New Zealand truly is clean and green. In a recent report the Royal Society highlighted the many advantages that New Zealand has, such as its wealth of renewable energy options, that leave it well placed for the move into a greener economy. They stated that to be successful, there would need to be sound policy, investments and incentives, along with the willingness of New Zealanders to make some lifestyle changes. Tackling the emissions from the agriculture sector (New Zealand’s biggest GHG contributor) will probably be the biggest challenge but not one that can be avoided – check out my previous post.

New Zealand may be small but it’s proven again and again that it can punch above its weight on the world stage and I can’t think of anything better than being a world leader in the fight against climate change – so let’s try and make 2050 a year to remember for all the right reasons.

For more information, check out Generation Zero’s ‘Zero Carbon Act’ and the Royal Society’s reports ‘Facing the future: towards a green economy for New Zealand’ and ‘Setting New Zealand’s post 2020 climate change target’.


Alice Baranyovits is a PhD student at the Centre of Biodiversity and Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. She is researching the movements of kererū in urban areas. She is supervised by Jacqueline Beggs, Mick Clout, Todd Dennis & George Perry.


At risk of catastrophic failure: relying on others in urban research

Posted by Ellery McNaughton @EJ_McNaughton

Recently, in a conversation commiserating research woes, one of my colleagues described the main part of my project as a “huge risk”. My most memorable line of feedback from my first annual review stated that my project was in danger of “catastrophic failure”. Welcome to the risky but rewarding world of urban research. In my case, the portent of research doom was the fact that my project’s success is largely reliant on other parties.

My 18 month project is based around an initiative undertaken by a large, council-controlled organisation (Auckland Transport), and requires the cooperation of multiple individual volunteers. These supposed harbingers of failure are by no means only found in urban research, but one does frequently come across them when working in such a populated and people-centric environment. Part of the issue with relying on other parties is differing priorities and perspectives.

While a researcher who has spent an inordinate amount of time living, breathing and planning The Most Important Research Project of All Time™ may think their requests are reasonable, a large organisation may not share the same enthusiasm and sense of importance. From my experience, while these organisations can be very accommodating, informative and helpful, at the end of the day they are subject to financial and political pressures that a lowly researcher cannot hope to contend with.


A metaphor. Hint: the dog is the ecologist

At the other end of the scale is dealing with individuals. One of the rewarding aspects of my urban research is the incredibly generous people who volunteer their properties to use as study sites. Understandably, they too have their different priorities. In an ideal research world where everyone appreciated the momentousness of The Most Important Research Project of All Time™, study properties would remain in the same state as you found them. In the real world, trees are cut down, fences are erected, cats are bought, yards are remodelled, and houses are sold and renovated.

All of which is to say that reliance on other parties can lead to complicated stats at best and catastrophic failure at worst. However, when it goes right, it can lead to some fascinating research that would otherwise be unachievable – a result that is worth the risk.

Ellery McNaughton is a PhD student in the Centre of Biodiversity and Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. Her project will investigate the effects of a city-wide changeover in streetlight technology on urban bird behaviour and ecosystem function. She is supervised by Margaret Stanley, Jacqueline Beggs, Kevin Gaston(University of Exeter, UK) and Darryl Jones (Griffith University, Australia).

After the Invasion: Spread

Posted by Delayn Fritz @WildOptic

My previous blog post focused on global trade and the invasion process as a whole, but what happens to an exotic species after it becomes established? Post-establishment spread and dispersal is the next step for an exotic species transforming into an invasive species. Of particular interest are the causes of that spread, both natural and non-natural.

The simplest way that a species spreads is through its competitive edge. A study of the competitive nature of the Argentine ant (Linepithema humile) showed that they completely overcame native ants in North America in terms of resource gathering. Being able to displace native species allows the exotic invading species to take over their turf and spread locally. In fact displacing or removing native species may even lead to an ecological meltdown which can cause other invasive species to establish and cause a positive feedback loop.

ArgAntAn Argentine ant (Linepithema humile) specimen. Photo Credit: April Nobile / © / CC BY-SA 3.0

Another way for an exotic species to spread is environmental shift. This can be through habitat fragmentation and disturbance wherein a gap in the normal functioning of an environment displaces the native competitors to a point where the exotic species become dominant. One form of this that has been documented repeatedly is the increased proportion of exotic plants along roadsides, which act as a corridor for exotic species. Climate change may play another role in spread, as one study showed that increased rainfall had a positive effect on range expansion while drier years actually decreased the range of both Argentine ants and native ants in North America.

Long range jump dispersal patterns are also a key factor in spread, but this is often achieved by non-natural means. This jump dispersal usually occurs by the exotic species hitching a ride on internal trade routes or just regular vehicles. This leads to species achieving spread rates a whole order of magnitude  higher than the distance travelled by normal dispersal. It has also been shown that when this jump dispersal occurs it can actually increase the spread rate by up to three orders of magnitude.

For my MSc, I will be trying to analyse some of the data on currently established exotic ant species in New Zealand, and using taxonomic collections and their historic data to try and figure out the spread rates of different species and see if this is related to any of the aforementioned spread processes.


delaynDelayn Fritz is an MSc student in the Centre of Biodiversity  and Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. He is interested in the invasion process of ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) in New Zealand. He is supervised by Darren Ward and Eckehard Brockerhoff (Scion, B3).

What is biosecurity and why should we care?

Post by Anna Frances Probert @AFProbert

Human movement and global trade are ever-increasing. Last year 5.6 million people arrived into New Zealand and more than 1.7 million containers moved through New Zealand ports. This increases the risk of unwanted organisms (disease and pest species) arriving and establishing. The management of these risks (both pre border and post border) is what biosecurity encompasses.

Unwanted organisms can have dramatic impacts on our livelihoods – impacting economic, social and environmental values. In most circumstances, introduced species (that is, species that are not native to New Zealand) are benign. Many of them won’t survive to establish, having evolved to thrive in different environments. However, a small subset do survive, establish and then spread across the landscape, becoming ‘invasive species’. If we perceive these to have a negative impact, then they are considered ‘pest species’.

Preventing new organisms from entering New Zealand is much easier and more cost-effective than trying to eradicate or control them once they slip past the border. Although there have been several successful eradication programmes conducted in New Zealand – for instance the Argentine ant on Tiritiri Matangi and the Queensland fruit fly in Auckland.

Recently, government funding for the Predator Free New Zealand project was announced, which aims to support the large-scale eradication of rats, possums and mustelids from New Zealand. This ambitious project will have massive benefits for native flora and fauna as well as remove the costs associated with the long term management of these pests.

The announcement of this project coincided with the launch of the government’s Biosecurity 2025 strategy, which aims to review and future-proof New Zealand’s biosecurity system. The current Biosecurity 2025 document outlines proposals for what might be in the direction statement, which will guide New Zealand’s biosecurity system into the future. As a nominated ‘Biosecurity Champion’, myself along with Rudd Kleinpaste, Bruce Wills and Graeme Marshall are involved in promoting the importance of biosecurity and public involvement in the consultation process.


Biosecurity Champion on the radio

Public submissions are now open, and as part of the consultation process public meetings and hui are to be held around the country.

Biosecurity is an issue that affects every New Zealander. I encourage everyone to make a submission, so that we can work together to protect our country from unwanted organisms, now and into the future.


At the Biosecurity 2025 launch

MeblogAnna Probert is a PhD student in the Centre for Biodiversity & Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. She is using ants as a model to assess the risk posed by exotic invertebrates to native ecosystems. She is supervised by Margaret Stanley, Jacqueline Beggs, and Darren Ward.

How much water does a kauri tree use?

Posted by Cate Macinnis-Ng @LoraxCate

Ever wondered how much water a kauri tree uses? Find out in my video for the 180 Seconds of Science competition. A vote for my entry will help me win funds towards my research.

#180science is a joint competition run by the Australian Academy of Science EMCR Forum and the Royal Society of New Zealand Early Career Researcher Forum. These organisations represent emerging researchers in their respective countries. Voting closes on 22nd August at the conclusion of National Science Week in Australia so get in quick!

kauri sapflow


Dr Cate Macinnis-Ng is a Senior Lecturer and Rutherford Discovery Fellow, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland.  She is a plant ecophysiologist and ecohydrologist working on plant-climate interactions.



A Trip to Switzerland to learn some Wood Anatomy Skills

Posted by Julia Kaplick @julekap

In June this year I was lucky enough to escape the Auckland winter weather and learn some new skills at a Wood Anatomy Course in the Swiss Alps. It is a long running course organized by Dr Holger Gärtner, Prof Fritz Schweingruber from the Swiss Federal Institute of Forest, Snow and Landscape Research and Dr Alan Crivellaro from the University of Padua in Italy. The two main aspects of the course are the theoretical basics of the anatomical features of wood and the practical skills needed for sampling and preparing wood thin sections. This might not be obvious to everyone, but I was super excited to go and it was not because it took place in Klosters, where Prince Charles goes on skiing holidays.


Left: Microscopy with a view of the Swiss Alps. Right: Gentian, the Swiss national flower. Right: Out in the field with Prof Fritz Schweingruber, one of the world’s leading experts in wood anatomy

There are many different scientific applications for wood anatomy, but I am most interested in the connection with tree water relations. Anatomical features like lumen area and cell wall thickness vary seasonally and are strongly influenced by climatic conditions. The wood anatomy also affects hydraulic characteristics of trees. Tree species with larger lumen areas can transport more water, but they are also more likely to suffer from embolism (the formation of air bubbles) during times of drought stress.


Sample preparation – Top: With a microtome wood samples can be cut into thin section. Bottom: Staining of the sample and baking to create permanent slides


Thin section of a kauri root – Staining of the wood thin sections makes anatomical structures more visible. Left: unstained. Right: same sample stained with Safranin and Astrablue.

The first day of the week-long course was all about the theoretical background. We spent the day looking at many thin sections under the microscope, starting with simple conifers, and later learned about the more complex structures of angiosperms and even had a glimpse at some crazy looking non-woody species. On the following days we went to some beautiful alpine valleys to try out different sampling techniques and learned how to prepare and stain professional thin sections from our own samples.


Radial thin sections of rewarewa (left), tanekaha (middle) and nikau (right).

I could have easily spent the whole week cutting and staining my samples, but we also got to go on two little trips. The first one was a walk through a sustainably managed forest area, together with the responsible forester. The second trip was a visit to the Institute of Snow and Avalanche Research in Davos where we got to see the latest fashion accessories on the Swiss skiing field and also got to know a little more about how effective forest is as a protection against avalanches. Another highlight of the week was Helga, the lovely hotel cook who insisted on providing us with two hot meals a day, to keep our brains running. Yes, there was a lot of cheese and chocolate.


Left: Fancy new avalanche protection. Middle: View of Klosters from above. Right: Happiness after a long day of learning



Julia Kaplick is a PhD student in the Centre of Biodiversity and Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. She is researching the response of native trees to seasonal variation in climatic conditions using measurements of sap flow, water relations and carbon allocation. Julia is supervised by Cate Macinnis-Ng (University of Auckland) and Mike Clearwater (Waikato University). Julia is supported by funding from the Marsden Fund.