Alien invaders – Where should we focus?


If you only read the title of this post, you may have thought it was referring to the green men from the show X-FILES or maybe you envisioned invasion by human immigrants making Donald Trump pull out his luxurious locks .

However, it is not the extra-terrestrials or human immigrants I am referring to but the invasive species that are costing us billions of dollars, the ones that we have helped cross our borders, the vines, mosquitoes, ants and the like that now thrive in a novel environment.


Megalopyge albicolis (a butterfly, pictured here as a caterpillar)-although not currently deemed an invasive species, I’d say it would be on some peoples ‘unwanted species list’ based on the resemblance to Mr Trump’s hair. Image by Andreas Kay (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

While we should be concerned about non-native species, we need to remember that some actually contribute positively to the environment and people’s every-day lives. The first example that comes to mind are those non-native species deliberately introduced to control pests to appropriate levels, commonly referred to as biocontrol agents.

The non-native species we should worry about are those that displace our native species, undermine ecological services, negatively affect the economy and threaten human health. It is these species that begin to be recognised as ‘invasive’ (the term for a non-native species causing undesirable effects) by fellow humans.

New Zealand is home to thousands of non-native species. In fact we have hundreds just from one order of insects (see Darren’s blog post).  This is coupled with growing costs of control and mitigation.  The fact is we cannot control all non-native species.  Therefore, management should use a prioritisation approach, such as managing invasive species likely to have the greatest impacts on native biodiversity.

argentine ant

Argentine ants have invaded parts of New Zealand and are recognised as one of the world’s worst invasive species by the World Conservation Union.  Image by Pedro Moura Pinheiro (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

I know what you’re thinking Mr Trump, but we can’t make them pay for their own control and building a wall isn’t going to solve the issues already in the country.

This is why as part of my Masters project I am creating an alternative method to assess the risk of non-native species. It is proposed to be used as a tool for management prioritisation for those species most negatively competing with our native species, as well improving our standards on importing and releasing biocontrol agents into New Zealand.

zzzZane McGrath is an MSc student in the Centre of Biodiversity and Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. He is supervised by Darren Ward, Graham Walker and Frances MacDonald (Plant and Food Research, Auckland) examining parasitism by exotic species in native environments.

Mentors, role-models and sponsors – who’s on your team?

Posted by Cate Macinnis-Ng, @LoraxCate

Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a team of mentors, role models and sponsors to raise a successful scientist. It pays to be a bit strategic about building your support team. So what’s the difference between these roles and how do you find them?


A mentor is generally someone who uses their own experiences to advise someone else. We often think of mentors as older and wiser than the mentee but peer-to-peer mentoring can also be very effective.

Finding a mentor

Mentoring is part of the supervision process so postgraduate students have ready-made mentors. Similarly, postdoctoral fellows often have an advisor who can also act as a mentor. But what happens if you would like a mentor for a specific issue? People from minority groups or studying while raising a family might benefit from talking to someone has been through similar experiences. Many institutions offer formal mentoring schemes but you can also ask your supervisor or research group head to make suggestions. Sometimes a mentoring relationship won’t work out and sometimes it will be a fruitful enchange that will last years. It’s important to remember that there is a difference between a mentor and a councillor. Don’t be offended if a mentor suggests you see someone professionally if you are facing extreme challenges.

Many professional societies have mentoring schemes.

The British Eclogical Society has a mentoring scheme for women.

The Ecological Society of America Early Career Section has a mentoring program at ESA 2016.

The NZ Ecological Society has a mentoring scheme for PhD students learning the ropes for reviewing.

Getting together with a group of peers for a monthly morning tea or lunch can be very rewarding. Just make sure the experience is mostly positive and uplifting, a circle of niceness. More ideas on peer mentoring can be found in this handbook.

Role models

A role model is someone you would like to emulate. Often they are more advanced in their career and they may have achieved something you would like to suceed at one day. They may be particularly good at balancing work and outside life, maybe they have recently transitioned to a permanent position or they may have been awarded a presigious fellowship. They might write an inspiring blog or have a media profile. They have pathed a path you would like to follow.

You often won’t know your role models personally but you know of them and their achievements. Role models are inspiring because they show you that it can be done. As an undergraduate, I had only two female lecturers and neither of these women had children. These days, finding role models is usually reasonably straight-forward. Twitter and conferences are good places to start. Good role models may have a prominent online presence or present plenary talks at conferences. They could also be a senior academic, head of school or dean in your own institution. Meeting and getting to know a role model can also be an inspiring experience so don’t be afaid to approach a role model at a conference or reach out on Twitter. Hopefully they will turn out to be friendly and engaged!

For some great female role models in New Zealand, profiles of women in science, technology and engineering can be found on the Curious Minds website.


A sponsor is sometimes also known as a champion because they will champion your cause. A sponsor suggests you for roles and acts as your advocate. They are a public supporter while the mentor-mentee relationship is less visible. A sponsor is particularly difficult to aquire because you can’t really approach someone to be your sponsor, it generally has to be initiated by the sponsor. This piece for the Association for Women in Science calls on senior women to act as sponsors to advance women in science.  And this piece from the Harvard Business Review has some interesting ideas on sponsorship from business.  Also in the business world, women are ‘over-mentored and under-sponsored’ and the same may be true in science. It takes a particular type of person to act as a sponsor. Perhaps looking around and discovering who acts in that way in your research field or institution is a good place to start. Impressing the sponsor can take time.


So, who’s on your team? Research tells us that mentors are particularly important for women and other minority groups but science and academia are challenging for anyone so everyone can do with a helping hand. Don’t be shy about asking for help, you will find many mentors find helping the younger generation very rewarding. Chances are they have benefited from mentoring themselves and will be happy to pay it forward. If all else fails, you can always bribe them with cake!

Further reading…

The Dynamic Ecology blog has a great post on getting the most out of peers, mentors, role models and heroes in Science.

This piece from Science has a wealth of information on first hand experiences of mentoring.

While in this collection of interviews, women from Oxford University talk about their mentors, role models and sponsors.

Thanks to Anna Paula Rodrigues for a Skype chat that provided the inspiration for this post.

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.



“Just kill the bastards.”

Posted by Theo Van Noort @TVanNoort

I’ve heard this frequently of late, particularly when I tell people I study wasps. It’s a widely held sentiment here in New Zealand, a loathing barely matched by feelings directed towards the infamous possum.

Of course, there is something particularly terrifying about a creature that not only stings repeatedly but can also fly (read: stings to the face, shoulders, knees and toes – no problem). Pair this with a temperament more volatile than a rest-home pumped on prune juice and you can see why wasps might have garnered this reputation.

To clarify, it’s not New Zealand’s assemblage of solitary native wasps causing such affront (read earlier blogs by Tom and Zane), but rather invasive German (Vespula germanica) and common (Vespula vulgaris) wasps. These social wasps build nests and have distinct caste systems dividing the role and function of each individual in the colony.

Vesp kills Apis HB

A German wasp attacks and kills a honey bee (Apis melifera). Beekeepers lose approximately $9 million a year solely from wasps attacking honeybees, robbing honey and destroying hives. Photo credit: Henry Bennett

These two species present an unprecedented problem to New Zealand because they thrive in competition against our “naïve” flora and fauna. Vespula wasps are generalist predators and have great ecological plasticity: they can adapt and change their behaviour to best utilise the resources available in a given environment. Long story short, they decimate invertebrate populations via predation, dominate important carbohydrate resources such as honeydew in beech forest, and probably pose a direct threat to native vertebrates like lizards and birds. Moreover, public health, recreational needs and economically important industries such as horticulture, apiculture and silviculture are also detrimentally affected by Vespula wasps. In dollar-speak: ~$130 million dollars in damage per year. 

Vesp cent

Vespula wasps butchering a giant centipede.

Given these traits, it’s easy to understand the enormous need to develop new tools with which to control Vespula wasp populations.

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to attend an open workshop run by the Wasp Tactical Group in Wellington: Tactics and Tools to Reduce the Pain of Pest Wasps in NZ. This workshop brought together scientists and other interest groups from a range of different organisations to collaborate and update the current status and future prospects of Vespula control. Despite the variety of backgrounds within the group, everyone was unified by this desire: to reduce the immense damage caused by Vespula wasps.

Vesp on Odonata

Vespula wasp attacks a giant bush dragonfly (Uropetala carovei). New Zealand’s invertebrate fauna are “naive” to aggressive social insects- their evolutionary history has left them defenceless to Vespula.

Through the day we heard from the different scientists about the range of tools under development by the Bioheritage National Science Challenge  for this very purpose. These control tools include the Trojan female technique, biocontrol using mites, manipulating behaviour using pheromones and semiochemicals, and targeted chemical baits. It also includes a modelling component to understand how these different tools might be used and integrated. Further to this is developing an eradication strategy, perhaps following the tradition of mammalian pest eradications which first targeted small islands.

While acknowledging the hurdles ahead, the floor was optimistic, particularly around the success and public interest to date in Vespex . Vespex, an insecticide developed by Merchento, has proven effective for drastically reducing the abundance of Vespula wasps in areas where it is applied whilst leaving other insects like honeybees unharmed. While Vespex is by no means a silver bullet, if coupled with these other techniques still under-development we may have a good chance at “reducing the pain” of these pest wasps.

Or, in other words, killing the bastards.

Theo image

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

To deceive or not to deceive

Posted by Emma Bodley (Twitter @ebodley)

When you think of an orchid what usually comes to mind are the beautiful showy plants such as the moth orchids that most people have on the dining room table or in the guest bathroom.


A moth orchid, by Orchi – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0,

In the research world these are also the same orchids that get all the attention. But the New Zealand orchid diversity is more understated, usually terrestrial green plants blending into the forest floor. As ecologists we know very little about NZ orchids in general and there are many forms that are yet to even be formally named.

Our recently published paper reveals some of the secrets about the

greenhood flower

The greenhood orchid Pterostylis brumalis

phenology and pollination system of one native greenhood orchid Pterostylis brumalis. What pollinates them? How do their pollinators know where the orchids are? Do they use sexual deception – tricking male pollinators into visiting the flowers like some other orchid species do?

We followed the phenology of this winter-flowering orchid closely, trapped for pollinators using sticky traps and assessed the natural seed set of a population. Problem was, pollination was extremely limited in the two populations we studied. We only collected only one insect, a female fungus gnat, that had interacted with a flower and was carrying pollen. As a consequence, natural fruit-set was low, averaging only 2.6%. In contrast, when we hand-pollinated flowers we achieved 66.7% fruit-set. It remains a mystery as to what naturally pollinates this species.

One of the harder areas to investigate is the theory of sexual deception in greenhoods. Usually orchids that trick male pollinators into visiting their flowers produce a scent that mimics that of a female. We wanted to look for evidence in the flowers that this is a possible mechanism for attracting male pollinators. Studying the colour and micromorpholgy of the flower showed some interesting features. We were looking for scent glands where the scent could be released from. We found some hairs that could perform this function, but most likely guides the pollinators into the centre of the flower down to the pollen. We didn’t find sufficient evidence to prove that sexual deception is really happening in this system. There are still plenty of avenues to research to get a better understanding of orchid pollination.

SEM greenhood orchid.PNG

SEM images of Pterostylis brumalis. A, Lateral sepal tip; B, labellum; C, labellum; D, trichomes on labellum.

Bodley, E., Beggs, J., Toft, R., & Gaskett, A. (2016). Flowers, phenology and pollination of the endemic New Zealand greenhood orchid Pterostylis brumalis. NZ J Bot, 1-20.

This research was undertaken while Emma Bodley was an MSc student at the Centre for Biodiversity & Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. She successfully completed her study and is now a Botanical Records and Conservation Specialist at Auckland Botanic Gardens. She was supervised by Anne Gaskett and Jacqueline Beggs.