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