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Taking the sting out of wasps?

Welcome to our first blog for 2024!

 

Once a wasp got stuck in my hair and stung my scalp repeatedly. Another time, a wasp stung my ear and it swelled to twice its normal size. Nasty as those experiences were, wasps are a much bigger problem. In beech forests, such as in the Nelson Lakes area, german and common wasps feed off honeydew and their numbers grow enormously. There can be so many wasps that they out-compete native species of birds, insects, bats and reptiles. They prey on invertebrates like spiders, ants, and bees, and maybe even fledgling birds. The biomass of wasps can dwarf those of other introduced pests, including rodents. New Zealand has the highest densities of common wasps in the world. And this isn’t to mention their economic cost, estimated by DoC at $NZ 130 million per year.


Common Wasp, Image: D Sikes Creative Commons


This is the context in which geneticists and biochemists at the University of Otago have begun an 11 million dollar collaborative research project to assess the potential of genetic technologies to reduce or even eliminate german, common and paper wasps. By introducing genetically modified wasps into hives, a genetic ‘flaw’ could be spread through the population, quickly lowering their numbers without the need for insecticides which can impact other insect species.

 

The project is run by Genomics Aotearoa co-director Professor Peter Dearden. He is quick to emphasise the caution that guides the work they do. By doing the research in a high-security containment lab, the team can have full control over what goes in and, crucially, what comes out. "So we’re doing it in the lab, very carefully, so there’s no chance of these things being released”, says Dearden.

 

A key goal of the project is to test whether genetic technologies like gene drives are a plausible tool for wasp control. If so, there will need to be robust discussion about whether genetic technologies are the right way for us to go. As Dearden says, "What we want is to develop research to make this firstly, scientifically possible; and secondly, offer a blueprint for how it can be done, if and when New Zealand decides we want to do it."

 

What do you think? We’d love to hear your views.

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