A foreign threat: New Zealand’s Invasive insects

One of the many great fascinations of New Zealand is the absurd number of bugs found here that are found no where else on Earth. What’s a bug, you might ask? They’re the six-legged creepy crawlies you find everywhere. They are a part of your life, from the obnoxious house fly in your room to the big, bold beetle in the garden! Well, technically, I mislead you with the name bug. Bugs are a single group of piercing-sucking insects; the correct term to describe errant creepy crawlies is insects.

Aside from being a nuisance in the home, what do New Zealand’s insects do? They provide excellent services to our ecosystem, whether churning up dirt, pollinating flowers, or controlling noxious weeds. They also serve as an essential part of the food web and are a key to the survival of many birds and lizards.

A friendly, Robust grasshopper says hello! This photo I took in the Mackenzie district shows one of our largest grasshoppers. They’re excellent grazers of lichens and mosses. Historically they provided great nutrition for many birds and lizards.

Despite their abundance, insects are massively understudied both globally and in New Zealand. We must understand how our insects contribute to our ecosystems and what might happen when new insect species arrive in our country. Species not previously found in New Zealand (nonindigenous creatures) have been a massive threat to New Zealand’s native biodiversity over the past 200 years.

Of the non-indigenous species in New Zealand, much of the focus has been on mammals, like stoats, and plants, like wilding pines. This work is essential because these sorts of species have huge impacts on our environment and our economy. But what effects do the over 2000 introduced insect species have on New Zealand? A study by Brockerhoff (in 2009) featuring Lincoln University’s Dr Cor Vink, attempts to determine the threat of new insects to New Zealand’s ecosystems.

The threat of introduced insects was recognised soon after European arrival. From what we know few of these species are capable of affecting native ecosystems aside from the well-studied Vespula wasp.

The currently accepted view is that new insects do not generally hurt our ecosystems. However, as New Zealand’s ecosystems are often so understudied there is little way for us to measure the effects of new insects on the environment. Across most of the world, the arrival of new insects can be a catastrophe with substantial environmental and economic impacts.

A photo by Will Frost of a typical Mackenzie Basin floodplain grassland. A habitat type threatened by new species of weevils and the expansion of dairy farming.

So far New Zealand has avoided such a catastrophic invasion. Brockerhoff (2009) suggests that perhaps our intact native ecosystems repel insect invasions well compared to other parts of the world. While our forests have repelled invaders so far, the threat of climate change may alter the balance in the war of plants and insects.

Brockerhoff (2009) aimed to investigate the effects of insect invaders across a range of New Zealand’s habitats. It was found that over 200 insects capable of damaging forests have been found in New Zealand but have had minimal impact on our native ecosystems. Several generalist moth species and a passion vine hopper have had minor effects without significant damage. In grasslands, several weevil species have been found all over New Zealand, even as high as 2800 metres, but their impact on the surrounding environment so far seems to be minor. These results suggest that all is well for New Zealand’s ecosystems. However, with rising temperatures creating more optimal conditions for invaders there could be an increase in foreign insect invaders.

When species reach more significant numbers, their effects can start to worsen. Vespula wasps are well documented for their disruptive effects in beech forests. They feed on honey sap and compete with native birds for this resource. Worse still, these wasps predate on many native insects, some requiring a 90% reduction in Vespula wasps to survive.

The Argentine ant spreading through New Zealand and is also of grave concern. In large numbers this ant has the ability to displace native ants and often eradicate many other native insects in the soil ecosystem.

A photo by Will Frost showing a honey-dew beech forest from Craigieburn Forest Park which is threatened by Vespula wasps.

So far many of the more harmful insect species are isolated to human-altered habitats. And insects which make it to intact ecosystems fail to make an impact. As these insect’s populations build over time and more begin to enter the country as temperatures warm the threat of invasion into native forests may increase.

Many insects are selective of the plants they consume due to plant defences and palatability. This is true even for generalist insects that specialise on many plants. This likely explains why so far our plants have provided protection from so many would-be insect invaders.

Honey dew being produced by scale insects. A rich food source for wasps. Photo from Adrian Paterson

Brockerhoff (2009) suggests that for these reasons the greatest risks to our ecosystems now are from generalist insects, especially those which don’t rely upon plants. Generalist predators, like Vespula wasps, threaten the whole ecosystem’s natural processes. Due to their ability to consume the sugar produced by scale insects. These wasps prey on the majority of native fauna in beech forests to provide food for their young. When in huge abundances the composition of insects in the forest and availability of sugar sap is hugely reduced. If more generalist insect species with no natural predators were to arrive within New Zealand the impacts would be even greater.

To reduce the threats to our ecosystems in future, introduction of more insects for biocontrol should not be taken lightly. We are fortunate that few exotic insects have been established in New Zealand’s native habitats. However, many of the subtle effects caused by invasive insects are not yet known, more study is needed to grasp how these effects are impacting the ecosystem.

In the future, climate change and habitat disturbance could allow new insects to arrive and threaten our native ecosystems. We know enough now to say our environment is safe from hugely adverse effects; however, the future is uncertain. Developing a greater understanding of how these creepy crawlies subtly affect our ecosystems is paramount.

This article was prepared by Master of Science postgraduate student Will Frost as part of the ECOL608 Research Methods in Ecology course.

Brockerhoff, E. G., Barratt, B. I. P., Beggs, J. R., Fagan, L. L., (Nod) Kay, M.,K., Phillips, C. B., & Vink, C. J. (2010). Impacts of exotic invertebrates on new zealand’s indigenous species and ecosystems. New Zealand Journal of Ecology, Suppl.Special Issue: Feathers to Fur, 34(1), 158-174. https://newzealandecology.org/nzje/2916

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