The exotic wasp found in the Cocos Islands

Potential Arrival of Exotic Wasp in Australia Concerns Entomologist

An exotic wasp that has ended up in Cocos (Keeling) Islands could negatively affect the way of life of those in the islands and undermine Australian agrarian production.

It is believed that the Macao paper wasp reached the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, about 2,130 kilometres from mainland Australia, by hitching a ride on an asylum seeker boat.

Since 2016, Mark Widmer, an entomologist of the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development, has been working with the federal Department of Agriculture to eliminate the pest.

Widmer expressed that the increasing pest wasp numbers were worrying.

“We didn’t really expect the explosion—and literally an explosion in the number of nests that we started to find,” he said.

“One nest was found in 2015 and I went over to have a look at it and found a couple more. But by the end of that year, we’d destroyed over 150 of them, so that’s the capacity for them to spread.”

A Possibly Grave Effect

Although research about the wasp was constrained and the precise effect on local flora and fauna was uncertain, Widmer believed the wasp would have an impact.

“They obviously build up in high numbers very quickly. They have very aggressive colony defence, and they have a really painful sting— and I can vouch for that myself,” he said.

“They have large colonies—600 wasps per family pizza-size nests—but they’re usually quite well hidden, so it’s easy to stumble upon them accidentally, and that can [have] serious consequences if you can’t run and get away quickly.

“They sometimes nest in houses. They’re obviously going to affect local biodiversity through direct predation or competition for food and space, but we don’t know what they’re going to do to higher-order organisms.”

Widmer also believed that the wasp, if not controlled, could have great impacts on those in the islands due to its size and aggressiveness.

“I got stung through my bee suit and thick jeans. They’ve actually got a sting that’s almost 10 millimetres long, so they penetrated that clothing and even stung me through leather gloves,” he said.

“Everyone in the islands, with that…perfect temperature, they wander around in bare feet and t-shirts and shorts, and they’re not protected.

“If they were left, not being controlled and to their own devices, you’d find nests every hundred metres with hundreds of wasps.”

The ABC has reached neighbourhood occupants, who are presently not very worried about the effect in light of the fact that the numbers have been decreased.

Yet, they trusted that the wasp would be eliminated soon before anybody was harmed.

Wasp Would Thrive North of Sydney

Because of north Australia’s warmer climate, Widmer believed that the wasp might survive in areas north of a line from Geraldton in Western Australia to Sydney in New South Wales.

“I can see no reason why they wouldn’t thrive there. They’d have the food and the right climate, and the nest building materials,” Widmer said.

On the other hand, the Federal Government’s Department of Agriculture said that the introduction to the Australian mainland was unlikely.

“The distance between [Cocos (Keeling) Islands] and the mainland is beyond the flight capacity of the wasp, as is the distance between most of the islands comprising the [Cocos (Keeling) Islands],” according to the statement.

Furthermore, the statement indicated that under the Biosecurity Act 2015, all products and vehicles were liable to biosecurity control going into Australia, and into outside territories, including Cocos (Keeling) Islands, and were overseen similarly as international arrivals.

“This ensures that the risk of a pest or disease being moved between the island or being introduced to the mainland is managed appropriately.”

Exotic Wasp Eradication Still Achievable

One year on from the start of the annihilation procedure, Widmer is certain that the pest vermin can be eradicated.

However, he is worried that current climate conditions may result in an increase in wasp numbers once more.

“They’ve had 400 [millimetres] of rain, they’ve had a lot of rain [on the islands], and when it rains it can really rain,” he said.

“I think that really retards the propagation, and it can even destroy nests, so they’re hard to find in the rain.”

“But when it clears and they start to get fine weather again, we expect we’re going to find a lot of incipient nests, tiny little nests, starting again.”

Entomologist concerned exotic Macao pest wasp could make its way to Australia – ABC Rural – ABC News. (27 July 2017).