In the wake of the Queensland fruit fly threat Lincoln University PhD student Laura Nixon is working hard to develop a weapon in the fight to stop another unwanted destructive pest, the brown marmorated stink bug, coming into the country.
The bug is currently regarded by New Zealand’s horticulture industry as one of the top six pests of concern.
Ms Nixon’s research is funded by multiorganisational research collaboration Better Border Security (B3), and she is based at the Bio-Protection Research Centre on Lincoln’s Te Waihora campus.
She is trying to come up with a way to chemically detect an infestation of the bugs in a confined space such as a shipping container, one of the ways it is envisaged the insect could make its way into the country.
The brown marmorated stink bug is an agricultural pest found in Asia, but it has invaded the United States and it is considered highly likely it could successfully establish in New Zealand if it gets here.
Since the insect arrived in the United States in the mid-1990s it has occasionally multiplied into plague proportions. In 2010 it caused US$37 million damage to apple crops across several states.
It feeds on more than 300 hosts, primarily fruit trees and woody ornamentals but also field crops. Almost any crop can be at risk.
Ms Nixon says the chemical compound, or the stink, the bugs emit when disturbed has been identified but she will work on trying to distinguish it from amongst other naturally emitted odours.
Initially she will work with native stink bugs, which are not considered pests, and then travel to the United States to see if her results can be used on the pest species.
She says the bugs are closely related so it is expected they will.
Ms Nixon says the bugs tend to live in big groups or aggregations, so if one container gets through then there could be a problem.
Hopefully her work will ensure it is stopped at the border, she says.
She says the method could be used to detect other insects such as ants and harlequin ladybirds which are also considered pests, though they present other challenges as they give of lower odour levels.
It may also work with plant disease causing organism Phytophthora.
Her role involves developing the chemistry to the stage the odour can be detected and the commercial application may be undertaken by others.
Ms Nixon has a background in chemistry and has travelled from Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen to undertake the role.