Malfoy the wasp no longer unknown to Science

09 October 2017
Photograph of the head of the Malfoy wasp
Malfoy the wasp.

It’s one of our least-loved insects, with a particularly gruesome reproductive technique, but University of Auckland doctoral student Tom Saunders is on a mission to rescue our native wasps from their bad name.

Unlike their introduced cousins the German wasp, or Asian paper wasp, New Zealand’s native parasitoid wasps do not sting and do not live in colonies. There are thought to be 3000 endemic species in New Zealand of which only around a third are known to science.

In his efforts to champion insects most New Zealanders have almost no knowledge of, Tom has scientifically described a species of native wasp and named it after a character from the Harry Potter series.

“I used the name Lusius malfoyi because Malfoy is a character in the books with a bad reputation who is ultimately redeemed and I’m trying to redeem the reputation of our native wasps,” he says.

But parasitoid wasps do have a gruesome reproductive technique, injecting eggs into the bodies of caterpillars with the larvae feeding inside the caterpillar’s body as the host slowly dies.

Tom decided to work on improving methods for wasp capture during his Masters degree because, he says, we may be losing endemic species in New Zealand without knowing it.

“The big problem is lack of data, we do not know what species we have, how many there might be or what their host species are, so they can’t be included in conservation planning.

“Much of my work in capturing them for my research was at the edge of the Waitakere Ranges so they can be found even in people’s backyards but most people don’t know anything about them.

“If we don’t put more resources into their taxonomy, we could be in danger of losing wasp species without even knowing it.”

Parasitoid wasps are successfully used as environmental tools in New Zealand, with introduced species used to control a range of horticultural pests. Tom’s doctoral research aims to test the viability of introducing a parasitoid wasp to control brown marmorated stink bug.

“The stink bug has recently been classified as a top environmental threat by the Ministry for Primary Industries and real effort is being made to keep it out of the country. Where it has spread, in places like Europe and North America, it is causing real destruction and economic cost.”



Anne Beston
Media Relations Adviser,
University of Auckland.

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