By Brian McDonald
When I started at DOC last October, one of the communications portfolios I inherited was our partnership with Stuff’s Wasp Wipeout programme. As a long-time fan of pest control, and a lifelong hater of wasps, I was pretty stoked.
But, of course, I had to get up to speed. I learned about what happens during a Wasp Wipeout operation, what we had done in the past, and the tools we use. In particular, I was especially interested in Vespex, the bait used to lure in and eradicate these black and yellow menaces.
How better to understand wasp control than to get certified in the very substance we use to control them?
So obviously I didn’t ACTUALLY get certified; that costs a cool $58, and neither I nor my manager would have approved the expense on the grounds that “I thought it would be funny”. So I just did the test, and was content to settle for bragging rights.
Easier said than done, apparently.
That test is hard, and a passing grade is 31/33. Been a while, but I’m pretty sure that’s even more strict than the driving test, and definitely more than I ever had to get in university. Arguably that highlights flaws in the education system more than anything else, but still. My point is, I did not pass the test. Not even close.
But hey, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Why do you even need to pass a complicated test with a near perfect score just to kill some spicy sky raisins? Well, let’s start from the beginning.
Let’s Talk About Vespex
Vespex is made with the commonly used and astonishingly effective insecticide fipronil, well known for giving unwanted invertebrates a terminal case of dead. While very low risk to birds, pets, and people, the problem with fipronil is that it’s an equal opportunities eradicator for everything else; it will kill basically any bug that bites it. What sets Vespex apart is that it’s protein based, meaning that wasps find it delicious and it’s not at all attractive to bees.
We like bees. Wasps not so much.
Nelson-based company Merchento developed Vespex in conjunction with us to help control wasp populations. Vespex was designed specifically for the control of Vespula wasp species (yellow jackets) and, when piloted on five public conservation land sites in 2015, reduced wasp activity by more than 95%.
That’s a lot of dead wasps.
Introduced wasps are a significant pest which harm our native birds and insects, and are a threat to human health and recreation.
Vespex can be purchased from Merchento, but only by approved users. Since the bait contains an ecotoxin (our buddy fipronil), there are some strict stewardship controls in place to ensure that the bait is used in a way that does not present a threat to the environment. Fair call, right?
So long story short, to use Vespex you need to become an approved user, and who am I to tell people to do this if I can’t be bothered learning about it myself. Ok, let’s do that.
I watched the video, which explains all the phases in wasp control. I read the product label on the Merchento website, which brought me right back to my uni days with a ton of numbers and toxicity vs efficacy stats that are the exact reason I went into communications instead of science.
Then came the fun part: sitting a short online quiz based on the video and the product label. OK, fun might be a stretch. Honestly this sounded easy, but it absolutely was not. They really do not want people (like me) who just skim the information getting their hands on this bait. And that’s fair; as a pesticide, it’s serious business.
Controlling the Control
Now you may be wondering how exactly Vespex can manage to only target wasps. So was I.
As a protein bait, wasps are interested around mid-summer through to early autumn; this is when they stop chowing down on honeydew and get carnivorous to feed up their demon maggots. Bees are far more chill than this, and never eat meat, so they’re safe.
Other insects also need protein, however, and we don’t want weta getting their mandibles on Vespex; it’s the classic Shakespearean murder farce, when the killer has to make sure their victim drinks the right cup and no one else gets into the cyanide.
Except, you know, with more legs and compound eyes (although that would make King Lear a lot more interesting).
This is why the Wasptek™ bait stations are set up. Elevated away from the ground, our earthbound natives can’t get to the Vespex, protecting them from themselves. Neither can kids or pets, just in case they’re wandering about too. Wasps, on the other hand, flit right on in, grab as much as they like, and carry it back to the nest to feed their larvae. The wasps then share the bait around nest-mates, including the queen, quickly destroying the whole colony.
This also means that you, as a wasp controller, don’t need to hunt through the forest to find and destroy the individual nests.
Less effort, safer work, better results: that’s not just a win-win, but a win-win-win.
Where the Wasp Things Are
Let’s talk about wasps for a second. The easiest way to describe wasps is to imagine bees, but they’re jerks. Wasps were introduced to New Zealand in the 1800s and have been the bane of decent folk and picnickers ever since.
Arguably, wasps are useful in some contexts, controlling other pests and even helping to pollinate flowers and plants. However, bees are much better pollinators, and reducing some pests slightly doesn’t cancel out these flying pain factories menacing decent society. Add to that the damage they do by taking up resources that could be used by other, cuddlier creatures, and you’ll see why we want to give them the boot. Literally and figuratively.
Vespex can be used on public or private land, but if you wish to carry out wasp control operations on public conservation land you need to contact your local DOC office to enquire about the permission process you need to follow.
Previously the bait was only licensed for use on public conservation land, but in 2018 it was opened to wider access, meaning that community groups and private landowners with natural areas on their land can now access this targeted bait station method, meaning that more conservation and recreation areas can be protected from the annual wasp onslaught.
The caveat? Pass the test.
After my first (and frankly embarrassing) failure, I went into study mode. I read that label until I could basically recite it from memory, and watched the video twice more. Weird? Yes. Effective?
Well, much like Vespex itself, I was 95% successful, by which I mean I got 32/33 questions right. Could I have gone back and tried for the perfect score? Yes. Did I want to? Hell no.
Waspocalypse Now (well, eventually)
I learned a ton from this experience. Not just about wasps and how to control them (although yes, mostly that), but about innovation in how we run operations, how we protect non-targeted species, and how we make sure people using these methods know what they’re doing.
But even with tools like Vespex, wasps are still a persistent annual problem. While eradication would be amazing, we’ve all got a lot more work to do to make that a reality. And it’s a dang good start, but what’s next?
Well thank you for asking, imaginary reader. There’s a ton you can do to get involved.
Wasps should be wiped out from New Zealand; they don’t belong here, like cheese in coffee (I saw someone do that once and the memory still haunts me). Luckily, DOC’s partnership with Stuff is all about that, and the appropriately named Wasp Wipeout programme is in full swing.
Join a community group in your local area (you can find a list of these groups on the Stuff Wasp Wipeout page). If that’s too much commitment for you, you can always just alert DOC of high wasp density locations while you’re out and about; we can’t get them if we don’t know they’re there.
Get approved for Vespex while you’re at it. You’ll learn a lot about wasp control which, for all my sarcasm, was genuinely fascinating. If nothing else, you can brag about it later, if you like your boasts getting met with black stares and confused chuckles.
You could also study wasp biology and try to invent more ways to control the pests, as it’s vital that the science community keeps working on developing a range of tools to control wasps over the long term. But that might be asking a bit much for most of us. I definitely don’t have the time or mental space to become a… wasp scientist. Entomologist? Vespologist? Wasp-buster?
You can find full information about becoming an approved user on the Merchento website. And, of course, find more about Wasp Wipeout on the DOC website or over at Stuff.