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Biological control or biocontrol is the use of one organism to control the numbers of another.

Unwanted or introduced species can have a huge impact on New Zealand’s environment, and native flora and fauna. Chemicals such as pesticides or poisons can get rid of these species, but are often bad for the environment or affect other species. Alternatives such as trapping, culling or weeding can be time consuming and may only have a tiny impact on the pest population.

A successful biocontrol programme reduces or removes the need for other controls.

Getting rid of weeds

In New Zealand, biocontrol agents have been used to control the spread of weeds. For example, six different biocontrol agents currently control the spread of gorse – a prickly and invasive weed introduced from Scotland. The small red spider mite has been the most successful of these biocontrol agents as it can eat enough gorse to reduce the plants’ growth and spread.

Protecting pasture from pests

Biocontrol can also be used to control insect pests that destroy farmland. The clover root weevil is a pest that was accidentally introduced to New Zealand in the late 1990s and has degraded pasture, especially in the Waikato, where it thrived. The introduction of a tiny wasp from Ireland is now helping to control clover root weevil numbers. Find out more about in this article, Irish wasp to the rescue.

Ryegrass is an important food for grazing stock in New Zealand. A type of fungus, called an endophyte, is being used to protect ryegrass from attack by insect pests, like the Argentine stem weevil and black beetle. Find out more about in this article, Amazing ryegrass.

The possum problem

The possum is one of New Zealand’s worst pests. Possums have a detrimental effect on the environment – eating native forests, spreading disease, and preying upon native birds. At present, possum numbers are controlled with a combination of poison (1080) and trapping. Scientists are currently researching effective and humane alternatives for controlling possum numbers.

One biocontrol strategy being investigated is the development of immunocontraceptives that use baits, bacteria, viruses, or parasitic worms. These immunocontraceptives prevent the possums from producing offspring by making them sterile.

At AgResearch in New Zealand, they are looking at using a parasitic worm to prevent possums from producing offspring, see our content on the biological control of possums.

Monitoring biocontrol

Introducing a new organism to an environment must only be done after careful consideration to ensure risks to the environment or other species are minimal. In New Zealand, all applications to introduce new organisms are carefully considered by the Environmental Protection Authority who consult with experts and the general public.

Useful link

The Pest detective is an online guide to help identify the signs left by pest animals. Developed by the National Pest Control Agencies (NPCA) in partnership with the Ministry for Primary Industries, TbFree New Zealand, the Department of Conservation, and Local Government New Zealand, with substantial sponsorship.

 

    Published 10 October 2007