Monday, January 31, 2011

La Niña Brings Insect ‘Plagues’

The La Niña weather pattern is not only bringing New Zealand a warm moist summer, it is also bringing ‘plagues’ of pest insects.

Last month saw a record of over 20,000 visits to the Kiwicare website from New Zealanders, nearly double the same period last year. Sales of all insect control products are up this year and some such as flea products are as much as double sales last year. Enquiries for fleas are up 117%, wasps 110% and spiders, cockroaches, ants and flies all up more than 50%.

The pests causing most concern in these conditions are fleas, mosquitoes, wasps, flies, cockroaches and ants. These pests pose a risk of causing harm to people and animals; fleas and mosquitoes bite us and our pets, wasps sting and even threaten life on rare occasions, flies and cockroaches transfer disease from rubbish and drains to our food and kitchens, and ants are a general nuisance in homes and workplaces.

Because insect metabolisms are governed by temperature, insects are generally more active and breed more quickly when it is warm. Moisture levels are also critical for many insects. In dry conditions many insects experience stress due to water loss and this slows their breeding. However, when moisture levels are high, as they are this year in many parts of New Zealand, then numbers are not limited. The third vital ingredient of this recipe for ‘plagues’ of insect pests is food supply, and there are reasons to believe conditions are also increasing food sources, for example:
  • Adult fleas and mosquitoes feed on the blood of animals, often including people. In warm weather, blood is more easily available to fleas and other blood sucking pests because mammals such as cats, dogs and ourselves move blood into capillaries near the surface of our skin to radiate heat and keep us cool. Also, the larvae of fleas feed on dust, including skin cells from animals and people. In warm conditions there is more of this dust available.
  • Wasps feed on a variety of food sources including nectar, pollen, other insects and decaying animal material. The weather conditions have been good for flowers, giving wasps a head start in food supply this spring and the general increase in insects has provided more insect prey for their carnivorous habits.
  • Flies and cockroaches feed largely on decaying organic matter. The warm weather encourages more rapid decay and easier feeding for fly maggots and cockroach nymphs as well as adults.
  • Ants feed on a variety of foods depending on the species and the requirements of the colony at the time. For example, Argentine Ants feed on other insects and invertebrates when they invade a new territory; thus removing competition. Then they change to feeding on higher levels of sweet foods such as the honeydew from aphids with which they have a symbiotic relationship; protecting them in return for the honeydew.
This all means that we are more at risk from pest insects this year than normal. There is more likelihood of being bitten by fleas and mosquitoes, stung by wasps, given food poisoning by flies and cockroaches and generally pestered by ants and other insects.

Pro-active prevention of problems with pest insects is preferable to having to deal with an infestation. Think prevention and remove food that insects could feed on and create barriers to stop pests entering your home. Don’t forget to treat your pets with flea treatment from your vet but also spray places where pets sleep as this is where the fleas spend most time. I advise extra caution in dealing with wasp nests this year as they seem to have formed particularly large nests already. One wasp sting is almost always painful and can be life threatening in a few sensitive individuals. To avoid stings treat wasp nests with powder insecticide as powder tends to keep wasps calm, and treat at dusk or night time when wasp activity is low.

A man walks into a bar. There is a flea behind the bar serving drinks. The man stares at him amazed.
The flea says “What are you staring at. Have you never seen a flea serving drinks before?”
“No. Its not that” says the man. “It’s just I never thought the ant would sell the place.”

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


I was driving through Hagley Park here in Christchurch last evening and I was reminded of an embarrassing story from my first year in New Zealand.

I had recently joined Target Pest to help develop the urban pest management division of the company. Target Pest was a Local Government Owned Enterprise owned by Environment Canterbury and focused largely on the control of possums and Tb for the Animal Health Board and Department of Conservation. Target had also established divisions dealing with weed spraying, wilding pines, and forest biosecurity. My previous experience of pest management and studying the spread of Tb in cattle seemed to make me fit well into the company.

The new urban pest management division was to compete with companies like Rentokil and EcoLab for contracts with factories, restaurants, shops, offices and homes for control of rodents and pest insects. I believed I had a good knowledge of these pests as most of them were the same as I was experienced in from Ireland and the UK, rats, mice, flies, ants, cockroaches, fleas, borer (woodworm) etc..

Occasionally a customer would call with a problem insect and I would try and identify the species. Sometimes this meant asking the customer to bring an example of the insect into the office for me to examine. One day, a month or two after starting with Target, I had a call from an Englishman, recently moved to NZ like myself, who described strange insect exo-skeletons on the trunks of his trees. This sounded strange to me and I asked him to bring the skeletons in for me to look at. As I put the phone down I noticed a certain amount of amusement from my colleagues in the office who had overheard my conversation. ‘The dopey Irishman did not know about cicadas!’ In my defense, cicadas are not found in Ireland or the UK and although I had heard them when on holiday I had never seen one.

Chorus Cicada
Of course, I made some effort to learn more about cicadas and learned how the female lays eggs in bark, when the eggs hatch the cicada larvae drop the ground and there they they live in the soil for many years, some species up to 17 years, before the adult climbs a tree, sheds its exoskeleton, finds a mate and starts the long cycle over again. Know I knew it all?

The company provided me with a brand new ute for my travels around New Zealand talking to businesses about their pest control, I was the ‘bug expert’. Soon after picking up the ute I was driving through Hagley Park on a warm summer day and there was a squealing from a wheel as if a stone had been caught in the brakes, I wound down the window and sure enough the squeal was louder. I was naturally frustarted at this happening to a brand new vehicle.

However, when I pulled over I realised the sound continued even when I stopped. The penny dropped. I then knew what a chorus of cicadas sound like; the squeal of a stone stuck in the breaks of a vehicle.

Last evening the cicadas were out in force giving Hagley Park a hot summer Mediterranean feel. If you are a recent immigrant to New Zealand from a temperate clime, it’s not your car, it’s the chorus cicadas.

Why don’t cicadas bite clowns?
Because they taste funny.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Plant Fungal Diseases and Humid Weather

Sooty mould on citrus
The warm humid weather of recent days and weeks is providing many plant fungal diseases with ideal conditions to attack our garden plants.

It is a good time to check your garden and take a close look at the plants for signs that they are sick. There are many reasons that your plant might look sick. Not all sicknesses are caused by disease. Go to the Sick Plant section of the Kiwicare website to identify what might be making your plant look sick. Stresses such as lack of water, or too much water, low nutrients, too little or too much light, frost damage, insect damage and others can harm plants and make them look sick. Stressed plants are more susceptible to disease and keeping your plants healthy should be your first line of defence. Here are some hints to making sure your plants have the best chance of fighting off disease themselves:

  • Choose plants that are disease resistant – Some varieties of plants are selected or bred to have natural resistance to disease. Ask your garden centre or nursery for advice when picking new plants for your garden.
  • Pick the right place in your garden for the plant – Most plants obtained from garden centres or nurseries will have instructions relating to the needs of the plant, such as light levels, soil type, pH (acidity/alkalinity) and moisture. Also ask your garden centre staff and look up books or online reference material.
  • Pick the right time to plant your plant – Planting inevitably puts some stress on a plant as it is being put in a new environment. Make sure that the extra stress is as low as possible. For example don’t plant out in hot or dry or windy or frosty conditions. Always chose a time when the plant will be able to settle into its new habitat. Give it the best start by watering well and providing the nutrients it needs in the form of compost of fertiliser.
  • Clear disease away from your plants – Keep the soil around your plants clear of dead or diseased leaves and twigs. Cut back and away from your plants any diseased growth. Remove any leaves or branches of your plant as soon as disease is noticed or treat with the appropriate curative and protective product. Thin out growth on dense plants to encourage air flow and reduce humidity.
  • Regularly check your plants – The sooner a problem is observed and dealt with the better for the plant. Check for insects pests and insect damage. Insects both carry disease and wounds from insect damage may allow wind borne diseases to enter. Protect from and prevent insect pests. Encourage beneficial insects such as ladybugs that eat aphids.
  • Pro-actively treat susceptible plants – Some plants such as many rose types are at constant risk from fungal diseases such as black spot and rust and insect attack from aphids, even when healthy. Protective treatment with systemic insecticides and fungicides can help prevent disease getting hold.
Fungal Diseases

The majority of plant disease is caused by fungal infection. Plant fungal diseases include black spot, rust, downy mildew, powdery mildew, blight, botrytus, verrucosis, dollar spot, red thread, and many others. These diseases can be spread from other diseased plant material through direct contact, transfer by insects, through the air as spores and through the soil via root systems. Warm moist conditions will encourage fungi in most cases and particular attention should be payed to your plants when the weather is humid. Thinning out plant growth will encourage air flow through around leaves and stems and help to prevent fungal disease.
Choose the Kiwicare product suitable for the protection of your plant from particular fungal disease or to cure your plant once it has become infected by using to the Fungal Problem Solver table.

What is a cheerful mushroom’s favorite drink?
Fun guy cider.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Have You Seen This New Butterfly in Auckland?

On 15 January 2011 an unusual butterfly was seen fluttering around and  feeding on Agapanthus flowers in an Epsom garden.  It was clearly one of the swallowtail butterflies in the genus Papilio of which there are many species throughout the world but none in New Zealand…until now! 
It was seen briefly up close but it was not able to to be captured for an an accurate identification.  It was similar in general colour and appearance to the one pictured here but there are many species that look much like this and the differences between them can be subtle.   Slightly smaller than a monarch and being much paler in colour  (a nice creamy lemon) with contrasting oblique black bands across the forewings made it stand out from a distance.   Its flight is more swift than the lazy lolloping flight of a monarch.   

What species of Papilio is it?  Where did it come from?  How did it get here?  Is it established and breeding here?  Is there only one or are there more?  Is it only in Auckland or also in other parts of NZ as well?  Your help is vital in answering these questions.
If you see a butterfly looking like this please contact John Early at Auckland Museum (Email. [email protected]  Tel. 09 306 7042) with details of where and when you saw it.   An actual specimen to confirm the record is needed, failing that a good photo. 

Four Europeans got into a discussion on whose language was the most eloquent and pleasant sounding.

The Englishman said: “English is the most eloquent language. Take for instance the word “butterfly”. Butterfly, butterfly… doesn’t that word so beautifully express the way this delicate insect flies. It’s like flutter-by, flutter-by.”

“Oh, no!” said the Spaniard, “the word for “butterfly” in Spanish is “maripose”. Now, this word expresses so beautifully the vibrant colours on the butterfly’s wings. What could be a more apt name for such a brilliant creature? Spanish is the most eloquent language!”

“Papillon!” says the French linguist, “papillon! This word expresses the fragility of the butterfly’s wings and body. This is the most fitting name for such a delicate and ethereal insect. French is the most eloquent language!”

At this the German stands up, and demands: “Und vot is rongk mit ‘SCHMETTERLING’?”

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Explosive Start to 2011

There has been an explosion in the number of enquiries to Kiwicare looking for help and advice to get rid of several insect pest species. The El Nino weather cycle that is bringing warm moist weather to New Zealand is ideal for breeding of many insect species.

The most spectacular rise in enquiries are for fleas, wasps, cockroaches, ants and borer. As an example the chart below shows the trend of enquires to the Kiwicare website for information on getting rid of wasps. The blue line in 2010 and the first week of this year. The green line is for 2009 and the first week in 2010. The wasp season is usually much later in the year, see the large spike in March and April 2010. But as you can see this season has started early and last week saw more enquiries that the peak of the season last year. A similar picture is emerging for the other insect pests I mentioned particularly fleas, see the second chart.

Wasps Enquiries – Comparison of 2010/11 with 2009/10

Fleas Enquiries – Comparison of 2010/11 with 2009/10

My advice is to be proactive. If you are likely to have problems with any of these pests now is the time to carry out preventative actions. Proof yourself against insects by carrying out a flying and crawling insect treatment.

Two fleas walk out of a bar. One says to the other “Shall we walk or take a dog?”

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Expected Pest Trends for 2011

A Happy New Year to you all.

2011 has started with warm and moist weather which encourages breeding of insects and spiders. January and February are usually the peak time of the year for problems with pest insects and spiders both in the home and garden.

I am able to monitor searches on the Internet and visits to the Kiwicare website along with the sale of all Kiwicare products both to our retailers and off the retail shelves. This information along with long term weather predictions and historical trends provides me with information that I use to predict trends in pest abundance in New Zealand.

Here are my major predictions for 2011:
  • Cockroaches – Warm damp weather is ideal for cockroach survival and breeding. I expect a greater than usual problem from pest cockroaches particularly in the North Island.
  • Ants – High temperatures make ants more active but heavy rainfall can have the effect of drowning nests. Ants such as Argentine Ants and Darwin Ants are continuing to spread across the country. Over the next two months I expect to see increased problems with ants in the hot parts of the country except where flooding occurs. There will also be many more parts of towns where ants are a problem where they have not been before.
  • Spiders – You may already have noticed more spiders and spider webbing around your home, garden and car. Increased insect activity provides more food for spiders in general and more spiders means more food for White Tail Spiders. I expect to see a boom and bust of White Tail and other spiders.
  • Bed Bugs – The steady rise of bed bug problems around New Zealand will continue, but increased awareness of the problem and new solutions such as NO Bed Bugs Total Solution Box and luggage protector will help to reduce the spread.
  • Cluster Flies – Cluster flies began clustering in homes and other buildings early last year (early March), I expect a long summer this year and clustering to not begin until mid-April.
  • Aphids – Aphids such as greenfly have already had their peak. They prefer new spring growth to feed on but the higher levels of soil moisture encourage some plants to continue new sprouting. The aphid boom we have already had has encouraged beneficial insects such as ladybugs that feed on aphids. These will help to keep aphids under control for the rest of the summer.
  • Fleas – Fleas love warm damp weather and there has already been an early spike in flea numbers. I predict fleas to be a big problem for pets and pet owners building up to a peak in February. Be pro-active; treat your pet and your pet’s sleeping area now; they will thank you for it.
  • Borer – This is the middle of the borer flight season and is the time to treat inaccessible areas such as roof voids and sub-floors with Borafume fumigators to knock out adult beetles before they can lay eggs in your wood. I expect this to be a normal borer year but remember borer damage is cumulative, each year makes borer affected wood weaker.
  • Wasps – Wasps build up numbers through the summer months. When colonies are small they do not cause much concern, but later in the year when colonies may have several thousand wasps each, they can be the plague of gardens and homes. Wasp numbers tend to cycle through the years and last year was not particularly bad. In rural areas where honey dew is available from the scale insects on native beech was numbers can explode in a short period. Heavy rain tends to wash the honey dew away so in areas where rain is frequent it may serve to keep wasp numbers relatively low. On the other hand the warm weather encourages both insects on which wasps feed and wasp activity. I expect wasps to be a major problem where rainfall is low.
  • Rodents – If we get a long summer and mild autumn the seasonal influx of rats and mice into our homes and other buildings searching for food and shelter will be late (perhaps not until early April) but it is likely to be a sizable invasion following  a longer than usual breeding season and bumper seed and fruit availability in autumn to keep numbers high.
  • New pests – Although New Zealand has tight controls to prevent the entry of organisms that would be pests here, no system is perfect and it is likely that some new pests of significant nuisance and/or economic importance will find their way in. Red Imported Fire Ants have been found several times in NZ but have on each occasion so far been identified rapidly and eliminated. Similar pro-activity is required for the protection from new pests of all sorts. If you see something that you have not before, contact MAF Biosecurity or Kiwicare for help in identifying the pest.
Have a great 2011 and stay vigilant and free from pests.

Two guys were discussing trends on sex, marriage, and values.
Dave said “I didn’t sleep with my wife before we got married, did you?”
Pete replied, “I don’t know, what was her maiden name?”