New research conducted at Brisbane airport shows how invasive keyhole wasps build their nests on top of critical sensors, causing havoc for planes, George Dvorsky reports for Gizmodo.
Keyhole wasps like to lay their eggs in small, pre-made cavities such as window slits, electrical sockets and, as the name implies, keyholes. Airplanes rely on external sensors that are shaped like thin tubes. If the pilot realizes after takeoff that a sensor is obstructed, the plane just needs to turn around for it to be cleaned. But in the worst case scenario, a malfunctioning sensor is catastrophic. The new study, published Nov. 30 in the journal PLOS OneKeyhole wasps, confirmed to be the cause of sensor blocking, discovered their favorite size sensor for nesting, and found that they built most of the nests near grassy fields at airports.
Researchers hope the airport will use the data to better combat six-legged saboteurs.
“When we did some background research, we realized that it’s not just an inconvenience, that you just have to clean these things and get rid of the wasps; this can actually cause major accidents,” said Australian Eco Logical ecologist Alan House, lead author of the study. recently, to CNN’s Hilary Whiteman.
A plane crash off the coast of the Dominican Republic in 1996 that killed 189 passengers and crew was attributed to a blockage of the pitot tube, which measures the speed of air flow through it as a proxy for how fast the plane is flying. Pitot tube measurements can show whether the airplane is flying fast enough to stabilize, or if the plane is flying too slow, putting it at risk of stalling. Inaccurate airspeed readings can cause a dangerous reaction by the pilot – or software.
“It’s not a Mayday emergency but the next level is down, and it’s closing off the runway,” said House To New Scientist‘s Donna Lu.
Wasp is native to America, but has been flying around Brisbane for over a decade. The insects have found a fast strategy for building their nests.
“We have anecdotal reports from ground crews in Brisbane that a plane could have arrived at the gate and in a matter of two or three minutes, a wasp would fly around the nose of the plane to see the plane,” said House. CNN. House adds Belinda Smith at ABC News Australia“When the plane first entered, the probe was too hot for the wasp, so I think what it did was wait until it cooled down.”
After the tube cools, the wasp fills the cavity with mud, eggs, and a small amount of prey, such as a caterpillar. A thin mud wall at the front covers the nest, and firmly blocks the pitot tube. This process can occur in less than 30 minutes, as was the case when a wasp nest blocked temperature checks on a flight from Brisbane to Newcastle in 2015, according to ABC News Australia.
Most airlines have implemented rules requiring their aircraft to cover external sensors when they land at Brisbane airport, so House stressed that flying from Brisbane is generally safe, reports. New Scientist. But to better understand wasp behavior, House and a team of researchers printed 3D replicas of the pitot tube for installation at strategic points around the airport.
The team monitored the tubes for 39 months, between 2016 and 2019, and found 93 blockages, all in tubes larger than a tenth of an inch wide. Wasps build nests year-round, but the team sees the most activity between November and May. All nests are located near the grass fields at the airport.
Brisbane Jackson Ring airport wildlife manager, one of the study’s authors, told CNN that wasps may rely on fields for the maggots they put in their nests. With that in mind, airports have started spraying fields with pesticides and have seen a decrease in wasp activity.
While all of the nests the researchers found were built by keyhole wasps, not all of them were housed in keyhole wasps. One nest hatches with five cuckoo wasp. These parasitic insects lay their eggs in nests of other animals.
They are native to Australia, so the fact that cuckoo wasps disturb keyhole wasp nests is actually “very positive,” University of Adelaide wasp taxonomist Erinn Fagan-Jeffries, who was not involved in the study, told ABC News Australia.
Often, invasive species can take over an area because they face no threat in their new environment, but Australian insects beg to be different.
“This means that some parasitic wasps native to Australia could attack this introduced species,” said Fagan-Jeffries ABC News Australia. “It’s possible that the native parasitoid could help keep the invasive wasp population low and stop it spreading too quickly.”