Beetles that pee themselves to death could be tomorrow’s pest control

Various beetle species have gobbled through grain stores and weakened food production worldwide since ancient times. Now, researchers at the University of Copenhagen have discovered a better way of targeting and eliminating these teeny pests.

Instead of using toxic pesticides that damage biodiversity, environment and human health, the researchers are aiming to exploit beetles’ greatest strength against them — their precisely regulated mechanism of balancing fluids.

Up to 25 per cent of global food production is lost annually due to insects, primarily beetles. For the past 500 million years, beetles have successfully spread and adapted to life around the globe and now account for one of every five animal species on Earth.

Yet as far back as ancient Egypt, these tough little bugs have invaded granaries and vexed us humans by destroying our crops.

As a result, food production and an abundant use of pesticides now go hand in hand. A large share of these pesticides damage biodiversity, the environment and human health. As various pesticides are phased out, new solutions are required to target and eradicate pests without harming humans or beneficial insects like bees.

This is what the researchers from the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Biology are working on. As part of a broader effort to develop more “ecological” methods of combatting harmful insects in the near future, researchers have discovered which hormones regulate urine formation in the kidneys of beetles.

“Knowing which hormones regulate urine formation opens up the development of compounds similar to beetle hormones that, for example, can cause beetles to form so much urine that they die of dehydration,” explains Associate Professor Kenneth Veland Halberg of the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Biology.”


“While it may seem a slightly vicious, there’s nothing new in us trying to vanquish pests that destroy food production. We’re simply trying to do it in a smarter, more targeted manner that takes the surrounding environment into greater account than traditional pesticides.”

Ancient Egyptians weakened beetles’ water balance using stones

The new study – as well as a previous study, also conducted by Kenneth Veland Halberg – demonstrates that beetles solve the task of regulating their water and salt balance in a fundamentally different way than other insects. This difference in insect biology is an important detail when trying to combat certain species while leaving their neighbors alone.

“Today’s insecticides go in and paralyze an insect’s nervous system. The problem with this approach is that insect nervous systems are quite similar across species. Using these insecticides leads to the killing of bees and other beneficial field insects, and harms other living organisms,” explains Kenneth Veland Halberg.

The centrality to survival of the carefully controlled water balance of beetles is no secret. Ancient Egyptians already knew to mix pebbles in grain stores to fight these pests. Stones scratched away the waxy outer layer of beetles’ exoskeletons which serves to minimize fluid evaporation.

“Never mind that they chipped an occasional tooth on the pebbles, the Egyptians could see that the scratches killed some of the beetles due to the fluid loss caused by damage to the waxy layer. However, they lacked the physiological knowledge that we have now,” says Kenneth Veland Halberg.

One-hundred billion dollars of pesticides used worldwide

Pesticides have replaced pebbles. Their global use is now valued at roughly 100 billion dollars annually. But as rules for pesticide use become stricter, farmers are left with fewer options to fight pests.

“The incentive to develop compounds which target and eradicate pests is huge. Food production is critically dependent on pesticides. In Europe alone, it is estimated that food production would decline by 50 percent without pesticide use. With just a single, more targeted product on the market, there would almost immediately be immense gains for both wildlife and humans,” states Kenneth Veland Halberg.

But the development of new compounds to combat beetles requires, among other things, that chemists design a new molecule which resembles beetle hormones. At the same time, this compound must be able to enter beetles, either through their exoskeletons or by their feeding upon it.

“Understanding urine formation in beetles is an important step in developing more targeted and environmentally-friendly pest controls for the future. We are now in the process of involving protein chemistry specialists who can help us design an artificial insect hormone. But there is still a fair bit of work ahead before any new form of pest control sees the light of day,” concludes Associate Professor Kenneth Veland Halberg.


The study demonstrates that beetles regulate their kidney function in a fundamentally different way than all other insects. These differences can potentially be exploited to fatally disrupt the fluid balance of beetles without impacting other insects.

The research data reports that this unique kidney function evolved about 240 million years ago, and that the mechanism has played a significant role in the extraordinary evolutionary triumph of beetles.

Roughly one in five known animal species on Earth is a beetle. While 400,000 species have been described, there are thought to be well over one million beetle species in all.

Researchers used the red flour beetle (Tribolium castaneum) as a test species for the study because it has a well-sequenced genome that allows for the deployment of a wide spectrum of genetic and molecular biology tools.

The researchers got the beetle to urinate by injecting a hormone that scientists now know regulates urine formation in beetles.

Wheat weevils, confused flour beetles, Colorado potato beetles and other types of beetles and insects make their ways into up to 25 per cent of the global food supply every year.

The problem is especially evident in developing countries, where access to effective pest control is limited or non-existent.

The project was conducted in collaboration with researchers from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland and McMaster University, Canada

The study has just been published in the scientific journal PNAS.

Journal Reference:
    1. Takashi Koyama, Muhammad Tayyib Naseem, Dennis Kolosov, Camilla Trang Vo, Duncan Mahon, Amanda Sofie Seger Jakobsen, Rasmus Lycke Jensen, Barry Denholm, Michael O’Donnell, Kenneth Veland Halberg. A unique Malpighian tubule architecture in Tribolium castaneum informs the evolutionary origins of systemic osmoregulation in beetlesProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2021; 118 (14): e2023314118 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2023314118

Source:  ScienceDaily

Govt supports sustainable wool carpets project to develop more sustainable products

The Government is supporting a new project with the all-wool New Zealand carpet company, Bremworth, which aims to develop more sustainable all-wool carpets and rugs.

The Ministry for Primary Industries is contributing $1.9 million towards Bremworth’s $4.9 million sustainability project through its Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures (SFF Futures) fund. Bremworth is a subsidiary of Cavalier Corporation Limited.

Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor said the three-year programme will involve research and development of natural and green chemistry-based alternatives to the few remaining synthetic components of woollen carpets.

“The rise of synthetic carpets has overtaken wool dramatically in the last few decades, which has severely affected the wool industry,” Damien O’Connor said.

“I’m told that an average Kiwi household laid with synthetic carpet is estimated to have the equivalent weight of 22,000 plastic shopping bags on its floor. That’s a compelling reason to use sustainable wool wherever we can to make healthy homes for Kiwis and the world.

“More than ever consumers are considering the entire life-cycle of products. We believe this programme will spur demand for New Zealand strong wool and enhance our manufacturing competitiveness through strong environmental credentials that challenge industry norms.”

New Zealand wool is 100 per cent biodegradable, renewable and sustainable.

“It aims to keep New Zealand woollen yarn and carpet manufacturing capacity in New Zealand, preserving jobs, and protecting local communities and supply chains.”

Damien O’Connor said revitalising the strong wool sector was a key part of delivering the Fit for a Better World – Accelerating our Economic Potential Roadmap, released last year. It included bringing forward $84 million of SFF Futures funding for innovative and creative projects.

“This new project is a great example of an initiative that aims to create a step change in the wool products manufactured in Aotearoa, and deliver on the Fit for a Better World vision. Continue reading

New report shows impact of demands on land in New Zealand

The land cover data in an environmental report published today, Our land 2021, provides the most up-to-date estimates of New Zealand’s land cover and associated land use and changes.

Released by the Ministry for the Environment and Stats NZ, the report presents new data on the country’s land cover, soil quality and land fragmentation.

Our land 2021 continues the second cycle of environmental reporting by Stats NZ and the Ministry for the Environment.

It updates Our land 2018 and the second theme ‘How we use our land’ from Environment Aotearoa 2019, which was the most recent report on the state of the environment as a whole.

Overseas markets are a significant driver of land use, and with global populations projected to reach 10.9 billion by 2100, market-based pressures on land are set to increase.

Most of our agriculture and forestry products are exported and these activities currently cover about half our land area, the report says.

While urban land cover continues to make up 1% of total land area in New Zealand, urban and residential expansion is outwards onto productive land, which creates tension between the use of land for housing and land for agriculture.

This results in a complex trade-off, because using land that is not highly productive for food growing results in lower yields unless more intensive land management approaches are used. Intensive land management brings with it the risks of degrading the quality and health of the soil and the wider environment. Continue reading

2020 Prime Minister’s Science Prizes are awarded

The 2020 Prime Minister’s Science Prizes have been announced in Wellington, recognising the impact of science on New Zealanders’ lives, celebrating the achievements of current scientists and encouraging scientists of the future.

The 2020 Prime Minister’s Science Prize, the premier award for science that is transformational in its impact, has been awarded to Te Pūnaha Matatini for its COVID-19 response.

Te Pūnaha Matatini, hosted at University of Auckland, is a multidisciplinary Centre of Research Excellence, set up to apply complexity science to ‘critical issues of our time’.

Centre Director Professor Shaun Hendy MNZM FRSNZ, University of Auckland, quickly saw in early 2020 that there was a gap in providing the New Zealand Government with the data science it needed to make informed decisions about responding to the pandemic. He quickly assembled a team who have worked tirelessly to fill this need.

The team’s response has been multifaceted. Throughout the pandemic, they have developed a series of new mathematical models and ran a multitude of different scenarios to inform the unique situation that New Zealand found itself in. They have done modelling work and analysis on a wide number of areas including hospital capability, contagion rates and likely disease spread, virus genomic tracing, contact tracing and vaccination.

Continue reading

Reducing our climate emissions – can eating greener make a difference?

New Zealand Herald science writer Jamie Morton has asked what difference would be made to climate change emissions if we all moved to climate-friendly diets.   More specifically, should we take red meat out of our diets?

Let’s look at what we know, Mr Morton writes.

His article kicks off:

Climate change presents an existential threat – and a challenge that’s going to require transformative action by governments and polluting industries across the globe. What actions can we, as individuals take?

 The article which looks at climate-friendly diets is one of a series of extracts from Mr Morton’s contribution to the upcoming book Climate Aotearoa: What’s happening and what we can do about it, edited by former prime minister Helen Clark.

Mr Morton notes that agriculture covers nearly 40 per cent of global land, making agroecosystems the largest terrestrial ecosystems on the planet.

Food production accounts for up to 30 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and nearly three-quarters of freshwater use.

In this country, land conversion for food production is the single most important driver of biodiversity loss.

Mr Morton writes:

Ditching animal protein is seen by an increasing number of people as the only way to deal with the fact that, by 2050, the world’s population will hit 10 billion, rendering the demand for meat higher than the industry’s ability to supply it.

He references science communicator Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles, who cites studies which suggest that climate change is going to lower the yields and nutritional value of staple crops like corn and wheat.

At the same time, it will expand the areas where crop pests can survive, and make it more difficult for farmhands to work at certain times of the day due to the heat.

“In other words,” she says, “we simply can’t rely on our current land-hungry, water-thirsty, pollution-heavy and extinction-inducing ways of producing food if we are to feed the ever-growing human population as our environment changes around us.”

Mr Morton also references Otago University researchers who have found that eating less red meat could be key to New Zealand significantly slashing emissions while saving billions of healthcare dollars over coming decades.

Specifically, they showed a population-level shift to diets rich in plant foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes could — depending on the extent of changes made — cut diet-related emissions by between 4 and 42 per cent annually.

More strikingly, if all Kiwis adopted an exclusively plant-based diet tomorrow, and avoided wasting food unnecessarily, we’d achieve what would be equivalent to a 60 per cent drop in emissions from cars.

As a bonus, Kiwis could collectively enjoy up to 1.5 million more “life years” — that’s those equivalent to a year of optimal health — and save our health system between $14 billion and $20b over the lifetime of our current population.

Mr Morton sees signs that a green shift is happening.

By 2016, the proportion of Kiwis who stated that all — or almost all — of the food they ate was vegetarian had grown by nearly a third from four years earlier.

And recent polling by Colmar Brunton indicates that about one in 10 of us is now largely shunning meat, amid a growing shift to sustainable lifestyles.

Industry data similarly indicate a downward trend of red-meat consumption in New Zealand over the past 10 years, with beef, lamb and mutton down 38 per cent, 45 per cent and 72 per cent respectively.

Rates of vegetarianism tend to drop among Kiwis in their 30s and 40s  but veganism is increasing.

Mr Morton notes that almost half of New Zealand’s emissions come from agriculture — the bulk of that being methane from ruminant animals such as cows and sheep — and some farming models like intensive dairying do generally emit more greenhouse gases.

But sheep and beef emissions have fallen by a third since 1990, in step with falling stock numbers.

And with some 2.8 million hectares of forest on sheep and beef land, the industry holds the largest collection of native bush outside the conservation estate, bringing some carbon-offsetting benefits.

  • Mr Morton acknowledges that his text has been extracted from Climate Aotearoa: What’s happening and what we can do about it, a new book from a range of leading New Zealand climate scientists and commentators, edited by Helen Clark. Published by Allen & Unwin NZ. RRP$36.99. Available in stores from Monday, April 19

Source:  New Zealand Herald

Strengthening Māori knowledge in science and innovation

Research, Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods has announced the 16 projects that together will get $3.9 million through the 2021 round of Te Pūnaha Hihiko: Vision Mātauranga Capability Fund.

She said this further strengthens the Government’s commitment to Māori knowledge in science and innovation.

 “We received 78 proposals – the highest number of applications since the Fund began and I am excited to announce our 16 successful applicants. I want to personally congratulate them and am eager to see the impact and growth within their iwi and organisations from these projects,” says Megan Woods.

“The Fund supports the implementation of a kaupapa Māori approach to research, development and innovation, while ensuring cultural knowledge is maintained, protected and still owned by Māori or iwi.

“By supporting partnership between Māori and the research sector, we strengthen science and innovation for all New Zealanders and our ability to create a better future.”

Successful applicants will be focusing on a wide range of topics including:

  • Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research will partner with Ngāi Tahu Māori Rock Art Trust to merge mātauranga and palaeoecology to inform restoration plans and educational programmes;
  • Te Ruapekapeka Trust will partner with Victoria University of Wellington to digitally construct aspects of the Ruapekapeka heritage pā site using virtual reality technology; and
  •  Tātau Tātau o Te Wairoa Trust will partner with Massey University to work to create an integrated Tātau Tātau geographical information system aimed at preserving, maintaining, and disseminating mātauranga Māori material.

“These projects strengthen our understanding of how research can contribute to the aspirations of individuals, whānau, Māori communities and Māori organisations.

“Protecting and growing mātauranga is a key factor in preserving the uniqueness of Aotearoa. I am proud to be able to support the continued growth of Māori knowledge and research,” says Megan Woods.

A list of Te Pūnaha Hihiko: Vision Mātauranga Capability Fund successful applicants can be found on the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment website.

Source:  Minister of Research, Science and innovation

Waikato University to reduce roles from its science faculty

About a week after Massey University flagged to staff the next move in its sciences restructuring, Stuff reported Waikato University’s cutting 12 roles from its science faculty.

A proposal for changes to Te Aka Mātuatua– School of Science has been  circulated to the school’s staff and its management and with the Tertiary Education Union.

Staff were invited to submit by March 10, 51 submissions were received and the university decided to disestablish 15 full-time and part-time roles.

The change is part of enabling the School’s Vision and Strategy 2021-26, developed with staff input during 2020.

The university says the restructuring was necessitated by the school experiencing challenging financial situations not relating specifically to Covid-19, but years of escalating staff costs and a decline in students.

The cuts would reduce the deficit for 2021 from $1.93m to $1.17m, and in 2022 the deficit would fall again to $0.64m.

While 12 roles are disestablished, several new ones will be established to better fit the current needs of the school.

The net change is a reduction of 5.2 full-time equivalent academic staff and 1.2 full-time equivalent general staff.

Stuff reported a Waikato University spokesperson as saying the restructuring would allow the university to shift to a more integrated, student-centred approach, with an increase in full-time equivalent roles in teaching, undergraduate support and pastoral care within the School.

“It increases support for students, particularly in their first year when they need it most, so they can stay in science, and makes the future of the school more sustainable.

“We are actively supporting staff to be redeployed to these new roles. We have minimised the roles impacted in the change as much as possible through staff opting to take voluntary redundancy and early retirement.”

The change will not mean a loss of subjects or papers offered at early undergraduate levels.

Source:  Stuff

Government backs more initiatives to boost food and fibre workforce

The Government is backing more initiatives to boost New Zealand’s food and fibre sector workforce, Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor announced today.

It has been working with the food and fibres sector to fill critical workforce needs and has committed to getting 10,000 more Kiwis into the sector over the next four years.

New workforce initiatives being backed by the Government include:

  • Up to $240,000 to fund an on-the-job mentoring programme aimed at building experience for Kiwis new to agricultural contracting.
  • Funding for two horticulture career development managers in Pukekohe and Canterbury to direct seasonal effort and resource where required.
  • Establishing a Food and Fibre Youth Network and Council with NZ Young Farmers to provide input into workforce and other issues.
  • Running Innovation Activator workshops with Rural Women NZ to fast track their entrepreneurial ideas.

“These initiatives follow work we’ve already done over the past eight months through the Opportunity Grows Here campaign and training initiatives that’s resulted in 3,694 more people working in the food and fibre sector,” said Damien O’Connor.

“The agricultural contracting programme is a good example of how we’re partnering with industry. It will be delivered by agricultural work specialists, HanzonJobs and targets job seekers affected by COVID-19, Ministry of Social Development clients, and 18-24 year olds who aren’t in education, employment or training.

“The Food and Fibre Youth Network and Council will provide a formal pan-sector youth voice to raise matters such as workforce issues and provide input into critical decisions to guide the future of the sector.

“There’s no shortage of talented people in our rural communities,” said Damien O’Connor.  “The Activator sessions provide the opportunity for rural women to have intensive, mentor-led sessions with experts to help bring their entrepreneurial ideas to life.

“By harnessing these ideas and helping to get them off the ground, we will be building capability within the sector, and future employment opportunities.

“These investments in people move us along our Fit for a Better World Roadmap, which aims to accelerate our primary sector’s economic potential.”

Source:  Minister of Agriculture

64% of global agricultural land at risk of pesticide pollution

A global map of agricultural land across 168 countries has revealed that 64 per cent of land used for agriculture and food crops is at risk of pesticide pollution. Almost a third of these areas are considered to be at high risk.

The study examined risk to soil, the atmosphere, and surface and ground water.

The map revealed Asia has the largest land areas at high risk of pollution, with China, Japan, Malaysia, and the Philippines at highest risk. Some of these areas are considered “food bowl” nations, feeding a large portion of the world’s population.

University of Sydney Research Associate and the study’s lead author, Dr Fiona Tang, said the widespread use of pesticides in agriculture — while boosting productivity — could have potential implications for the environment, human and animal health.

“Our study has revealed 64 per cent of the world’s arable land is at risk of pesticide pollution. This is important because the wider scientific literature has found that pesticide pollution can have adverse impacts on human health and the environment,” said Dr Tang.

Pesticides can be transported to surface waters and groundwater through runoff and infiltration, polluting water bodies, thereby reducing the usability of water resources.

“Although the agricultural land in Oceania shows the lowest pesticide pollution risk, Australia’s Murray-Darling basin is considered a high-concern region both due to its water scarcity issues, and its high biodiversity,” said co-author Associate Professor Federico Maggi from the School of Civil Engineering and the Sydney Institute of Agriculture.

“Globally, our work shows that 34 percent of the high-risk areas are in high-biodiversity regions, 19 percent in low-and lower-middle-income nations and five percent in water-scarce areas,” said Dr Tang.

There is concern that overuse of pesticides will tip the balance, destabilise ecosystems and degrade the quality of water sources that humans and animals rely on to survive.

The future outlook

Global pesticide use is expected to increase as the global population heads towards an expected 8.5 billion by 2030.

“In a warmer climate, as the global population grows, the use of pesticides is expected to increase to combat the possible rise in pest invasions and to feed more people,” said Associate Professor Maggi.

Dr Tang said:

“Although protecting food production is essential for human development, reducing pesticide pollution is equivalently crucial to protect the biodiversity that maintains soil health and functions, contributing towards food security.”

Co-author Professor Alex McBratney, Director of the Sydney Institute of Agriculture at the University of Sydney, said: “This study shows it will be important to carefully monitor residues on an annual basis to detect trends in order to manage and mitigate risks from pesticide use.”

“We recommend a global strategy to transition towards a sustainable, global agricultural model that reduces food wastage while reducing the use of pesticides,” said the authors of the paper.

Journal Reference:

Fiona H. M. Tang, Manfred Lenzen, Alexander McBratney, Federico Maggi. Risk of pesticide pollution at the global scaleNature Geoscience, 2021; DOI: 10.1038/s41561-021-00712-5

Source:  ScienceDaily

Climate change has cut global farming productivity 21% since 1960s

Despite important agricultural advancements to feed the world in the past 60 years, a Cornell-led study shows that global farming productivity is 21% lower than it could have been without climate change. This is the equivalent of losing about seven years of farm productivity increases since the 1960s.

The future potential impacts of climate change on global crop production has been quantified in many scientific reports, but the historic influence of anthropogenic climate change on the agricultural sector had yet to be modeled.

Now, a new study provides these insights: “Anthropogenic Climate Change Has Slowed Global Agricultural Productivity Growth,” published in Nature Climate Change, was led by economist Ariel Ortiz-Bobea, associate professor in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell.

“We find that climate change has basically wiped out about seven years of improvements in agricultural productivity over the past 60 years,” Ortiz-Bobea said. “It is equivalent to pressing the pause button on productivity growth back in 2013 and experiencing no improvements since then. Anthropogenic climate change is already slowing us down.”

The scientists and economists developed an all-encompassing econometric model linking year-to-year changes in weather and productivity measures with output from the latest climate models over six decades to quantify the effect of recent human-caused climate change on what economists call “total factor productivity,” a measure capturing overall productivity of the agricultural sector.

Ortiz-Bobea said they considered more than 200 systematic variations of the econometric model, and the results remained largely consistent.

“When we zoom into different parts of the world, we find that the historical impacts of climate change have been larger in areas already warmer, including parts of Africa, Latin America and Asia,” he said.

Humans have already altered the climate system, Ortiz-Bobea said, as climate science indicates the globe is about 1 degree Celsius warmer than without atmospheric greenhouse gases.

“Most people perceive climate change as a distant problem,” Ortiz-Bobea said. “But this is something that is already having an effect. We have to address climate change now so that we can avoid further damage for future generations.”

Cornell funding was provided by USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the National Science Foundation.

Journal Reference:

  1. Ariel Ortiz-Bobea, Toby R. Ault, Carlos M. Carrillo, Robert G. Chambers, David B. Lobell. Anthropogenic climate change has slowed global agricultural productivity growthNature Climate Change, 2021; DOI: 10.1038/s41558-021-01000-1

Source:  ScienceDaily