Automated drones could scare birds off agricultural fields

A Washington State University research team has developed a system whereby cameras could spot pest birds in vineyards or orchards and launch drones to drive off the avian irritants, then return to watch for the next invading flock. All without a human nearby.

The system is detailed in a study published in the journal Computer and Electronics in Agriculture. It is designed to have automated drones available to patrol 24 hours a day to deter pest birds in the US, such as European starlings or crows, that cost growers millions of dollars a year in stolen or ruined fruit.

“Growers don’t really have a good tool they can rely on for deterring pest birds at an affordable price,” said Manoj Karkee, associate professor in WSU’s Department of Biological Systems Engineering and the study’s corresponding author.

“With further refinement and industry partnerships, this system could work.”

For the study, the team ran two separate tests: detecting birds and deploying drones automatically. Over a few years, Karkee’s team developed a camera system and algorithm that would find birds and count them as they flew in and out of fields.

The team customised very small drones and deployed them for flight tests on small plots with simulated birds.

Technologically, the system resembles drone package delivery systems. It will be several years before this particular technology would be commercially available for growers because there are still several hurdles, including making sure it works at scale, complies with federal drone regulations, and continues to deter birds even if drones are commonly flying around.

“Birds are really clever,” said Karkee, who is also affiliated with WSU’s Center for Precision & Automated Agricultural Systems.

“They often find ways around deterrents. We don’t want a system that only lasts for a few months or years before they stop being scared off.”

For now, the birds are scared off just by the motion and whirring noises made by drones. But Karkee said that sounds, like distress calls or predatory bird noises, could be added. Builders could even design special drones for the job.

“We could make drones look like predators, or have reflective propellers that are really shiny,” he said. “All of these working together would likely keep birds away from those vineyards and fields. We need to research that over multiple years to make sure.”

The automation research is the third in a series of three studies concerning drones and bird pests. The first showed that manually operated drones, doing random flights, successfully drive off or keep birds away from vineyards. They found that drones reduced bird counts four-fold.

The second project showed the impact driving off the birds can have on crop yield. Karkee’s team followed up on the fields where they manually drove birds off. Those fields had around 50% reduction in damaged fruits.

Karkee plans to meet with growers, technology companies, and other stakeholders to start next steps on working toward a commercially available automated drone system.

“It takes time,” he said. “But the results so far are exciting. We’re looking forward to doing more work on this project.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Santosh Bhusal, Manoj Karkee, Uddhav Bhattarai, Yaqoob Majeed, Qin Zhang. Automated execution of a pest bird deterrence system using a programmable unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)Computers and Electronics in Agriculture, 2022; 198: 106972 DOI: 10.1016/j.compag.2022.106972

Source:  ScienceDaily

Winning against Wildings – an update from the campaign team

As part of a nationwide response to curb the spread of wilding conifers Manaaki Whenua scientists are involved in a major collaborative project.  This week a progress report has been posted on the CRI’s website.

Introduced conifers are the backbone of commercial forestry in New Zealand, worth around $5 billion a year, but the spread of wilding conifers is arguably New Zealand’s most serious and intractable weed problem.

Before 2016 wildings were estimated to be invading the equivalent of nine high country stations, or about 90,000 hectares, each year. Wildings are now thought to occur on at least 1.8 million hectares nationwide, and without control could invade 28% of our total land area within 35 years.

Wildings have profound impacts on our national biological heritage, ecosystem services, economy, and cultural values. As a result, land managers, government agencies, and community trusts collectively spend over $14 million each year managing the problem.

As part of a nationwide response, a team of Manaaki Whenua scientists, led by Dr Duane Peltzer, have undertaken a wide-ranging programme through the MBIE-funded Endeavour programme, Winning against Wildings.

The programme was a major collaborative effort with Scion, BioProtection Aotearoa, and the University of Canterbury, and it strengthened partnerships with the National Wilding Conifer Control Programme, the New Zealand Wilding Conifer Group, and on-the-ground practitioners.

The overall goal of the five-year research programme, which began in late 2016, has been to ensure the long-term success of the National Wilding Conifer Management Strategy, which aims to control or contain wildings nationally by 2030.

New knowledge, evidence, tools and processes developed through our research have generated a wide range of benefits with multiple pathways of uptake – including conferences, webinars and close links with the forestry industry – to ensure our findings, tools, and innovations are widely implemented.

Here are some highlights:

  • Spread risk among wilding conifer species has been quantified.  Their dispersal distance is further than previously estimated.  Spread risk is also driven by variation in seeds within individual trees rather than there being a few ‘risky’ trees that drive invasion.
  • New remote-sensing methods have been developed to detect and map wilding invasions at large spatial scales, including the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) and algorithms that can measure land-use change. These approaches are being used by managers to better plan control efforts, and to help ensure wilding spread is contained.
  • Low-dose herbicides to control dense wilding invasion have been developed and tested operationally, reducing the chemicals used in management while effectively controlling over 95% of wilding trees.
  • Ernslaw One, the largest Douglas fir grower in New Zealand, is establishing industry trials of a clonal variety of Douglas fir that produces fewer seed cones to test their suitability for forestry use across a wide range of environments and thereby significantly reduce Douglas fir spread risk in the future.

Many of the improvements in wilding control tools we have developed are now an essential part of the good practice guides widely used by managers and contractors to help make control efforts cheaper, safer, and more effective.

Wilding conifers have major impacts on biodiversity, both above and below ground, and can leave persistent legacies in vegetation and soils following management. Social and economic research shows a growing interest in and concern from the public about the negative effects of wildings, and this has, in part, resulted in successful increased investment in national wilding control efforts.

“A major goal of the wildings programme was to integrate ecological understanding with management innovations across the entire invasion curve needed to stop or contain landscape-scale invasions. It is deeply satisfying to look back at how much progress has been made over the past few years, and that new knowledge and collective management efforts have grown quickly over this time”, says Dr Peltzer.

Overall, the Winning against Wildings programme has developed a better understanding of the causes and consequences of wilding invasion. Improved control methods, innovations, and approaches have been developed, as has novel integration with social, cultural, and economic dimensions. During this time the National Wilding Conifer Control Programme has accelerated management from less than 300,000 hectares to around 1.5 million hectares nationally, and in so doing is estimated to have protected over 3 million hectares of vulnerable landscapes.

Longer-term, our findings will be used to support the next investment case to government, now planned for 2022. To fully implement and realise the benefits of wilding management, the next phase of effort (2021–26) will require stopping new invasions and reinvasions, and scaling up wilding management into new areas and regions if the ambitious national goal of stopping or containing wilding spread by 2030 is to be achieved.

Source:  Maanaki Whenua/Landcare Research

‘Residency’ edges closer for shortlist of new organisms

A tomato plant virus is among seven organisms in line for deregulation, having recently established themselves in New Zealand.

Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) sought feedback on which new organisms should no longer hold regulatory status as “new” because they are effectively resident here.  This deregulation process is conducted under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act, for species that arrived after 29 July 1998.

“We have carefully screened the shortlisted candidates, and no longer consider that they are new organisms because they’ve been present in Aotearoa for some time. This is not an assessment of whether or not we want them in the country, just a recognition of their presence here,” says Dr Chris Hill, General Manager of the EPA’s New Organisms group.

“This process is about making it easier for scientists wanting to conduct research on these organisms, and removing the unnecessary financial barriers for businesses wanting to make use of them.” Continue reading

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

Studying pest management is student’s key to changing the world

Student Callum Mclean’s career change after spending a few years in the workforce – he decided he wanted to focus on a field of study that would enable him to help change the world for the better – led him to the Master of Pest Management (specialising in plant pest management) at Lincoln University.

After graduating, he plans to work in the public sector and says the degree can offer a wide range of job opportunities.

He heaps great importance on biosecurity and the protection of New Zealand’s  agricultural sector.

His ambition and the reasons for his study focus are reported on the Lincoln University website. Continue reading

EPA says grounds have been established to reassess neonicotinoids

The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) has determined there are grounds to reassess approvals of substances containing neonicotinoids used in New Zealand.

Neonicotinoids, a group of insecticides, have been the subject of ongoing concern regarding their effects on bee populations internationally. A reassessment is a formal review of the rules controlling a substance that is already in use in New Zealand.

“Grounds” is a specific term under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act (HSNO). It refers to certain criteria required by HSNO, which must be met before a reassessment can be initiated.

Notification of grounds means an application can be made to reassess a substance. Continue reading

EPA’s Annual Report on aerial use of 1080 released

The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) Annual Report on the aerial use of 1080 for pest control during 2018 provides greater detail than previous years, giving more information on operations and research.

It shows a near halving of activity compared with the previous year, in terms of both the number of operations and total area treated.

There were 29 operations covering 441,000 hectares of land, compared with 50 operations across 877,000 hectares in 2017. This was due to the Department of Conservation (DOC) using less 1080, as there were no mast events in New Zealand’s forests.

Heavy seed fall seasons (known as masts) drive rat populations up, threatening native species.

Operations to reduce bovine tuberculosis by TBfree Limited made up 55 percent of the total aerial 1080 activity in New Zealand in 2018, covering  241,000 hectares.

In detailing incidents reported and complaints received around the aerial operations for the year, there was only one instance of non-compliance with Hazardous Substances & New Organisms Act controls. That occurred in Otago. This was the lowest non-compliance rate since reporting began in 2007. There were 12 instances of non-compliance reported in 2017.

An inquiry into eight cattle deaths at Mapara found that DOC breached one of its standard operating procedures, but the breach did not contribute to the deaths.

This year the EPA has included a summary of past research into improving the efficacy of 1080 operations and alternatives to its use. It provides detail on more than 60 projects commenced since the 2007 reassessment of 1080.

The full report is HERE, 

And you can read more about the use of 1080 HERE. 

Source:  Environmental Protection Authority

Permission granted for release of wasp biocontrol agent

The Environmental Protection Authority has approved an application to release a small parasitic wasp to control and eradicate the giant willow aphid.

The Crown Research Institute Scion applied to the authority to import and release the parasitoid wasp, Pauesia nigrovaria, as a biological control agent for the giant willow aphid (Tuberolachnus salignus).

One of the largest aphid species, Tuberolachnus salignus can grow 5.8mm in length. It was first reported in New Zealand in Auckland in December 2013 and has spread quickly across the country.

Environmental risks posed by the giant willow aphid include damaging willow trees, which may affect riverbank stability in the countryside. The aphids transform willow sap into honeydew. Bees which drink honeydew produced by the giant willow aphid produce a sour, unmarketable honey.

The Decision-making Committee considering the application took into account a range of information, including a total of 50 public submissions; 45 in support, two opposed, and three neither opposing nor supporting the application.

The Committee concluded that the benefits of releasing P. nigrovaria outweighed the potential risks.

It found that the release of the wasp – which does not sting and is not known to pose any risks to people – would provide a highly specific and sustainable tool to control giant willow aphid populations.

It also concluded that:

• the presence of P. nigrovaria would reduce the production of giant willow aphid’s honeydew which is a food source for pest Vespid wasps. These wasps feed on honeybees and compete with native insects for nectar.
• there would be negligible adverse effects on the environment and on ecosystem interactions and food webs. Native aphids would not be at risk.
• non-release of the wasp could have adverse effects on the economy, as high giant willow aphid populations could reduce willow tree growth and carbon sequestration (the process involved in carbon capture and the long-term storage of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere).

The full decision is available HERE. 

Source: Environmental Protection Authority

Agencies join forces in methyl bromide monitoring programme

Plans are being put in place to increase methyl bromide monitoring following a theoretical modelling report about how the log fumigant disperses into the environment after use.

This is additional monitoring, over and above the routine monitoring that industry is required to carry out every time methyl bromide fumigation occurs.

The mathematical modelling of operations at the Port of Tauranga was commissioned by the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) as part of a modified reassessment currently under way to review the rules around methyl bromide use.

This modified reassessment is a statutory process where an independent decision-making committee considers evidence in relation to the way methyl bromide is used. The additional monitoring, to be carried out by WorkSafe, will feed into that process.

The Ministry of Health is maintaining a watching brief on the monitoring programme and stresses there is no immediate public health concern. Continue reading

Scion seeks approval to release small wasp to tackle giant aphid

The Environmental Protection Authority is seeking views on an application to release a small parasitic wasp to control and eradicate the giant willow aphid.

The authority (EPA) is considering the application by New Zealand Crown Research Institute Scion.

One of the largest aphid species, Tuberolachnus salignus can grow 5.8mm in length. It was first reported in New Zealand in December 2013 in Auckland and has spread quickly across the country.

Environmental risks posed by the giant willow aphid include damaging willow trees which may affect riverbank stability in the countryside. Bees that drink honeydew made by the aphid produce a sour, unmarketable honey.

The applicant seeks to release the small parasitic wasp, Pauesia nigrovaria, to control and eradicate the giant willow aphid. The female wasp lays an egg inside the aphid which hatches and ultimately eats the aphid from the inside, Scion says.

Submitters have until 5pm on 17 September to have their say.

More detailed information can be found HERE. 

Source:  Environmental Protection Authority