A wasp species can threaten the safety of aircraft.

Over a period of 39 months, keyhole wasps (Pachodynerus nasidens) were responsible for 93 cases of total blockage of tubes or pitot tubes – vital instruments that measure air speed – at the airport in Brisbane, Australia, according to a study published by biologist Alan House in the journal PLOS ONE. The results highlight the importance of risk mitigation strategies, such as covering pitot probes when planes arrive and installing additional traps to intercept the wasps.

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Interactions between aircraft and wildlife are frequent and can have serious financial and safety consequences. However, the risk posed when aircraft are on the ground is much less understood, and the specific threats posed by insects have not been previously quantified. In the new study, they investigated the possible role of keyhole wasps in blocking pitot probes at the Brisbane airport. Between November 2013 and April 2019, a total of 26 wasp-related problems were reported at the airport, along with a number of serious probe-related security incidents.

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The researchers used three-dimensional printing technology to build a series of replica pitot probes, which they mounted at four locations at the airport. All nests in these probes were made by keyhole wasps, and the nesting spike occurred in the summer months, temperatures between 24 and 31°C. Most of the nests were built in one area of the airport. According to the biologist this poses a significant risk to aviation safety, and it is justified to continue with the work of developing strategies to control or eradicate persistent populations of this adaptable, inventive and highly mobile species.

“We hope this research will draw attention to a little-known but serious problem for air travel in tropical and subtropical regions. Having found its way across the Pacific Ocean, there is no reason to doubt that it could spread to other parts of Australia. The consequences of not managing this clever but dangerous pest could be substantial,” House said.

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