Libby Burgess

Science Group Leader, Mt Albert

Our Applied Entomology group is as integral to Plant & Food Research’s Bioprotection portfolio as insects are to New Zealand’s food economy. It’s my privilege to have been appointed Science Group Leader for Applied Entomology.

One of our key challenges is to ensure the vast experience, knowledge and practical approach built up in this science group over previous decades is successfully carried forward to new generations of scientists. This kind of transfer is a challenge in many organisations, but our close relationship with New Zealand’s receptive and supportive horticulture and cropping industries – which has proven so successful – means this knowledge is especially precious. I have observed first-hand how this relationship has flourished over my 30-year career with this organisation so I’m especially pleased to see our ranks bolstered with exciting new talent well ahead of the handovers we will need to make in the future.

Over this time I have seen New Zealand lead the world in integrating biological pest control with drastically reduced chemical control for export apples. Our Apple Futures programme, a collaboration between NZ Apples and Pears and Plant and Food Research, has gone on to reduce residues on fruit to negligible levels. This enabled the pipfruit industry to meet import requirements in more than 70 international markets, more than any other apple exporter.

My own research has concentrated on biological and integrated pest control, and on assessing the effect of new crops and management techniques on pest and beneficial insects. A recent project I worked on with my predecessor in this role showed the biological diversity in apple orchards using this integrated system is now as great as in totally organic orchards.

Looking ahead, colleagues in our Bioprotection group are developing new tools such as sterile insect techniques, which disrupt mating and super-sensitive insect pheromone detectors. This works well at managing existing pests but are especially effective against new or emerging threats.

We have seven Applied Entomology teams supporting kiwifruit, apples, pears, winegrapes, avocados, potatoes and other vegetables, and arable crops working at seven sites across the country. Part of our work includes breeding colonies of insects for research purposes. We recently achieved world acclaim for overcoming the challenges that have defeated all previous attempts to breed bark beetles, which have devastated thousands of hectares of conifer forests overseas.

Our rearing experts are now supplying thousands of insects each week to our fumigation scientists who are testing and optimising fumigation protocols to minimise environmental impact while ensuring New Zealand’s radiata pine logs are insect-free for overseas markets. It’s just a high profile example of the dozens of insect rearing programmes currently under way that enable high quality research in New Zealand’s productive systems.

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