A sting in the tale: Auckland researcher names wasp after Harry Potter villain

This wasp shares a name with a much-maligned Harry Potter character.
SUPPLIED

This wasp shares a name with a much-maligned Harry Potter character.

A wasp is a lot like a Harry Potter villain: both have bad reputations, but can be redeemed.

That's the view of University of Auckland PhD student Tom Saunders, who has named a newly discovered native wasp species Lusius malfoyi.

Like its namesake Lucius Malfoy, who defected from Lord Voldemort's army in the final Harry Potter book, the wasp was not an out-and-out "bad guy", Saunders said.

While it wears the Hufflepuff colours, this wasp is a Slytherin at heart, using other animals as part of its life cycle.
SUPPLIED

While it wears the Hufflepuff colours, this wasp is a Slytherin at heart, using other animals as part of its life cycle.

"The truth is that the vast majority of wasp species are either neutral, or beneficial, from a human standpoint.

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"Just as Lucius Malfoy is pardoned after separating from Voldemort's allies, I'm asking people to pardon wasps in order to restore their reputation as interesting, important creatures."

Saunders is studying towards a PhD in biological sciences at the University of Auckland and Crown research institute ...
SUPPLIED

Saunders is studying towards a PhD in biological sciences at the University of Auckland and Crown research institute Plant & Food Research.

Unlike their introduced cousins, New Zealand's native wasps do not sting and do not live in colonies.

However, they do have a macabre reproductive technique: they inject eggs into the bodies of caterpillars, where the larvae feed inside the host's body as it slowly dies.

"It's gruesome, but there is no doubt that these wasps are important components of ecosystems, and also important for control of pests in horticulture," Saunders said.

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Lusius malfoyi is the first species from the genus Lusius to be described from the Australasian region.

There are thought to be 3000 endemic wasp species in New Zealand, and only about a third are known to science.

Saunders said he recognised the connection between Malfoy's character and "the plight of our misunderstood wasps" straight away.

"I was definitely inspired to name this species in a way that would hopefully spark a larger conversation about the relationship that humans have with the millions of species that share the planet with us."

During his Masters degree, Saunders worked on improving methods for capturing wasps.

He said New Zealand may be losing endemic species without knowing it.

"The big problem is lack of data, we do not know what species we have, how many there might be or what their host species are, so they can't be included in conservation planning.

"Much of my work in capturing them for my research was at the edge of the Waitakere Ranges so they can be found even in people's backyards, but most people don't know anything about them."

Wasps that lay eggs inside a living host – also known as parasitoid wasps – are often used as environmental tools in New Zealand, and species have been introduced to control a range of pests.

Saunders' aim is to test the viability of introducing a parasitoid wasp to control the brown marmorated stink bug, which has been classed as an environmental threat by the Ministry for Primary Industries.

 - Stuff

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