They may only be small, but keyhole wasps are causing some big problems for aircraft in Australia.
Keyhole wasps, as their name hints at, are known for their tendency to build nests in tiny holes found in the environment. This is often wood in the natural world, although they are infamous for building nests in human-built structures too. As it turns out, they are also prone to building their nests in the crucial onboard devices used to measure the speed of airplanes. The probes consist of a tube-like instrument designed to measure the flow of air and determine the airspeed of an aircraft. Unfortunately, the hole through which the air enters is also the ideal size for a keyhole wasp on the lookout for new digs. This may not sound like a big deal, but the tiny wasp nest can take down an aircraft.
A new study, due to be published in the journal PLOS ONE next week, has investigated the extent of the problem of keyhole wasps (Pachodynerus nasidens) blocking airplanes’ pitot probes at Brisbane International Airport in Australia, and concluded it could pose a “serious issue for air travel.”
The issue was first brought to attention at Brisbane Airport in November 2013 when an Airbus A330 prepared to take off but was forced to make an emergency landing because the plane started to display some different airspeed readings from its different probes. After safely landing, it transpired that the captain's probe was stuffed full of sand and mud, just as you’d expect to see in the nest of a keyhole wasp.
"There is a hotspot on the airport. The wasp, unfortunately, does prefer pitot probes on the most common aircraft at Brisbane Airport, and the nesting season has become longer as the species establishes itself and summers get warmer," Dr Alan House, lead study author from Eco Logical Australia, said in a statement.
They found a total of 26 wasp-related issues were reported at Brisbane Airport between November 2013 and April 2019. To dig deeper into this problem, researchers from Eco Logical Australia set up a number of 3D-printed replica pitot probes across the airport and simply left nature to run its course. After just over three years, they discovered that at least 93 of the fake probes had been blocked by keyhole wasps.
The species is native to tropical South America and Central America, although it’s also been documented in southern stretches of the US and parts of the Caribbean region. However, as this study highlights, the species has now made its way across the Pacific Ocean and become an invasive species in a number of Pacific Islands and Australia. It’s feared the species could now start to spread its wings further to other parts of Australia and the Pacific region, meaning this threat to airplane safety could become more prolific.
In light of this, the researchers conclude by saying their study should inspire others to develop better ways to control and potentially eradicate this fiendishly adaptable species.
“We hope this research will bring attention to a little known but serious issue for air travel in tropical and sub-tropical regions,” the study authors write. “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."