Bought a new car recently and want to enjoy that new car smell? Unfortunately, you’ve probably been told that delivery is going to take longer than usual. We know that stinks. But not as much as a Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (BMSB) outbreak would!
How stink bugs (and other biosecurity risks) are causing delays
Over the past few months, thousands of new cars have been sitting on ships waiting to be offloaded at ports around Australia. The delay has been caused by a backlog in vehicles waiting to be thoroughly cleaned and checked for biosecurity risk materials. These materials include any pests, weeds or diseases that could harm our economy, environment or community if they got into Australia. In the case of cars, likely suspects are soil, plant debris, seeds and live insects, such as the potentially devastating BMSB.
According to our friends at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF), since 2021, Australia’s ports have seen an 88 per cent increase in new vehicles arriving with biosecurity risk material contamination.
Over the same period, there has been a 17 per cent increase in the total number of new vehicle imports into Australia.
These factors have combined to create one great big cleaning job for the commercial companies employed by car manufacturers to ensure your new car doesn’t come with any ‘hidden extras’!
Insects and weeds and seeds – oh my!
Why the massive increase in risky materials, you ask? Great question!
Seasonality is responsible for some increases. For example, BMSB are more likely to hide out in vehicles at certain times of the year.
However, the likely culprit is COVID. During the pandemic, many vehicles were stored overseas in paddocks waiting to be shipped. This exposed them to higher levels of plant debris and insects prior to export, resulting in a bigger cleaning job once they finally arrived in Australia.
What’s all the fuss?
How much damage could one tiny bug do, you ask? Another great question! (Have you considered a job as a researcher? We’re looking for people like you!)
The answer is a lot! BMSB can breed huge populations that become both a household nuisance, as well as a major problem for crop growers.
If BMSB established in Australia, it would be extremely difficult and expensive to manage. Unlike our native stink bugs, it has no specialised natural enemies here to keep its population in check. The Samurai wasp, Trissolcus mitsukurii, is a potential biocontrol agent that has been found here previously, however it hasn’t been spotted recently. BMSB isn’t easily controlled with pesticides either and feeds on more than 300 types of plant, so could spread rapidly.
We’re on the stinky case
We’re working with DAFF and partners from across the system to transform Australia’s biosecurity system and ensure it continues to protect our industries, environment, and communities from the growing threats of pests, weeds and diseases.
The developing initiative is called Catalysing Australia’s Biosecurity and that’s what we’re planning to do – work with our partners to catalyse innovation and ensure our biosecurity system remains world-leading.
It’s early days yet, but an example of the type of project we’ll be undertaking is an app designed to help the biosecurity officers tasked with the tricky job of correctly identifying a BMSB.
There’s an app for that
The BMSB looks similar to many other stink bug species, making it difficult to recognise. And there are a lot of other stink bug species!
Australia has about 600 named native stink bug species as well as several thousand more undescribed species – none of which pose a biosecurity risk. On top of this, biosecurity inspectors may only have part of an insect to work with making correct identification even harder.
Correctly identifying whether a specimen is or isn’t a BMSB is really important. An incorrect identification could lead to a BMSB entering Australia with devastating impacts. Conversely, a false positive could result in an expensive and time-consuming biosecurity response to a harmless native stick bug.
To help ensure correct identification, our botanist Dr Alexander Schmidt-Lebuhn used artificial intelligence (AI) to build a prototype of an easy-to-use stink bug identification app.
"We took detailed digital images of the thousands of specimens of expertly identified species of Australian and exotic stink bugs we have in our Australian National Insect Collection," Alexander said.
"We then trained AI models to recognise BMSB and tell it apart from similar looking species, especially native ones that are commonly found by biosecurity officers."
The resultant prototype app is now being further developed by DAFF, with biosecurity officers currently trialling it at ports and airports around Australia.
"We’re now working on a new AI model that can identify priority weed seeds, which can be equally difficult to correctly identify," Alexander said.
Through projects like this, we’re working to deliver practical science and technology innovations that will ensure Australia’s biosecurity system is ready to meet future challenges.