Keyhole wasps threaten airplane safety in Australia

Move over seagulls, aviation has a new threat — the keyhole wasp.

Keyhole wasps like to build their nests in tiny holes, including the opening of devices used to measure the speed of aircrafts, according to new findings conducted over a three year period by Eco Logical Australia.

The research was triggered by several safety incidents involving the wasps, including one in which a plane had to land again soon after departing from Brisbane Airport because the pilots recognized an air speed discrepancy in November 2013.

After studying the behavior of keyhole wasps (Pachodynerus nasidens) at Brisbane Airport, the team discovered a total of 26 wasp-related issues were reported at the airport between November 2013 and April 2019, in conjunction with a series of serious safety incidents involving “pitot probes.”

The wasps had effortlessly built nests in these pitot probes — which are tube-like instruments often mounted beneath the cockpit on the exterior of an aircraft.

“It’s not a Mayday emergency but it’s the next level down, and it closes the runways,” said biologist Alan House.  A blocked pitot probe was found to be the culprit in that case.

As a result of the research, risk-mitigating strategies have been introduced, such as covering pitot probes when aircraft arrive at Brisbane Airport.

In South and Central America, where the keyhole wasp is a native species, it is known to build its nest in cavities including keyholes and electrical sockets. “It’s quite famous for the plasticity of its nesting behavior,” says House.

“We hope this research will bring attention to a little known but serious issue for air travel in tropical and subtropical regions,” the biologist said.

“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,” he concluded.

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