New research conducted at Brisbane airport shows how the invasive keyhole wasp builds their nests over important sensors, causing havoc for aircraft, George Dvorsky reports for Gizmodo.
Keyhole wasps like to lay their eggs in small, pre-made cavities like window crevices, electrical sockets and, as their name implies, keyholes. Airplanes, meanwhile, rely on external sensors that are shaped like thin tubes. If the pilot realizes after takeoff that a sensor is blocked, the plane just has to turn around so it can be cleaned. But in a worst-case scenario, malfunctioning sensors are catastrophic. The new study, published on November 30 in the journal PLOS One, confirmed keyhole wasps are the sensor-blocking culprit, figured out their favorite size sensors for nest-building, and found that they built most of their nests near a grassy field at the airport.
The researchers hope that airports will be use the data to better combat the six-legged saboteurs.
“When we did some background research we realized that this wasn’t just an inconvenience, that you just had to clean these things out and swat the wasps away; this could actually lead to major accidents,” says Eco Logical Australia ecologist Alan House, lead author on the new study, to CNN’s Hilary Whiteman.
A plane crash off the coast of the Dominican Republic in 1996 that killed all 189 passengers and crew was linked to blockage of the pitot tube, which measures the speed that air is flowing through it as a proxy for how fast the plane is flying. The pitot tube’s measurements can show if the plane is flying fast enough to be stable, or if the plane is flying too slow, putting it at risk of stalling. Inaccurate airspeed readings can cause dangerous reactions by the pilots—or software.
“It’s not a Mayday emergency but it’s the next level down, and it closes the runways,” says House to New Scientist’s Donna Lu.
The wasps are native to the Americas, but have been flying around Brisbane for over a decade. The insects have figured out a speedy strategy for establishing their nests.
“We have anecdotal reports from ground crew at Brisbane that a plane can have arrived at the gate and within a matter of two or three minutes, a wasp will be flying around the nose of the plane having a look at the probe,” House tells CNN. House adds to Belinda Smith at ABC News Australia, “When the plane first comes in, those probes are too hot for the wasp, so I think what she’s doing is waiting for it to cool down.”
Once the tube is cool, the wasp fills the cavity with mud, an egg and a bit of prey, like a caterpillar. A thin wall of mud at the front seals the nest, and solidly blocks the pitot tube. This process can happen in under 30 minutes, as was the case when a wasp nest blocked the temperature probe on a flight from Brisbane to Newcastle in 2015, per ABC