A plague of flax weevils – a conservation hyper-success story

Most people think of weevils as little maggoty grubs that infest stored grain products. Which is true, but the reality is that the weevil family is the most diverse family of organisms on the planet, with more than 50,000 species. Weevils are beetles, and adults are characterised by having a long snout and antennae bent at right-angles. They range in size from less than 2 mm to about 50 mm long. Weevils all start their lives as eggs from which larvae (grubs) hatch, and it is the larvae of the maize weevil or rice weevil (both in the genus Sitophilus) that you might find in your old opened packet of muesli.

Flax weevil on Titi Island, Marlborough Sounds, Jan 2013. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

Flax weevil on Titi Island, Marlborough Sounds, Jan 2013. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

New Zealand has a diverse weevil fauna that includes several large flightless species at risk of extinction. Many weevil species feed exclusively on a single plant species, or group of related species. One example in New Zealand is the flax weevil (Anagotus fairburni) – a flightless species about 20 mm long. Flax weevils occur only on New Zealand flax – both harakeke (Phormium tenax) and the smaller wharariki (Phormium cookianum). The larvae live in the soil and feed on the flax roots, while the adults emerge at night and gnaw on the edges of the leaves.

Predation by rats and mice has confined flax weevils to a few small rodent-free islands plus some alpine areas where few rodents live. They formerly occurred throughout New Zealand, as evident from their relictual distribution from Northland (the Poor Knights Islands) to Fiordland (islands in Breaksea Sound), as well as on a few islands in the Marlborough Sounds.

Flax leaves heavily chewed by flax weevils on Mana Island, Nov 2013. Image: Jeff Hall, Department of Conservation

Flax leaves heavily chewed by flax weevils on Mana Island, Nov 2013. Image: Jeff Hall, Department of Conservation

As part of the ecological restoration of Mana Island, 80 adult flax weevils were translocated from Maud Island (Marlborough Sounds) in 2004. The weevils thrived at their release site on Mana Island, where mice had been eradicated in 1989. Within a few years their characteristic ragged feeding sign was evident on flax leaves, and adult weevils were readily found at night.

Flax weevils browse on an immature flax flower spike at night on Mana Island, Nov 2013. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

Flax weevils browse on an immature flax flower spike at night on Mana Island, Nov 2013. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

But the weevil population kept growing and growing. By 2013 the flaxes at the release site had collapsed and died, and adult weevils swarmed over unopened flower stalks on nearby plants, consuming them before they could grow and open. The weevil population is in the tens of thousands, in contrast to other islands, where usually only a few adult weevils occur on each plant, and cause only cosmetic damage to the leaves. So why have flax weevils become so abundant on Mana Island?

Dead flax bushes as the flax weevil release site on Mana Island, Nov 2013. Image: Jeff Hall, Department of Conservation

Dead flax bushes at the flax weevil release site on Mana Island, Nov 2013. Image: Jeff Hall, Department of Conservation

There are several theories, but no answers as yet. The two main theories are:

  1. That the flaxes on Mana Island are less resistant to weevil browsing than those on islands where weevils still occur. The flaxes at the release site are a hybrid swarm between native wharariki from the nearby cliffs and a harakeke cultivar planted as windbreaks when the island was farmed in the 1970s. Maybe the artificially selected cultivar has lost some level of immunity to weevil browse.
  2. That the weevils had benefited from some form of predator or parasitoid absence when they were translocated. Many beetle species are attacked by parasitoid wasps that lay eggs in their larvae or pupae, consuming them alive before they can mature into adults. Maybe moving only adult weevils broke the life-cycle of an as-yet unrecognised parasitoid that infests flax weevils, allowing the new population to grow unchecked.
Flax weevils on a flax flower stalk at night on Mana Island, Nov 2013. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

Flax weevils on a flax flower stalk at night on Mana Island, Nov 2013. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

The answer to the riddle is likely to require detailed field studies and possibly planting trials of different flaxes – and would be an ideal thesis topic.

Tui feeding on flax nectar. Image: Craig McKenzie, New Zealand Birds Online

Tui feeding on flax nectar. Image: Craig McKenzie, New Zealand Birds Online

There are conservation values at risk from too many flax weevils on Mana Island, and restoration of the island could benefit from an understanding of what usually limits their population. Mana Island holds the largest population of the rare goldstripe gecko, a lizard species that on the island lives almost exclusively within flax bushes. In addition, tui, bellbirds and two species of geckos (common geckos and goldstripe geckos) feed on flax nectar.

Flax weevils are neat critters, but healthy flaxes are an important part of the Mana Island ecosystem too.

Related blogs

Critters of Titi Island Nature Reserve, Marlborough Sounds

Critters of the Poor Knights Islands

Restoring seabirds to Mana Island

Critters of the Snares Islands

5 Responses

  1. Sandra Jack

    Does anyone know if there is a Maori name for the flax weevils? Seems likely given the cultural importance of flax.

    Reply
    • Colin Miskelly

      Kia ora Sandra

      That is a great question – and I don’t know the answer. It is possible that Maori had little awareness of the weevils themselves – as they are active only at night, and drop to the ground if they sense any disturbance – but they would certainly have noticed the damage that they do to flax leaves. The weevils may never have been abundant on the mainland, where large nocturnal geckos may have kept their numbers in check, and kiore (Pacific rats) would have wiped them out both the weevils and geckos soon after Maori arrived. It would be interesting to ask weavers if they had or have names for the different insects that eat flax (including the caterpillars that make notches and windows) and the damage that they do to the leaves, and whether the names included any for the chunky, nocturnal weevils that leave ragged edges to the leaves.

      Naku, na Colin

  2. Bev Abbott

    An article by Dean Baigent-Mercer in Forest and Bird May 2000 draws on research done by Katrin Shops on the relationship between speargrass weevils and the soft speargrass on Mangere Island in the Chathams. Here the weevils and their larvae destroyed all the plants before moving on to other plants 800m away – a difficult journey. Years later, the studied speargrass plants were recovering. The author wondered if boom-and-bust cycles may be typical of the life-styles and co-existence of the weevils and speargrass.

    Colin – are you able to find out whether any further follow-up work has been done on the Mangere Island populations? What do you think of the boom-and-bust theory?

    Reply
    • Colin Miskelly

      Hi Bev
      Katrin Schops work on the coxella weevil (Hadramphus spinipennis) is the best population study of a threatened monophagic weevil and its host plant in New Zealand (in this case the endemic Chatham Island soft speargrass Aciphylla dieffenbachii). The speargrasses on Mangere Island occur in patches, whereas flax (both Phormium tenax and P. cookianum, and hybrids between them) at the flax weevil release site occurred as one very large contiguous patch. The release site is now devoid of flaxes, and the weevils are 200-300 metres away, spreading in all directions. Time will tell if and when flaxes grow again at the release site, but at present the site has changed from solid flax to rank grass with scattered shrubs.
      Regards
      Colin

  3. Catriona Gower

    Seems there are plenty of flax weevils here in the Catlins if the characteristic damage to the leaves is anything to go by.

    Reply

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