Project targets buffalo flies with new controls

18 November 2016

Controls targeting one of Australia’s most significant cattle pests, buffalo flies, will be investigated in a new research project aimed at providing area-wide control and preventing its southward spread.

The project is one of 18 new on-farm research, development and adoption (RD&A) projects to receive Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) investment instigated through MLA’s new regional consultation model, giving producers a direct say in the direction of RD&A funding most relevant to them. 

The three-year project will focus on direct control of buffalo fly populations using a control agent known as Wolbachia. It is anticipated that infection with the insect-infecting bacterium in male buffalo flies will lead to effective sterility of female flies that could then potentially be used to reduce field populations.

MLA Research & Development Manager – On-farm Innovation & Adoption, Dr Johann Schröder, said investigating alternatives to pesticides to control buffalo flies could potentially provide many animal welfare and productivity benefits to the cattle industry.

“It’s estimated that the cost of buffalo flies in cattle across Australia at current prevalence is $99 million per annum,” Dr Schröder said.

“Buffalo flies entered mainland Australia near Darwin in 1838 and have traditionally affected northern cattle. However, they have spread more than 1000 kilometres southward over the past 40 years and have now been found as far south as Maitland, Dubbo, Bourke and Narromine in NSW, and across to Alice Springs in the Northern Territory.”

The new research project is being led by Dr Peter James from the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) at the University of Queensland.

Dr James said climate variability would result in increased economic and welfare impacts in buffalo fly endemic areas and even more rapid spread into new areas.

“It also appears that buffalo flies may be adapting to cooler temperatures at the edge of their range,” Dr James said.

“There has been little research into alternative means of controlling buffalo flies for many years, and control on most properties usually depends on chemical treatments.

“Buffalo flies can reach very high numbers on susceptible animals with each fly biting cattle 20 to 40 times per day to feed, and there is a substantial body of information concerning impacts on productivity.”

Dr James said a laboratory colony of buffalo flies has been established for the research project, the first of its kind in Queensland, and a cell line has also been developed to facilitate micro-injection of the buffalo flies with the Wolbachia.

“MLA funded the establishment of this laboratory-reared colony, which will allow us to readily test the effects of Wolbachia on reproduction, fitness and survival,” Dr James said.

“Once we have examined the potential for this method to be used in an area-wide approach to contain the spread of buffalo flies, future projects could see Wolbachia-infected buffalo flies released into field buffalo fly populations.

Wolbachia is capable of quickly spreading itself through insect populations by manipulating its host’s reproductive processes.”

Dr James said a technique using Wolbachia is currently showing good results in northern Queensland in the control of dengue fever transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito.

Research has shown that when introduced into the Aedes aegypti mosquito - the primary species responsible for transmitting human viruses such as dengue fever and Zika -Wolbachia can stop these viruses from being transmitted to people.

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