The Plant Health and Environment Laboratory identifies plant pests and diseases. We help protect New Zealand’s primary industries and environment from suspected exotic organisms and reassure our trading partners that New Zealand is free of certain pests and diseases.
What we do at the Plant Health and Environment Laboratory
The Plant Health and Environment Laboratory (PHEL) identifies pests and diseases that affect plants and the environment – bacteria, fungi, insects, mites, nematodes, phytoplasmas, viroids, viruses, and unwanted invasive plants.
We use a range of tests to identify pests and diseases. As experts in our field, we also play an important role advising government, industry and individuals on a wide range of technical matters.
Video – This is us - PHEL (5.05)
The Plant Health and Environment Laboratory is New Zealand’s national plant health reference lab.
With locations in both Auckland and Christchurch, it is the only New Zealand plant health lab with International Standard accreditation to identify a wide range of organisms such as insects, fungi, viruses, and other plant pathogens.
The lab employs over 40 scientists and technical staff covering a range of plant science disciplines.
The team provides diagnostic testing and technical expertise for exotic pests and diseases that could negatively impact New Zealand's land-based primary industries and native ecosystems.
The lab also provides a space to quarantine new plant material coming into New Zealand for the horticulture industry.
The work carried out by the lab provides the scientific basis for much of the biosecurity, trade and economic development work led by MPI.
The lab provides diagnostic services in a biosecurity response.
Last year, our mycology and bacteriology team played a key role in the myrtle rust incursion.
The team managed notifications from the public and field survey teams, carried out myrtle rust and its host plant diagnostics, and provided organism science advice to stakeholders.
We observed thousands of images and received hundreds of samples for further lab testing. These were handled in biocontainment, examined for the presence of spores and confirmed positive for myrtle rust using DNA-based testing.
Diagnostics was carried out using a rapid and specific molecular test developed as part of our myrtle rust readiness plan and funded by MPI's operational research programme.
During a 14-month period 1,200 plants from 30 plant species were confirmed as myrtle rust positive.
Our post-entry quarantine and botany teams help grow New Zealand’s horticultural sector by facilitating importation and release of disease-free plants.
We operate one of the highest level quarantine glasshouses in New Zealand. Currently we are growing berry fruit and grape vines in our facility.
Plants that are tested and released from our quarantine facility allow industry to grow new cultivars and improve existing plant varieties. This underpins the horticultural sector’s success story of exporting over $5 billion worth of quality fruit and derived products.
We provide botanical expertise for investigations into illegal border activities as well as biosecurity responses to invasive weeds such as velvet leaf and black grass.
We also interact with regional councils to assist them in addressing long-term threats from unwanted plants.
The entomology team contributes to New Zealand biosecurity by identifying exotic insect pests and providing organism science advice.
An example of this is the work we do processing samples from our targeted exotic pest surveillance programmes.
These programmes include surveillance for invasive ants, honeybee pests and exotic fruit flies.
Each year our entomology team processes approximately 6,000 submissions from traps like this in our national fruit fly trapping grid.
If any pest species are detected, like this Queensland fruit fly, we move into response mode and members of our team are deployed to set up a mobile laboratory next to the detection site, supporting our colleagues in biosecurity response.
The Plant Health and Environment Laboratory has a significant role in protecting New Zealand from new and emerging plant pathogens including testing imported material to meet import health standards and border inspection requirements.
Amongst its many activities, the virology team provides testing for imported seed crops and fresh produce coming across our border. Examples include watermelon fruit and seeds from species such as pumpkin, carrots, tomato and corn to name a few.
This testing work has grown considerably over time for both seed and fresh produce. A recent example is with cucumber green mottle mosaic virus, an emerging pathogen which is having a major impact on the cucurbit industry of Australia.
New Zealand is also a centre for seed multiplication for export worldwide, so ensuring the New Zealand industry gets disease-free seeds is of paramount importance.
Our vison – Together we provide world class plant health diagnostics and expertise.
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Testing for exotic and emerging diseases
We test samples that are sent to us with suspected exotic pests or diseases (such as bacterial canker in kiwifruit).
When new pests and diseases are found in New Zealand we provide diagnostic services for MPI, such as confirming the identity of the pest or disease, and providing advice for MPI’s response work.
MPI collects samples throughout New Zealand and we test these to make sure we don’t have exotic pests and diseases such as fruit flies. We also provide scientific advice to support the operation of these surveillance programmes. Surveillance programs help protect our primary industries and environment and reassure our trading partners that New Zealand doesn’t have certain diseases.
Video – Working to Protect New Zealand Apiculture (5.22)
Ben Phiri: My name is Ben Phiri, and I’m a senior advisor. I’m part of the surveillance team, animal health, based at Wallaceville here in Upper Hutt. I’m in charge of apiculture surveillance. Apiculture surveillance has many facets. The first one is AsureQuality, who conduct field work. The field work includes hive inspection and collection of samples.
John Maynard: My name’s John. I’m an AP2 and I do contractual work for AsureQuality doing the exotic bee disease programme. We’re looking under the hive mat for small hive beetles.
And that’s fine. Now we’ll take a bee sample. Put an apistan strip or 2 apistan strips per brood box, and they stay in for 24 hours while the stickyboard is underneath to catch the mite fall.
Ben Phiri: So, it is important for us to guard against exotic organisms because when, for example, American foulbrood first came into New Zealand, production dropped by about 70%. So that’s a huge, huge drop, and for bees we are not talking just honey production – we are also talking about impacting orchards and pollination so it can have devastating effects on the New Zealand economy actually.
Sherly George: I’m Sherly George, team manager, responsible for the laboratory component of the apiculture surveillance programme of MPI. A significant number of beehives from high-risk sites as well as from the export sites are checked for exotic pests and diseases. It gives assurance or ongoing assurance to our trading partners that New Zealand is free from the listed pests and diseases. Secondly, it serves as an early warning signal.
Stacey Lamont: So the samples are collected in the field by the AP2s and sent on to AsureQuality where they check the sample quality and also that all the information is correct. They get frozen for 48 hours before they are sent on to us here at the Plant Health and Environment Laboratory where we freeze them ourselves and then begin the testing.
My name’s Stacey Lamont and I’m a senior technician at the Plant Health and Environment Laboratory, and I’m responsible for the bee lab technicians as part of the programme.
So after the staff have completed all their training we are confident that they are able to identify all of the targeted organisms. So we make sure that we emphasise the importance of sample integrity when we are training the staff. Yeah and upon completion of the training they realise that this is a really key part of the work that we do.
So there are 6 different organisms specifically targeted in the programme including the tracheal mite, Acarapis woodii, and the small hive beetle, Aethina tumida, and we also are on the lookout for other exotic bee species as well.
Wendy Blount: I’m Wendy Blount. I’m a bee technician here and my role is to process and screen samples of adult bees and stickyboards which arrive at our laboratory. We’re looking for targeted exotic organisms. We don’t include Varroa destructor; we do make note of its occurrence and numbers.
Stacey Lamont: So we complete 3 different tests for each sample. We wash the whole bees to dislodge any external arthropods which might be present. We also examine stickyboards, which again might collect external arthropods that could be present on the bees, and then we take a section of the whole bee which contains the bee trachea and then we process those sections and examine them to look for the tracheal mite.
Sherly George: MPI laboratory has an excellent quality system in place to pinpoint any point of incursion which provides us with the opportunity to act immediately.
Different parts of MPI work together with AsureQuality as well as with the beekeepers to have a robust system in place to safeguard our apiculture industry.
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Import and export testing
Our lab tests samples collected by MPI officers during border inspections. We also test plants and plant products being imported or exported to make sure they are free of certain diseases.
Requirements for importing and exporting plants and plant material:
Plant Pest Information Network
The Plant Pest Information Network (PPIN) is a national database for plant pests that is kept up-to-date by the PHEL.
International partnerships and activities
Our staff work with overseas organisations researching pests and diseases, developing and improving tests, and providing scientific and technical advice.
PHEL has representatives in the:
- FRST-funded Better Border Biosecurity programme
- Subcommittee on Plant Health Diagnostics (SPHD)
- International Plant Protection Convention’s (IPPC) Technical Panel on Diagnostic Protocols
- Plant Health Quadrilateral Group .
We work at 2 sites (Auckland and Christchurch) with highly secure facilities – including a quarantine glasshouse, tissue culture facility and containment laboratories. These allow us to safely test for pests and diseases that would have a serious effect if they were released into the New Zealand environment. Our quarantine facilities are available for imported plants and seeds that need post-entry quarantine (PEQ).
Who to contact
If you have questions about our work:
- call 0800 00 83 33 (free phone)
- email firstname.lastname@example.org for general enquiries
- email email@example.com for PEQ enquiries.