What we do at the Plant Health and Environment Laboratory
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.
Identifying pests and diseases
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: protecting plant health (6.15)
[The video begins with an image of the sun rising behind some trees. The Biosecurity New Zealand logo shows in the lower left corner of the screen. Words appear that say ‘Science at work. Protecting plant health’. An image of a brown marmorated stink bug appears next to the words. During the video, scenes are shown that relate to the words being spoken. This includes footage of kiwifruit and avocado orchards, forests, market gardens, and at outdoor locations like suburban homes where biosecurity staff are checking trees for insect pests. Other scenes during the video show staff at work in laboratories and scientists working at their computers. Also shown is the Post Entry Quarantine glasshouse facility and a detector dog at work. Some of the film shows close ups of the pests under a microscope, of staff doing diagnostic tests and staff being trained in the lab]
Ka tangi te tītī
Ka tangi te kākā
Ka tangi hoki ahau
He mihi ki te kaupapa o te tau, he mihi ki ngā tikanga – o kaitiakitanga.
Tihei mauri ora
[Dr Brett Alexander, Team manager, Plant Health and Environment Laboratory]: The plant kingdom is at the centre of life on earth.
And you don’t need to look very far to understand just how vital plant life is to our own existence and wellbeing. We know this …
But… It is easy to take it for granted that forests, ecosystems and farming practices that have existed through the ages, will continue as they always have. The reality is that exotic pests and diseases threaten these systems. Some could have destructive outcomes in very short order.
In a nutshell, biosecurity is simply this, to be aware of any potential threats and to guard against them.
Inside that nutshell, there is a world of complexity. A myriad of pests and diseases from around the world that can completely overwhelm host plants when they land in a new ecosystem that has had no opportunity to develop defences.
[The video shows Xyllela fastidiosa damage in olive trees, Italy]
Bacteria that can decimate industries, viruses that can make produce inedible, insects that can destroy harvests, and invasive plants that can smother ecosystems.
New Zealand has a strong biosecurity system. We consider ourselves a team of 5 million people watching out for these pests and diseases.
At its heart is our National Plant Protection Organisation - The Ministry for Primary Industries’ and its Plant Health and Environment Laboratory.
We’d like to invite you to come inside for a look at our laboratory. Responding to any biosecurity threat is based on knowing exactly what organism you are dealing with.
Our diagnostic work relies on expertise in all aspects of plant health. It requires tools and techniques from the straightforward to the highly advanced.
A lot of samples come through these doors. They come from a wide range of sources, -
from members of the public, growers, MPI’s border staff, investigators and surveillance programmes. These lead to the laboratory running 30 to 40 thousand tests every year
[Title: Post-entry quarantine]
Being able to import new high-value plant varieties is crucial for horticultural industries. The high-level quarantine facility we operate - is what allows that to happen.
As an example of how this works, this strawberry which was imported from the USA will be inspected twice a week for over 16 months.
It will undergo a series of diagnostic tests checking for a long list of regulated pathogens, often using the nucleic acid-based test, the PCR.
These PCR tests compare the genetic code of an organism against a known reference to see if there is a match.
Each test for each pathogen needs to be specifically developed, many of which have been developed and validated in our laboratories.
Let’s use an example to take a look at the strategies, tools and technologies we work with to protect New Zealand from biosecurity threats.
[Title: Brown marmorated stink bug]
One of the world’s most destructive pests – the brown marmorated stink bug, or BMSB for short.
Stink bugs are very effective at hiding themselves in small spaces in luggage or cargo. Detector dogs are equally effective at finding them.
But they need training using the actual bugs and these bugs need to be maintained with absolutely no risk of an escape. We maintain them in our high level quarantine facility.
Next in the link, the Ministry runs a surveillance programme where traps are set up at 50 high-risk sites around the country.
When a suspect is found it is sent into the lab for an urgent identification.
If it’s female it can be dissected to see if it has ever mated or laid eggs. If it had, that would indicate to the team that more intensive action needs to be taken.
Our scientists also apply cutting edge technology to help manage the risk. We are investigating using Genetic markers that will allow us to trace where in the world a stink bug may have come from. This would give valuable insight to the policymakers who manage our borders.
[Title: High throughput sequencing]
High-throughput sequencing is an advanced molecular diagnostic tool. Firstly, the genetic material is extracted from the bug, then it goes through a process that reveals it's genomic sequence.
This is what the scientists use to unravel the hidden genetic information from the BMSB. It takes all these tools to stop pests like the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug before they can take a hold in New Zealand.
High throughput sequencing opens the door for scientists to answer biological questions about fungi, bacteria, viruses and insects that previously could never be answered.
[Title: Working with innovative technology]
As the National Plant Protection Organisation, it is important to be at the forefront of biosecurity science.
That means always looking for opportunities to improve what we do and how we do it. And regularly evaluating new technology and tools and making sure we have the skill to get value from them.
We provide science advice to government, primary industries and the general public. We work together with our counterparts from other countries and research organisations
and regularly provide science training programmes nationally as well as around the Asia Pacific region.
Connecting with such a large community strengthens both our biosecurity capabilities as well as theirs.
Our aim is to understand pests and diseases and have systems in place before they arrive in New Zealand. With preparation, the pathogen, insect or plant can be accurately identified and the action plan to deal with it can be swung into place.
The complexity of this work, the technology, the systems and the expertise, all of this is focused on one simple objective – to protect plants and protect life.
[Produced by the team at the Plant Health and Environment Laboratory
With thanks to Sutherland Produce, Gonzalo Avila, Plant and Food Research, SPS biosecurity, individuals and teams across MPI]
[Ko Tātou this is us, Biosecurity 2025 logo appears, and its website address www.thisisus.nz]
[Biosecurity New Zealand logo appears.]
[End of transcript]
Video: the Plant Health and Environment Laboratory (4.43)
[Title: This is PHEL. Plant Health and Environment Laboratory]
Narrator: "Across New Zealand there are teams of people from many organisations involved in biosecurity, all working to prevent new pests and diseases from establishing. Their goal is to prevent the harmful impact these could have on our land based primary industries and native ecosystems. The Plant Health and Environment Laboratory is here to do the science work that supports all of these people to do theirs. It is New Zealand’s national plant health reference laboratory.
We employ around 60 people in Auckland and Christchurch. Entomologists, virologists, mycologists and botanists, experts in their respective fields. Our teams run diagnostic tests to international standards, develop and refine new tests, and provide advice about pests, diseases, and unwanted plants to everyone involved in biosecurity.
[Title: Post-entry quarantine]
PHEL is also the home of New Zealand's foremost post-entry quarantine greenhouse. Being able to import new plant varieties is hugely important for our horticultural industries. This is one of the keys to New Zealand sustaining a $6 billion horticultural industry.
Our post-entry quarantine facility helps that to happen. Newly imported varieties are grown in these greenhouses before being released as disease-free plants. This is a secure facility that we operate at a very high standard. It's designed to eliminate any risk of an organism escaping the greenhouse.
Our botanists interact with regional councils to help them manage threats from unwanted plants. They also provide expertise for investigations into illegal border activities as well as during biosecurity responses to invasive weeds.
A biosecurity response is triggered when a new pest or disease is found. The lab has a central role in these situations.
When myrtle rust was discovered our mycology and bacteriology team were fully involved.
[Title: Mycology and bacteriology]
The team managed notifications from the public and field survey teams and provided science advice to stakeholders. We looked at thousands of photos and received hundreds of samples for lab testing.
Over 14 months, 1,200 plants from 30 plant species were confirmed as myrtle rust positive.
[Title: Border sample diagnostics]
Our teams back up the quaratine officers who check goods at the border. We rapidly and accurately identify samples they send us, determining the biosecurity significance and checking the regulatory status.
MPI runs a number of surveillance programmes searching for invasive ants, honey bee pests, fruit flies, and others pests. These programmes provide our trading partners the assurance that our exports are free from these pests.
Each year the entomology team processes around 6,000 submissions that have come from surveillance traps from 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 deploy a mobile laboratory next to the detection site supporting our colleagues in biosecurity response.
There are plant diseases across the world that would be a huge threat to land-based businesses and native ecosystems. The virologists who work for PHEL are experts who understand the threats and have the know-how and the technology to identify the diseases.
The virology team provide testing for imported seed crops and fresh produce. Examples like watermelon and seeds from pumpkin, carrots, tomato, and corn. An example of a high-impact disease we look out for is cucumber green mottle mosaic virus which is having a major impact on the cucurbit industry of Australia. Another of those threats is to our seed export industry which relies on verifying the seeds to be disease-free.
We're always looking to improve the speed and effectiveness of our diagnostic work. To do that we run research projects aimed at developing or improving specific techniques.
Our role is central to protecting New Zealand's plant life, it's horticultural industries and it's native flora. To do that, it takes world-class diagnostic capabilities and expertise."
[Graphic: With thanks to the team at the Plant Health and Environment Laboratory]
[End of transcript]
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.
Surveillance helps protect our primary industries
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.
[End of transcript]
Import and export testing of plants and plant products
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.
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 .
Plant health lab facilities
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: