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Published: 8 Nov 2021

An industry focused project that may play a key role in future proofing food production globally, took out top prize at the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture’s Honours Seminar held in Sandy Bay on October 8.

Annick Witte presented her project, along with 11 Honours year students to in-person and online audiences, and the Australian Institute of Agriculture (AIA) for judging of the state Student Award. Annick will now represent Tasmania at the National Student Awards, scheduled for early 2022.

Her project ‘Optimising the reproductive output of Eristalis tenax (Diptera: Syrphidae) for commercial mass rearing systems’, has focused on further developing the drone fly, Eristalis tenax, as an alternative pollinator for a variety of crops including various fruits, vegetables, and vegetable seed crops.

“Research into alternative pollinators is a hot topic at the moment,” Annick said.

“We currently rely heavily on bees for managed pollination and populations of bees around the world are under threat by various factors such as Varroa mite.

“Currently, small-scale mass-rearing of Eristalis tenax is labour intensive and expensive and these practices need to be optimised to realise the potential of E. tenax as a commercial pollinator.”

Annick explained that flies need to be produced in larger volumes, but their production needs to be synchronised as demands for pollinators fluctuate seasonally.

“My project has evaluated limitations in the current rearing system, established methods for assessing mating success in females and investigated whether manipulating egg development, sex ratios and fly density in cages can help optimise and regulate reproductive output,” Annick said.

“I’ve been lucky enough to have been working closely with industry and have had the support of SeedPurity and South Pacific Seeds in the lead-up to and throughout this research project, so my work has been very industry focused.”

Eristalis tenax will likely have a significant application in protected cropping systems as an augmentative pollinator to bees, and Annick hopes her research will allow for more efficient and effective rearing of E. tenax to mass release into pollinator-dependent cropping systems.

“A great benefit to having flies in pollination tents compared to bees is that they don’t sting workers, no one likes being stung by bees,” Annick said.

“Eventually it would be amazing to see E. tenax adopted as a commercially produced pollinator for a wide range of crops and cropping situations.”

Annick was one of 12 Honours year students who presented during the Honours Seminar.

“The standard of work amongst my peers was so high and I was so impressed by the variety of research that had been done!

“It was obvious that everyone had put a lot of time and effort into their study this year and were passionate and proud of what they were presenting.

“There is something special about the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture, in the sense that you really get to know your lecturers and it creates a community feeling – like one big family. Everyone is incredibly supportive and encouraging of your interests and study goals and there are so many opportunities to meet industry, learn new skills and get field experience.”

“Annick’s project was very impressive, and her knowledge about her topic and the passion she shows for the industry is really inspiring,” said Beth Penrose, Lecturer in Pasture Science and TIA’s Honours coordinator.

“Honours a great opportunity for students to really get their teeth into something they’re super passionate about, and it is often a fantastic stepping-stone into a great job in industry - the skills the students learn and the networks they build during their Honours year sets them up really well for their next step.”

With a Bachelor of Science degree (with Honours) to her name, a winning Honours Project, and the chance to represent Tasmania at the National Student Awards, Annick is happy to add another great moment to her list of achievements.

“Embarrassingly, the highlight of this year was probably when I got confirmation that my dissection and staining methods for sperm detection inside female flies were successful,” she said.

“To my knowledge this has not been achieved before for E. tenax and it was an awesome feeling to finally find a method that worked.”

And her advice to new and current students?

“Seize every opportunity that comes your way and enjoy the experience – that’s one of the biggest lessons I have learnt this year.”