Security reports have confirmed the formation of a type of wasp threat to aircraft traffic at Brisbane Airport, having passed Australia's strict biosecurity controls.
The wasps, known as "keyhole wasps", native to Central and South America and the Caribbean, for the first time in 2013, forced the Etihad A330 to return minutes after take-off.
As soon as the plane landed on the ground, maintenance workers found that the Beto Tube, the hollow instrument on the outside of the aircraft to measure air speed, was completely blocked by mud, according to a report by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau.
For wasps, beto pipes are ideal pits for quickly building their nests.
Alan House, an ecologist from environmental consultancy Eco Logical Australia, said: "We have anecdotal reports from a ground crew at Brisbane Airport that a plane can arrive at the gate and in two or three minutes, the wasps are heading to the front of the plane to take a look at the tube."
House worked with experts from Brisbane Airport, Australian Airlineqantas and environmental consultancy Ecosure to produce one of the world's first studies on the impact of wasps on beto pipes.
Without proper management, wasps can pose a real threat and cause major accidents, as they can travel to other Australian airports and even neighbouring countries with subtropical conditions suitable for their environment, the researchers say.
The Beto tubes installed at the front of the aircraft carry out a basic mission of sending information back to the cockpit about how fast the air is moving, which indicates how fast the aircraft is moving.
When the Beto tubes do not work, the Airbus A330 automatically switches to manual mode, forcing pilots to take control.
Clogging of Beto pipes can lead to serious accidents. In February 1996, The Bergerer 301 crashed off the coast of the Dominican Republic, killing 189 passengers and crew. The accident report stated that the "probable cause" of the clogging of the Beto tube was "mud or a small insect" that entered before take-off.
In 2018, the Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority issued an alert to the country's pilots, airlines and airports about the dangers of the spread of wasps. The bulletin warned that the blockage of beto pipes could cause a complete loss of air speed and altitude indicators, which would be "dangerous".
The Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority advised airlines to cover beto tubes during the aircraft's pre-departure period from Brisbane Airport.
In total, 26 incidents were reported between 2013 and 2019, according to the study.
The first keyhole wasps were discovered in Brisbane Harbour in 2010, although they probably arrived as early as 2006, according to the study.
House noted that it was not known how this type of wasps arrived in Australia, suggesting that they may have arrived by ship.
For the study, researchers used 3D printers to print similar Beto pipe sensors on Boeing 737, 747, Airbus A330, and smaller aircraft used by regional airlines. The aircraft were stationed at four locations around the airport and were all under surveillance for 39 months.
At that time, there were 93 cases of completely blocked pipes, almost during the warmer months between November and May.
Most of the nests were close to the airport's grassy area, according to study co-author Jackson Ring, a wildlife management and planning coordinator at Brisbane Airport.
Wasps collect larvae from the grass and push them into beto pipes as food for their offspring.
Ring said wildlife officials are using organic insecticides to kill larvae, and have so far succeeded in reducing wasps activity near international and local stations by 50%.
House explained that the wasp is not classified as an agricultural pest and not a vector of human diseases, so although it is considered an unwanted visitor, there is no official government plan to eliminate it.
Like most airports around the world, air traffic at Brisbane Airport declined dramatically during the Coronavirus pandemic.
Since July, international flights to Australia have been restricted by restrictions on returning passengers, and state borders have been closed to contain the outbreak locally.
With the aircraft stopped for several months, air speed slots were covered to prevent wasps from reaching them.
However, air traffic is expected to rise again with restrictions on internal borders lifted, meaning there will be more aircraft coming and departing, creating more opportunities for wasps to cause disruptions.