An interesting blog article by the President of the Royal Society Wellington Branch, Phil Lester.


Common pesticides can harm bees, but the jury is still out on a global ban

Some of the world’s most widely used pesticides can be harmful to bees, according to the first large-scale studies aimed at measuring the impact of compounds called neonicotinoidson bees’ health. But the effects vary widely between different compounds and different countries, suggesting that more regional research will be needed to clarify the exact scale of the problem.

Neonicotinoids, which are typically coated onto seeds before planting rather than being sprayed onto crop plants, were developed with the aim of harming only those animals that eat the plants. But they are also found in the pollen and nectar of treated plants, potentially affecting beneficial organisms like bees.

Two papers published today in the journal Science report that neonicotinoids have negative effects on honey bees and wild bees in realistic field experiments. But the results are mixed and far from conclusive.

The concern about neonicotinoids prompted the European Union to impose a temporary moratorium in 2013 on the use of three key pesticides. In contrast, New Zealand’s government has joined with Australia in not imposing a ban. I think our governments have made exactly the right decision at this time.

Study confirms negative effects

One of the studies, led by Nadejda Tsvetkov at York University, Canada, indicates that chronic exposure to neonicotinoids reduces honey bees’ health near Canadian corn fields.

This is consistent with many previous research findings showing that feeding on large amounts of neonicotinoids can be fatal to honey bee workers and queens.

For bees given a smaller dose, their foraging becomes less efficient. They undertake reduced hygienic behaviour in the hive and their immune system seems to be impaired. And their tolerance of other stressors bees experience in their environment, in this case a fungicide, is reduced.

The new Canadian study shows that field-realistic exposure to neonicotinoids can substantially reduce honey bees’ health.

Other results mixed

The other study, led by Ben Woodcock of Britain’s Natural Environment Research Council, describes research done on three different bee species in three different countries. It also attempted to use field-realistic exposure to neonicotinoids. Populations of honey bees, bumble bees and a solitary bee were followed in the United Kingdom, Hungary and Germany.

The team examined two neonicotinoid pesticides, and found a fascinatingly mixed bag of results. Both pesticides resulted in significantly reduced numbers of honey bee eggs being produced in Hungary. But exposure to both pesticides in Germany resulted in significantly more eggs being produced. Neonicotinoids also seemed to result in higher numbers of workers surviving winter in Germany.

In Hungary, fewer worker bees survived winter after exposure to one pesticide, but not the other. Similarly, in the United Kingdom, there were mostly negative but some positive effects of exposure to the different neonicotinoid pesticides.

The take-home message is that different neonicotinoids can have different effects, which can be very specific to the country of use. After reading these results, if I were a grower in Germany, I might start to question the European Union’s temporary moratorium.

Country-specific data needed

These studies highlight the need for data to allow countries like New Zealand and Australia to effectively manage the use of neonicotinoid pesticides. We need to know the effects of neonicotinoids in our specific environmental conditions and in the way we use them.

We also need to know what the effects would be if we took this group of pesticides away. I’ve read reports that growers in the UK have had to revert to broad-spectrum pesticides that are considered worse for the environment and mean they cannot grow certain crops.

In 2013, the Australian government undertook a review of neonicotinoids and the health of honey bees. This concluded that “the introduction of the neonicotinoids has led to an overall reduction in the risks to the agricultural environment from the application of insecticides”.

The review found little scientific evidence to show that the current use of neonicotinoids in Australia causes widespread harm to honey bees. The review stated that “the introduction of the neonicotinoid insecticides has brought a number of benefits, including that they are considerably less toxic to humans (and other mammals) than the organophosphorus and carbamate insecticides they have significantly replaced”.

Bees are up against it

Honey bees in New Zealand have a plethora of known and scientifically demonstrated threats. These include invasive blood-sucking mites, and the deformed wing virus, which has been described as a key contributor to the collapse of bee colonies around the world.

New Zealand’s bees have bacterial pathogens like American foulbrood that results in beekeepers having to burn their bees and hives. Fungal diseases are widespread. We also have management issues with the higher-than-ever numbers of managed hives, which are often managed poorly and often overstocked. These are real and known issues affecting our honey bees now. We have data on these problems that can guide their management.

The new research will doubtless lead to calls from some quarters for Australia and New Zealand to ban neonicotinoid pesticides. I hope that the New Zealand and Australian governments act on studies like those published today, but I would be disappointed if that action was anything other than evidence- and science-based. Let’s gather the data specifically for each country, and then make a decision on whether and how to use these pesticides.




Rebecca Priestley, winner of the 2016 Prime Ministers Science Communication Prize, visited Antarctica in 2011 and 2014 and has communicated about Antarctic science through blogs, magazine articles, a MOOC (massive open online course) and her 2016 book, Dispatches from Continent Seven. In this talk, which includes photographs, video clips and readings from Dispatches from Continent Seven, Rebecca talks about Antarctic science, and her trips to Antarctica, and reflects on the roles that journalists, artists and – increasingly – scientists play in communicating about the icy continent.

Dr Rebecca Priestley is a senior lecturer in the Science in Society group at Victoria University of Wellington.


Wednesday 22nd March 2017 at 6pm, Aronui Lecture Theatre, Royal Society of New Zealand building, 11 Turnbull Street

The government recently announced a proposal to make more of our rivers ‘swimmable’ by 2040 – it has attracted significant controversy, demonstrating the level of concern about the state of our rivers among ordinary New Zealanders. In this talk, Dr Catherine Knight, author of New Zealand’s Rivers: An environmental history, will provide important context to this debate by presenting our complex – and often conflicted – history with rivers since humans first settled in Aotearoa New Zealand. She will argue that knowing our history is an important foundation to forging a better future for our environment and our relationship with it.

Information about presenter: Catherine Knight is an environmental historian. New Zealand’s Rivers: An environmental history (Canterbury University Press, 2016) has been longlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards 2017 and was selected as one of the Listener’s Best Books for 2016. Her previous book, Ravaged Beauty: An environmental history of the Manawatu (Dunmore Press, 2014), won the J.M. Sherrard major award for excellence in regional and local history, and Palmerston North Heritage Trust’s inaugural award for the best work of history relating to the Manawatu. Catherine works in environmental policy and lives on the Kapiti Coast with her family.



When your child turns nine or ten years of age, perhaps you may wish to interest him or her in science. Recently, my son turned eleven and, like all kids of his age, he has been exposed to some elementary science and mathematics at school. Like many people trained in the sciences, I have tried to guide him a little in mathematics and science, and have sought to extend him beyond the regular school curriculum in algebra and geometry. I have even taught him some simple computation and coding in the statistical and graphics programming language R (which originated here in New Zealand) and introduced him to Excel, teaching him about Excel functions, continuous and categorical variables, filtering data, sorting data and pivot tables, on the basis that skills in Excel will prove invaluable later on. In describing science or mathematics to my son, I have no hesitation in using Google, and in general I believe that there’s no major harm in using Wikipedia for kids!

The other day at Westfield Plaza, Lower Hutt, I bought a 64 mm triangular prism made by the US company The Light Crystal ( I wanted to tell my son about some basic science, in this case the splitting of light into the colours of the rainbow, allowing him to use the prism to split light, and adding human interest through the story of Isaac Newton and his scientific work at the time of the plague.

This epidemic occurred in 1665 and 1666, and was the last major outbreak of the bubonic plague to occur in England (though smaller scale outbreaks did occur in later times). Wikipedia tells us that this particular epidemic killed perhaps 100,000 people, roughly a quarter of London’s population, in a space of 18 months. The plague was spread by the Yersinia pestis bacterium, which is transmitted through the bite of an infected rat flea. Actually, Newton was forced to leave Cambridge for two years because of the plague, and so his work on the splitting of light was put on hold for that period. I thought that this story, even with its regrettable outcome for so many people, could nevertheless provide historic context for a young child encountering a fundamental principle of science for the first time. And so  – after talking about the plague, we got to the topic of the colours of the spectrum!



We browsed the Internet and sourced the above two pictures using Google Images – Newton splitting light and a nice diagram of light refracting through a prism.


The following two photographs were kindly sent to me by Brian Jones, member of Council of the Royal Society of New Zealand Wellington Branch.


Here we see Woolsthorpe Manor in Lincolnshire, where Newton stayed when Cambridge was closed by the plague and where he did most of his work on light. He had a little bedroom and study on the first floor, with a big fireplace for warmth. The living space was separated from the hay loft by a simple clay plaster wall.  There was no bathroom or toilet as we know it. The toilet was outside, and the only washing facility would have been a large bowl.

apple tree


The apple tree in the photograph above is supposed to be THE tree – whose falling fruit provided Newton with the clue to gravity.

The point is that Newton didn’t have a fancy laboratory. His family was very poor, even by the standards of his day. However, he used observation and had a questioning mind – attributes that we all have if we wish to use them!

Back to our discussion of Newton’s work! We also used Google to source some of the text of Newton’s original work on dispersive refraction (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 1671, page 682). A very good web-site to source Newton’s original writings on optics and which provides clear accounts of Newton’s work is this one from the University of New South Wales (UNSW):

Let’s quote from Newton:

I procured a triangular glass prism, to try therewith the celebrated phaenomena of colours. And for that purpose having darkened my chamber, and made a small hole in the window shuts, to let in a convenient quantity of the sun’s light, I place my prism at his entrance, that it might be thereby refracted to the opposite wall. It was at first a very pleasing diversion to view the vivid and intense colours produced thereby.

A little later in the same text we learn that certain laws of refraction were already around at the time of Newton, but the challenge was to explain the laws of refraction to my own child. So, we took the prism outside on a very sunny morning in our back garden in Eastbourne. There he held the prism to the sun and created his first spectrum.

prism colour

Here he is, casting a spectrum very successfully onto a painted wooden post on the morning of Saturday 25 February 2017. In the above photograph, he is holding the prism in such a way as to cast the component colours in reverse order, and thus blue and violet appear above orange and red. However, that morning he could see that blue and violet light was refracted more than red and orange.

Others before Isaac Newton had known that a prism separates sunlight, that oil on water gives rise to concentric rings of colour, and that bubbles can do something similar. Today, we have clear descriptions on how multiple reflections, refractions and transmission of sunlight through raindrops give rise to rainbows. My first clear description of the formation of rainbows was kindly provided by Professor John Lekner (of Victoria University) in an advanced physics class many years ago, and I think that I remember Professor Lekner telling us that, when we see a rainbow, in fact each of us has his or her personal rainbow because each of us observes from a slightly different location.  I always emphasise this point to my son or to friends when we encounter a rainbow!

However, Newton was the first to explain clearly that it is refraction that causes sunlight to separate into its various colours (frequencies or wavelengths) and that each frequency or wavelength is refracted at its own unique angle.

Newton also showed that a second prism could recombine the colours to produce white light, and he showed that each colour is unchanged when passed through a second prism. So, while white light can be broken into component colours, none of those colours can be decomposed further.  That’s interesting!

After Newton it became clear that white light is composed of light of different colours (frequencies and wavelengths), and that each colour is refracted differently. The different colours are the manifestation of light of particular frequencies or wavelengths, and the colours are refracted at different angles after passing through the prism. We refer to the separation of colours as dispersion.

In the UNSW web-site we learn that the medieval rainbow had only five colours: red, yellow, green, blue and violet, but that Newton added orange and indigo:

“ — so that the colours would be “divided after the manner of a Musical Chord”

(I. Newton in Opticks 4th edn, 127 (William Innys, 1730)”.


Though not addressed in Newton’s work (at least not addressed by him in any text or web-page I have seen), I nevertheless explained to my son some physics that is commonly introduced at senior secondary school – the notion of refractive index. Any sixth form or NCEA Level 2 Physics text will tell you that the refractive index (n) of a substance, like glass, water or air, depends on the speed at which light travels in that substance, relative to its speed in air. Specifically, it gives the ratio of the speed of light in a vacuum (c) to the speed of light in the substance (v). So, we have a simple formula for the refractive index that even a young child can understand:

n = c / v

Now we can explain that the refraction (bending) of a particular frequency or wavelength of light, as it passes from one substance to another (e.g. from air to the glass prism), depends on its refractive index, which itself depends on the extent to which the light slows down in the second substance.


The two of us enjoyed the following videos:



That’s as far as I went and perhaps that’s about as far as we can go with a young child who is not yet of secondary school age and who is encountering the splitting of light for the first time. Actually, when I purchased the prism, I also purchased a gyroscope with the intention of explaining angular momentum – but that’s another story!

Please feel free to give feedback on introducing science to kids.


David Lillis

25 February 2017

The author wishes to thank Chrissy Boulton, Lucy Forde and Brian Jones for contributions to this blog.




This year the Royal Society of New Zealand Wellington Branch is pleased to offer financial assistance for up to four post-graduate students who:
1. Are studying towards Masters degrees and PhDs at a university within Wellington
2. Wish to attend a relevant conference within his/her own field of research.
3. Are members of the Royal Society of New Zealand Wellington Branch.

Our financial assistance will take the form of scholarships up to the value of $500, specifically to assist students to meet the travel and other costs of attending conferences, preferably to international conferences, either within New Zealand or overseas. Our scholarships will be awarded on a competitive basis.

All applicants for financial assistance must be members of the Royal Society of New Zealand Wellington Branch (information on joining the society can be found at . The annual membership fee is $15).

Recipients must give a presentation at the conference (oral or poster). Recipients of our scholarships must also undertake to give a presentation on their research to the Royal Society of New Zealand Wellington Branch, at a date to be agreed.

Your application should include:
1. A brief outline of your research topic and the degree for which you are enrolled
2. The university and department in which you are currently enrolled, and the identity of your supervisor(s). A brief supporting statement from you supervisor(s) would assist your application.
3. Details relating to the conference (e.g. the conference topic; when and where), including an abstract, and an indication as to whether or not your proposed conference presentation has been accepted.
4. Information on your academic and research performance (e.g. a brief transcript).
5. A brief justification for financial assistance from the Royal Society of New Zealand Wellington Branch
Applications for awards close on 30th April, 2017.

Please forward the above details to

We look forward to hearing from you!


In January our treasurer Queenie Lin moved to Auckland to take up a new job, so we need a volunteer to replace her. Queenie has offered to stay on until a replacement is found but it is difficult having such an important position located so far away.
As you are aware, Queenie was a real asset to the Branch, she introduced electronic banking and moved our accounts to an online Xero system, so ideally we would like someone who already knows how to use Xero and is comfortable with online business banking.
Please – if you can help, please let the Secretary know ASAP.


Outstanding Wellington-based researchers have received prestigious medals at the Royal Society of New Zealand’s 2016 Research Honours event

Three Wellington-based Researchers received prestigious medals at the Royal Society of New Zealand’s 2016 Research Honours event in November awards ceremony at Christchurch.

The Health Research Council of New Zealand awarded the Liley Medal for outstanding contributions to health and medical science jointly to Professor Mike Berridge from the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research and Dr Paul Young from Capital & Coast District Health Board and Medical Research Institute of New Zealand. Professor Berridge received the medal as one of the lead researchers in a landmark paper that was first to demonstrate movement of mitrochondrial DNA between cells in animal tumours. Dr Young received the Liley Medal for leading the largest clinical trial ever conducted exclusively in New Zealand’s intensive care units, comparing two intravenous fluid therapies.

Research into seaweeds has earned Professor Wendy Nelson MNZM FRSNZ, of NIWA and University of Auckland, the Hutton Medal from the Royal Society of New Zealand for plant sciences. She has significantly expanded knowledge of New Zealand seaweeds and the evolutionary relationships between seaweeds worldwide. She has also campaigned against seaweed pests and advanced understanding of the ecological importance of coral seaweeds and their vulnerability to climate change.

Professor Richard Beasley CNZM FRSNZ, Medical Research Institute of New Zealand and Capital & Coast District Health Board, has been awarded the Sir Charles Hercus Medal by the Royal Society of New Zealand for his wide ranging contributions to advancing respiratory medicine and health science research in New Zealand, which have had a major impact on clinical practice and public health.


The Royal Society of New Zealand Wellington Branch AGM 2016

is on Thursday, 20th October at the Thistle Inn, Thorndon.

Meeting at 6:00pm, followed by the traditional dinner for those who want to stay.

The AGM document is available from this link:  Annual Report 2016

Note: If you would like to save a copy, click on print button when the file opens,

then, save it as pdf into your computer.

RSNZ Wellington Branch Council



Dr Valerie Soo

Possible origins of antibiotic resistance:

A biochemistry perspective

Enzymes are the protein molecules that accelerate chemical reactions in all types of cells. Most enzymes are designed for specific functions, for example certain enzymes will break down antibiotics resulting in antibiotic resistance. This specialisation suggests a lack of flexibility but we know that enzymes do develop novel functions, so how does this happen? If enzymes are designed for one role, how do they develop novel functions?

Whilst doing her PhD, Valerie Soo discovered that many enzymes in the laboratory bacterium, Escherichia coli, have weak secondary functions. When placed in environments where toxins or antibiotics were present, these secondary functions enabled the bacteria to grow in almost one third of these environments. The unexpected development of antibiotic resistance shows the possible role of weak secondary functions and how they help to evolve new functions in proteins.

Time:  6pm Thursday 18 August
Venue: Royal Society of New Zealand, 11 Turnbull Street, Thorndon


About Dr Valerie Soo

Photo-2016-SOO-crop  Dr Valerie Soo hails from Malaysia, and completed her undergraduate degree at Monash University Malaysia. Fascinated by molecular evolution, she undertook her PhD at Massey University and graduated in 2013. Valerie’s doctoral research on ‘promiscuous proteins’ changed the way that many of us think about enzyme evolution and her paper has been highly cited since its publication in 2011. Valerie is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Pennsylvania State University, USA but will move to London, UK in mid-2016.


The annual scientific public lecture held by the Wellington Branch of the Royal Society of New Zealand

Dr Jan Wright: Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment

 Reflections on a decade as Parliament’s environmental advisor


Dr Jan Wright was sworn in as Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment for a five-year term on 5 March 2007 and reappointed for a second term in 2012.

Jan has a multidisciplinary background with a BSc(Hons) in Physics from Canterbury, a Masters degree in Energy and Resources from Berkeley in California, and  a PhD in Public Policy from Harvard. Last year she was made a Companion of the Royal Society.

During her time as Commissioner, Jan has investigated a wide range of environmental issues. She became world-famous in New Zealand when she said we were lucky to have 1080 and should use more of it.

In this lecture, Jan will share her approach to the role and how this has developed over time. She will explain, inter alia, how she prioritises the work of her office, how she values information, and what she has learned about dealing with the media.


When & Where


Wednesday, 27 July 2016

GBLT2, Old Government Building,

Pipitea Campus, Victoria University of Wellington