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Stephen David Wratten



 Stephen Wratten

Distinguished Professor Steve Wratten, one of the great names in the realms of insect ecology, biological pest control and agroecology, died in Christchurch on the 8th of March 2021 aged 73.  

Steve was born in London, but the family moved to Essex where he went to school.  Here he was inspired by a Primary School teacher who took his class on nature walks. Steve dedicated his first research paper to that teacher. A summer job with Jack Dempster guided Steve down the science career path and a first degree at Reading University.  There he met Claire, an undergraduate in Town Planning and they were married for nearly 50 years.

Steve took French and Spanish at secondary school, but then after a summer job studying entomology in Cambridgeshire, he decided to switch to sciences.  That he did so successfully was in itself, a real achievement.  It also explains why, to the astonishment of his monolingual colleagues, he could lecture in French or Spanish at conferences in France and Chile. 

Steve graduated with a PhD on aphids on lime trees from Glasgow University and then worked at both Cambridge and Queen Mary, London Universities where the theme of insects on trees continued;  this time on birch trees.  By the time he arrived at Southampton University in 1975, aphids had become a lifelong interest.

Early on in his career, Steve met up with the farmland ecology team at the Game Conservancy Trust at Fordingbridge Hampshire, which was beginning to understand and appreciate the beneficial role of invertebrates in the British farmland ecosystem.  At the time, there was nil interest in such a man-made ecosystem and the declines in farmland wildlife, that are now apparent, had yet to be recognised.  Thus, a programme of PhD studentships started, some of them jointly supervised as British CASE Awards by the GWCT.  The cereal aphid outbreaks in the early 1970s also initiated a flurry of research across the Britain and here Steve’s group was in the forefront.  Studies on insect pest natural enemies, conservation biocontrol, the insect foods of farmland birds, insect/hostplant interactions via chemical defences and economic threshold models for pests (like cereal aphids) were key elements of over 20 studentships. He pioneered some of the earliest research into the use of flower strips to support natural enemies, later developing this into workable solutions for farmers across the world.  Through this research and other projects Steve became a world-renowned expert in Integrated Pest Management and along with Helmut van Emden, proposed the now well-tried tri-trophic approach for aphid control.  Along with this recognition came invitations as a keynote speaker from across the world when he could always be relied upon to provide an entertaining and inspiring talk. He was also a great supporter of learned societies such as the International Organisation for Biological Control. 

It was at Southampton University that Steve continued to build his reputation for work on insect pest biological control and began a programme of supervising PhD students.  Throughout he had an eye for the practical use of research and this is best illustrated by the development of ‘Beetle Banks’.  With Matt Thomas and a MAFF studentship, research on the overwintering habitat requirements of polyphagous predators such as ground and rove beetles and small spiders was converted into a recipe for strips of perennial grassy banks planted across large arable fields to provide such cover in situ for predatory invertebrates. These ‘Beetle Banks’ proved to be popular with farmers and they are now eligible for funding in England’s Agri-environment Scheme whereby farmers are paid to encourage wildlife on their farms.  Thus, Steve was a powerful advocate for the conservation of farmland wildlife and was years ahead of the thinking on this issue and conservation biocontrol.   As an enthusiastic lecturer and educator Steve organised field courses for first- and third-year undergraduates in southern Spain and Sussex.  Insect taxonomy was taught in the warm sunny hills on the Spanish coast.  Full days in the sun were followed by entertaining nights with a few beers.  Steve’s supervision extended beyond the lab.  With his wife Claire, dinner parties were numerous and great fun, always accompanied by fresh vegetables from the garden and late-night games of snooker.

Steve came to New Zealand in 1993 where he was invited to join Lincoln University as a Reader (Associate Professor) in entomology.  Steve immediately resumed his role as an outstanding lecturer and educator.  Again, he organised numerous field excursions and forays into insect taxonomy with a wide range of students.   Entertaining nights with a few beers persisted. 

In 1993, New Zealand’s pest management research was highly applied and focused.  It was commendably long-term and included work such as defining pest population dynamics, the development of integrated pest management programmes, the use of plant genetics for resistance, and experimentation with biological pesticides and pheromones.  At that time Steve’s enthusiasm coincided with growing interest in the potential of biological control and how to deal with those  exotic pests that have frequently established in New Zealand.  Steve brought additional and valuable insights and methodologies from the perspectives of a dyed-in-the-wool British naturalist.  However, he found himself working in quite different farmland ecosystems from those in Britain. He therefore explored the natural history dimensions within this New Zealand’s pastoral, crop and horticultural ecosystems and contributed major advances in understanding the nature and extent of these areas’ biodiversity.   As had been the case with Britain, up to that time this subject had not acquired the level of attention that had been paid to the country’s indigenous wilderness areas.  In doing this New Zealand work, Steve recognised numerous opportunities of practical value to New Zealand’s industries and environment, often through ecosystem manipulation, such as augmenting food sources for existing pest natural enemies.  Broadly all efforts nearly always culminated in a move away from the use of synthetic insecticides. 

For teaching and extension purposes Steve continued to come up with epithets that helped to advance conservation biological control.  An example of this was the SNAP principle (shelter, nectar, alternative food and pollen) on which to base conservation biological control.  In all areas under Steve’s scientific leadership there was a profusion of novel and highly effective pest management research often using the value of deliberately sown non-crop plant species such as buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum), alyssum (Lobularia maritima) and phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia).   Such plants provided nectar and pollen-based food sources for the pests’ natural enemies increasing their virulence and persistence.   These advances culminated the impressive success known as the ‘Greening Waipara’.  This project was all about bringing environmental sustainability and biodiversity to the Waipara wine-growing region of North Canterbury, New Zealand.  The aim was to restore biodiversity to the vineyards in the area and based on this, reduce pesticide use. In the end, over 50 vineyards participated. 

Steve’s skill and vision were further reflected in his 1999 enthusiastic involvement with Kowhai Farm, a certified organic commercial farm which Lincoln University had developed in collaboration with Heinz Wattie Australasia.  His scientific leadership and communication abilities were again well exemplified in 2017 when he made a major and completely unplanned contribution to a conservation biological control workshop in Hanoi, Vietnam.   Likewise, his proliferation of written articles attracted wide recognition by the popular media including many gardening columns in the Christchurch Press, the Kiwi Gardener and the Lincoln Community Newsletter.  In these and elsewhere, Steve quite rightly emphasised that ecology is tremendously relevant for a country like New Zealand with its economy so heavily dependent on land-based production.  Further he repeatedly observed that plant and insect interactions are fundamental to agriculture, horticulture and viticulture.  In making such comments Steve expressed perfectly Lincoln University’s ‘applied science’ ethos.

On the basis of Steve’s ability to recognise research opportunities and his determination to protect the environment, he recruited and enthused a very wide range of student acolytes who, often working on common problems,  greatly advanced investigation into the biological control of many of New Zealand’s worst pest species.  The size of this contribution is well-reflected in his successful supervision of almost 100 PhD students.  This in turn, created a large national and international community of alumni with common interests, particularly in conservation biological control that has continued well beyond their university training.   Neither did he stick simply to research with his students.  He was a strong believer in conferring ‘transferable skills’.  He took the trouble to coach his students in capabilities beyond immediate research.  For example, he repeatedly exhorted students not to clutter their presentation slides with text and to present research findings per se rather than get bogged down in quantitative detail and details of methodological design.

Steve was always able to draw a crowd from a wide range of admirers.  His talks within the local community were widely and enthusiastically attended by a huge and enduring fan-base; by way of demonstration, he grew many vegetables that he enjoyed turning into what he referred to as ‘pretentious culinary dishes’.   Likewise, his scientific talks also often seemed to have standing room only, with people spilling out of doorways. This was due not only to the scientific importance of the subject under consideration.  Practicing what he preached, his presentation style was a refreshing antidote to the droning malaise that can settle-in after a day or two of talks from less accomplished speakers. He would litter his presentations with video segments, pop music clips, snippets in Spanish, photographs and often funny anecdotes from his decades in research.  Thus, he kept the audiences engaged.   Ultimately, Steve was a master story-teller; this was reflected in his writing too. One of his former students said that Steve could work magic, somehow spinning an exciting scientific story from even the thinnest set of results. That’s not to say he exaggerated matters, rather he was somehow able to bring a big picture perspective to a writing task, seeing how the pieces linked together and explaining why it mattered. This communication forte no doubt explains his perennial popularity with students; Steve was a firm believer that ‘professors must profess’.  As a colleague and mentor, he was influential to many scientists around the world. He was also uniquely able to use humour and his informality to make people feel at ease in settings as diverse as a PhD oral exam to a conference dinner.  However, there was never any doubt about his intellect and that he thoroughly enjoyed probing questions.

Inevitably not all of the approaches Steve tried always worked.  Indeed, he used to caution that only about 10% of importation insect biological control programmes actually worked and neither was it axiomatic that there was a biological control solution to every problem.  To improve the odds lies a primary reason for the thorough research to enhance biological control though habitat manipulation.  Notably though even his few less successful initiatives still informed the science. 

In 2019 Lincoln University appointed Steve as a ‘Distinguished Professor’.  This was perhaps unsurprising, Steve either studied, researched or taught in Britain at the universities of Reading, Glasgow, London, Cambridge and Southampton, in the USA at Oregon State University in Australia at the University of Sydney, in Denmark at the University of Copenhagen and in China, at Zhejiang University.   As part of this, he held three professorships and three doctorates; was an elected Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand, a James Cook Scholar and the holder of a James Taylor Award from the Canterbury Horticultural Society for Communication in Horticulture.  As well as his PhD supervision Steve authored or co-authored eight books and had well over 400 refereed papers accepted for publication.  He was widely seen as the top researcher globally on the subject of biological control of insect pests. In addition, through his supervisory skills Steve won two Lincoln University Excellence Awards, one for Research and one for Teaching.  These impressive personal statistics in themselves and the numerous nomination statements tell more about who Steve Wratten was.  The citation for the Royal Society Fellowship described him as an ‘outstandingly productive ecological entomologist and a gifted communicator’ who has made a ‘substantial impact on agricultural entomology and plant protection in New Zealand’.  His Teaching Award citation described him as a ‘charismatic and inspirational teacher’.

Speaking more personally, by the time Steve arrived in New Zealand he had thoroughly developed his legendary hobby interest in ‘bird-spotting’.  Indeed, he loathed this term and probably associated it with train-spotting; he similarly hated being called a twitcher.  Rather, he would repeatedly and strenuously insist that such activity should be referred to as ‘birding’.  Further, during any trip away by Steve and for whatever reason, there was always some sort of surreptitious diversion into what birds, especially endemics, there were in the vicinity.  Another passion, as well as Bob Dylan, was cricket.  When in Britain he was involved in hilarious games of cricket played when at Southampton University against teams from Psychology and Engineering in local Parks.  This was an early format of T20, without the skill, and played in a great rush to catch the summer evening light and the pubs.  This tradition continued in New Zealand where Steve attended the Test Matches.

Putting it as politely as possible, Steve was not famous for his administrative enthusiasm. Further, he seemed to have had only vague ideas about budgets and the administrators thereof.  Neither was he particularly good at typing and not known to be a particularly snappy dresser.  The latter extended to serious and major meetings.  Conversely, he was known to have tried harder at airports; this was usually in the forlorn hope of getting some sort of upgrade to business class. But even then, when sporting a business shirt, his signature track pants betrayed the effort.  Regarding any sort of travel, it was also widely recognised that Steve had an appalling sense of direction; this only being off-set, by his lack of propensity to panic.

Quite rightly Steve was well known for being funny and creating situations that were funny.   His humour was often expressed in a self-deprecatory and understated way; likewise, he also very much enjoyed this genre of humour in others and often almost competed to see who had the worst story. 

Steve was generous with his time and caring of his students.  At the same time, he never rested in his use of science to solve ecological and agri-business problems and enhance productivity in an environmentally friendly manner.  Throughout he did this using the lens of a true natural historian.   The community in which he worked, his graduates and his fan base, have lost an engaging friend and energetic colleague.  His contributions will long be remembered, lauded and used.

Steve is survived by Claire, their two children and four grandchildren.

View Steve's research publications.


Written by:

Professor Stephen Goldson
Bio-Protection Research Centre
Lincoln University
New Zealand

Professor Nick Sotherton
Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust


Obituary was lodged on website on Tuesday, 27 April 2021.