Sex Pheromones

May 2005
Sex Pheromones

Featuring Dr Jim Walker, scientist (entomologist) with the bio protection team, HortResearch.

Newly developed synthetic pheromones specific to mealy bugs and midges are showing promise as a means of control of these insects, which cost the industry tens of millions of dollars in terms of lost market access and reduction in fruit and wine quality. This technology is about to become an integral part of the IFP programmes implemented by the industries to minimise the use of chemical insecticides and meet market requirements for safe products.

Midges attack the terminal shoots on apple trees, and their cocoons adhere to the calyx of the fruit. Markets like California will not accept our fruit because of this problem. Evidence of midges on the fruit costs the industry more than $20 million per year, and shipments have to be diverted to other ports.

Mealy bugs are a problem with both apples and grapes. They are without doubt the single biggest pest problem that the wine industry faces because they are a vector for grape leaf roll virus, which reduces the quality of wine severely affected premium wines are reduced to chateau cardboard. Consequently there are some large areas of relatively young vines that are having to be pulled out because of the extent of infection 30,000 plants are about to be removed from one vineyard.

Use of insecticides is effective for insect control, but markets are demanding minimal use of chemicals. To meet the requirements of Good Agricultural Practice particularly from Europe the industry has put in place Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programmes designed to meet market requirements by reducing insecticide use and substituting biological control plus physical removal (apple washing in packing sheds).

For the past 8 months the HortResearch team has been looking at potential uses of new sex pheromones in control systems. There are three main modes of using them:

Mass trapping reducing the population by attracting male insects into a trap where they can be destroyed. One trap may attract 2-3000 insects in a day.

Disrupting male/female communications so mating does not take place, by creating a fog of pheromone so that the males wont know which way to turn (and they wont ask for directions).

Using pheromone traps as a means of detecting whether or not the insect species in question is present, and if so in what numbers. If insecticides have to be used their applications can be timed for best control of the emerging population and thus minimised.

Dr Jim Walker: The overall aim of the project is to find how to use pheromones as a means of eliminating the use of broad spectrum insecticides, for monitoring populations to see whether they need to be controlled and to get precision in the timing of any necessary pesticide application, and developing that further into the use of pheromones is a means of disrupting mating, blocking communication between males and females, and through mass trapping or lure-and-kill.

All of this is a step towards replacement of insecticides with non-chemical means of control and manipulating insect behaviour and that in turn is part of the bigger picture which has seen the industry implement an integrated fruit production (IFP) programme.