Science

Scientists search for sustainable solutions to stop the fall armyworm

Scientists in Britain are hoping to find a sustainable way to stop the march of the voracious fall armyworm caterpillar that has infested Africa, without using pesticides. Stuart McDill reports.

The small catepillar causing big problems – this is a fall armyworm and this is what its done to maize harvests across Africa

PROFESSOR TOBY BRUCE, KEELE UNIVERSITY:

“It’s a really serious threat. It’s been estimated that it could cause 20 to 50 percent crop losses of the maize crop which is the main subsistence serial crop which the farmers and the population in general are relying on for their food supply.”

Bruce and his team are hoping to stop the voracious beast – without using expensive pesticides which many poor farmers can’t afford

PROFESSOR TOBY BRUCE, KEELE UNIVERSITY:

“First of all we’re looking at the crop variety seeing if we can get more resistant crops. Then secondly we’re looking for repellent inter-crops that can be used as a kind of push to push the pest away and then we’re also looking for attractive trap crops, that’s the third thing, so that you can divert the insect to another area away from the crop. And fourthly we’re trying to increase the abundance of the natural enemies, so these are the predators which attack the pest.”

Push-Pull planting drives pests away from the main crop using a repellent intercrop, whilst attracting them to alternative locations with trap plants.

They also want to identify the pests’ natural enemies and the plants they are attracted to – fighting nature with nature.

PROFESSOR TOBY BRUCE, KEELE UNIVERSITY:

“When the plant is attacked by the caterpillars then it releases a different smell and that’s something which we’re very interested in because these natural enemies they use that as a foraging cue. So they are tuned in to the smell of that. So they use those odours for finding their prey and we want to improve that so that we can have varieties that are better at attracting these natural enemies and increasing the biological control that way.”

The team are trialling a novel bait station designed to use natural alternatives to chemical killing agents.

DR JOE ROBERTS, KEELE UNIVERSITY:

“The ultimate aim would be, if this system is a success, would be to roll it out to other crops in other countries, not just beans and peas but beetle pests of those crops but as many different crops, as sort of almost an alternative to pesticides is how we would envisage it, or complementary to pesticides.”

The fall armyworm spread across Africa in as little as 18 months and it’s now been reported in India – threatening to wreck havoc across Asia.


Associated Links

  • Lepidoptera
  • Agricultural pest insects
  • Spodoptera
  • Armyworm
  • Pesticide
  • Caterpillar
  • Mythimna separata

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