Seeking alternatives to insecticide to combat stink bugs

GLOBAL STINK BUG RI Farm
ABOVE: Stink bugs use pheromones to communicate, (Photo: Virginia Tech)

THE discovery of environmentally friendly and sustainable alternatives to insecticides to combat stink bugs could save farmers tens of millions of pounds.

Stink bugs use pheromones to attract a mate or pass on the location of food and Virginia Tech University researchers have discovered secrets of this chemical language that can be used to develop alternative pest controls.

“We have gained a deeper understanding of how stink bugs synthesise pheromones, and this knowledge may allow us to produce pheromones in expendable food crops – also called trap crops – to lure the bugs away from cash crops,” says biological sciences professor Dorothea Tholl.

She says these new environmentally friendly and sustainable alternatives to insecticides could save farmers millions of dollars.

In Virginia, crops such as grapes, sweet corn and apples, have been under attack by the invasive brown marmorated stink bug since 2004, and cabbage has been hit by the harlequin stink bug.

A relative, the southern green stink bug, is also a severe pest worldwide and attacks many crops including beans and soybeans.

The Virginia research has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

“Our paper provides valuable insight into our understanding of how insects synthesize complex sesquiterpene compounds that are typically used as pheromones,” says entomology professor Thomas Kuhar.

“The work could pave the way for plants to manufacture insect pheromones, that could be utilised in pest surveillance and management strategies, such as attract and kill,” he says.

The Virginian research shows stink bugs have their own enzymatic machinery to make pheromones without receiving them from symbiotic microbes or the host plant, as was previously thought.

Jason Lancaster, a biological sciences Ph.D. graduate from Tholl’s lab, says besides the development of dead-end trap crops, the research may allow the creation of gene-silencing mechanisms to disrupt the insect’s pheromone production.

There is commercial interest in the genetic tools developed by Tholl to produce the pheromones using synthetic biology for use in promoting pest mating disruption.

“We are excited about the prospect that our research has the potential to develop new pest management techniques,” Tholl says.

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