Plant that helps produce behavior-changing pheromones could boost environmentally friendly pest control
Each year, pests eat more than one-fifth of the crops grown around the world. Many farmers turn to insecticides to protect their harvest, but some opt for a gentler approach: They perfume their crops with behavior-influencing chemicals called pheromones that can confuse insects and prevent them from finding mates.
But the high price of pheromones—commercial products can cost $400 per hectare—has prevented the widespread adoption of the tactic. Now, a new, cheaper method of manufacturing artificial pheromones could allow more farmers to add this weapon to their arsenals.
“It could revolutionize how pheromones are produced for crop protection,” says Lukasz Stelinski, an entomologist at the University of Florida, Gainesville, who was not involved in the work. “I expect that it's going to catch on and make pheromone disruption much cheaper and easier to apply in practice.”
Farmers worldwide use more than 400,000 tons of insecticide annually. These pesticides can harm farm workers and cause collateral damage to pollinators and other wildlife. Meanwhile, insects have already evolved resistance to many pesticides, forcing farmers to apply even more.
For some growers, pheromones provide an attractive alternative. Female insects naturally emit pheromones that attract males to mate. By flooding their fields and orchards with fake pheromones designed to appeal to specific insects, farmers can overwhelm these signals and prevent reproduction. Females then lay sterile eggs, which don’t hatch into hungry caterpillars.