Scientists Use Plants To Recruit Tiny, Pest-fighting Wasps
Ever been to a bank? At most banks, people deposit money. But scientists in Florida think they can use plants as a type of bank. Instead of storing money, these “banker plants” store insects that fly off to gobble up pests that are attacking important crops.
Cindy McKenzie, an entomologist with the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Subtropical Insects Research Unit in Fort Pierce, Fla., is showing how corn, peppers and papaya plants can serve as “banks” for useful insects that will attack spider mites, thrips, whiteflies and other nasty pests.
It’s not easy. The scientists must make sure that the predator insects they’ve chosen won’t ever damage surrounding natural areas. The predators also need to have enough food to eat before they fly off to feast on the nasty insects.
McKenzie decided to see if the approach could protect poinsettias, which are important in Florida. Silverleaf whiteflies attack poinsettias, but a tiny non-stinging wasp feeds on silverleaf whiteflies.
In a series of tests using the wasp, papaya plants and some poinsettias, she found that the wasp could be stored on papaya plants and that it would wipe out any silverleaf whiteflies found on nearby poinsettias. The wasp also is from Florida, so it isn’t a threat to the natural surroundings.
A nursery operator in Florida now uses this approach to protect his poinsettias by storing both the wasps and a type of predatory mite on “banker plants.” The system works so well that the nursery operator has been able to cut back on spraying insecticides to protect his plants.
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