Pass The Mold
Be glad you're not a sugar
beet root maggot.
Scientists are experimenting with a nature-based
way of making life miserable for this tiny crop pest.
And for good
root maggot costs beet
growers millions of dollars each year in crop damage and chemical
About half of America's 1.5 million-acre beet
crop is treated with insecticides. Without them, though, growers would have a
tougher time stopping the maggot's costly sweet tooth.
Still, new weapons are needed, especially since
beet crops supply about 35 percent of America's sugar for cereal, baked goods,
sodas and other things you probably like to eat.
Now, relief could be in
sight with a natural soil
fungus, shown below. Scientists are testing it
as an option to spraying chemicals.
It won't beat back maggot attacks as fast as
chemicals. But the fungus could offer a safer way of getting the job done.
Unlike some insecticides, the fungus doesn't
harm fragile beet seedlings, or helpful insects like ladybugs. That's the word
from Chris Wozniak, a microbiologist at the
In soils, a favorite fungus hangout is near
sugar beet roots where maggots feed. That's also where Wozniak and coworkers
first discovered the fungus.
This happened in 1994 when they were digging
around for maggots in a North Dakota sugar beet field. At that time, Wozniak
was with USDA's
Agricultural Research Service (ARS).
Now, he and ARS scientist Ann Smigocki
are looking for a commercial partner to help perfect a natural insecticide made
from the fungus' spores. Smigocki works at ARS' Molecular Plant Pathology Laboratory in
Beltsville, Maryland. It's about 45 minutes from Wozniak at EPA's Biopesticides
and Pollution Prevention Division in Arlington, Virginia.
They say beet growers could coat the
fungus-insecticide directly onto beet seed, or spray it into soils where
maggots are lurking in wait.
Some chemical insecticides now used short-circuit the nervous systems
of crop-eating insects, like the root maggots. But the researchers' fungal
fighter uses a different tactic, and it's not pretty.
you had bionic eyes, you'd spy millions of the fungus' cigar-shaped
attach onto a passing maggot. Soon after, the spores would drill into the
they'd begin reproducing on the maggot's organs and tissues. Eventually, the
fungus spreads to the maggot's outside. There, it can take on many forms, like
slimy, amber-colored mold, or twisted horns poking out from the root maggot's
But don't worry, the fungus' main target is the
root maggot--not people, animals or plants.
From what scientists have seen in the lab, 95 to
100 percent of newly hatched maggots die in 3 to 5 days. Older, bigger maggots
take several weeks, but few escape.
It is a gruesome end, Wozniak admits.
But use of the fungus could help growers avoid
costly losses, without resorting to chemicals.
Scientists also want to see if the fungus will
zap certain pesky flies, like those that bug citrus.
Agricultural Research Service, Information Staff