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Cricket-resistant Turf in the Pipeline

By Jan Suszkiw
August 10, 2001

Mole crickets, tunneling pests that damage golf courses, recreational fields and lawns, could meet their match in sturdy new Bermudagrass hybrids developed by Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and University of Georgia (UGA) researchers.

In the Southeast, mole crickets are the top insect pest of lawns and turf. In Georgia, for example, cricket damage and control costs are an estimated $26 million annually, and $170 million in Florida. Using powerful, shovellike forelegs, the quarter-inch-long pest causes harm by tunneling beneath turfgrass or feeding on it. On golf courses, spraying insecticide to stop mole crickets from marring putting greens and fairways can be a $100,000 annual affair, notes Wayne Hanna, a geneticist who leads ARS’ Crop Genetics and Breeding Research Unit in Tifton, Ga.

Seeking a cheaper, more environment-friendly alternative, Hanna teamed with UGA researchers Kris Braman and Will Hudson to systematically screen the ARS lab’s Bermudagrass collection for hybrids that naturally deter mole crickets. From 27,000 total hybrids in 1993, they narrowed their initial search to 448, and later to 103 having the traits expected of commercial turf. These traits include color, a thick canopy, disease resistance and tolerance to drought and frequent cutting.

The Bermudagrass hybrid selections also ranked highest for resistance to both tawny and southern mole crickets--Scapteriscus vicinus and S. borellii, respectively. Additionally, the grasses were selected for their adaptability to growing conditions in Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and other southeastern states.

In replicated trials, the resistant grasses sustained up to 90 percent less cricket damage than Tifdwarf, Tifgreen and other commercial cultivars used for comparison. A fast-recovering root system or natural repellence may be two possible sources of the strains’ resistance.

Hanna’s lab has begun propagating sprigs of the Bermudagrass hybrids for large-scale testing in spring 2002 on commercial golf courses, athletic fields and other sites. Pending these tests, the grasses could become commercially available in the next few years.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific research agency.