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Female pink hibiscus mealybug. Link to photo information
Female pink hibiscus mealybug. Click the image for more information about it.

Researchers Discover Sex Potion to Ensnare Mealybug Pests

By Rosalie Marion Bliss
April 21, 2005

Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists have found a way to entice male pink hibiscus mealybugs (PHMs) to congregate. That leaves the pesky insects--which attack more than 200 species of ornamental, vegetable and citrus crops--open to detection.

A team of researchers led by chemist Aijun Zhang at the ARS Chemicals Affecting Insect Behavior Laboratory (CAIBL), Beltsville, Md., discovered the two compounds that together make up the female PHM's sex pheromone.

The compounds provide a timely method with which to monitor and ultimately reduce infestations. PHMs escape conventional insecticides partly because their outer coatings, or cuticles, are resistant to topical penetration.

Officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), Riverdale, Md., are using the PHM-pheromone blend as a sex lure to track mealybug pest infestations in Florida and California. APHIS is also using the pheromone blend to chart the effectiveness of "biological controls," or natural enemies used to combat agricultural pest species.

The ARS scientists are now working with cooperators to improve both the process for producing the PHM pheromone and the method for using the compounds to control infestations. Such methods include technologies to disrupt the PHMs' mating activities, as well as to attract them on a mass scale for removal.

The discovery was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Read more about the research in the April 2005 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is USDA's chief in-house scientific research agency.