Plant and food researcher Max Suckling can explain his work with a simple story: “Imagine a blindfolded man is looking for his wife in a room by her perfume. He’ll probably be able to smell his wife and find her. But what would happen if the same perfume smell is in the air everywhere? He’ll probably wander around aimlessly and never be able to find her.”
Replace the man with a moth and perfume with sex pheromones and this is how Suckling and his team stop pesticide-resistant pests. When pesticides were no longer fending off moths in a certain apple orchard in New Zealand, Suckling and his colleagues worked to disrupt the moth mating process with plastic dispensers full of sex pheromones. “I’m not talking about a poison that kills anything,” he says in a talk at TEDxChristchurch. I’m talking about a smell,” Suckling says, “and it’s just a smell that stops the moths from having their mating behavior and it protects our apples … It’s not adding any residues to the fruit; it’s not putting any pesticides in the environment. ”
Suckling and his team at the University of Auckland are working to develop this technology to disrupt a surprisingly pernicious pest — ants. “Ant invasions are happening more often, more widely and having growing impact,” Suckling says. The creatures are attracted to electrical circuits, which can start fires and disable irrigation systems. They can also hurt farm animals (blinding is a problem) and destruct root systems of plants. “In Arkansas, farmers can spent up to $1,500 a year combating fire ants to keep their irrigation systems running,” Suckling says. “In Texas, they saw a 90% reduction in water bird offspring when they didn’t treat [bird habitats] for [fire ant] infestations.”
To combat ant infestations, Suckling’s team is working to disrupt the insects’ chemical trails, which help ants navigate, find resources and get home to their nests to reproduce. In trials, the University of Auckland group has found that when ant pheromones are released into the air in New Zealand vineyards, their trail following goes down by 90% and fat count drops by 30%.
Watch the whole talk to learn more:
Insight from the TEDx office — Why we like this talk:
The speaker is a university-affiliated researcher doing novel work in alternatives to pesticide in pest management. He presents his work in a way that is clear, accessible and supported by data and uses illuminating photo and video to present his idea — that the future of food security and pest management is in pheromones.