USDA releases sterile apple moths in Napa

November 4, 2009 7:23:24 PM PST
The first sterile apple moths were released in California's wine country. They were bred to stop an invasion by the pest that could cost California farmers billions of dollars.

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The United States Department of Agriculture has spent $900,000 in an effort to make apple moths work for farmers, instead of against them.

"Well that's the trick is that we're essentially using the pest biology against itself," said Dr. Greg Simmons.

For months, Dr. Simmons' team has bred millions of these moths at a facility in Moss Landing with one extra step. The lab irradiates and sterilizes them.

On Wednesday at dusk, they set the first of those adult moths loose in a field of pinot noir grapes at Chandon Vineyards, which volunteered this land as part of the project.

"We had the first signs, very few signs of a couple of moths that were actually trapped in this area. So we are now controlling the tip of the iceberg before the iceberg comes," said viticulturist Josh Rubin.

The USDA has been battling the light brown apple moth for more than two years, which poses billions of dollars in potential damage to California crops.

They have tried spraying, and also a technique that used pheromone-laced plastic ties to lure the lusty males, but that has been difficult and expensive.

"It's very, very labor intensive. We are putting them out at a rate of approximately 250 per acre, so every 13 feet, you put a tie," said USDA Program Director Gary Carpenter.

Now, they hope millions of sterilized apple moths may do the heavy labor for them.

"This is a technology that is proven," said Carpenter

But it's not enough to just release the apple moths. This is part of an ongoing project and researchers will have to come back and want to know how long they live.

"Our hope is that we will have a very competitive insect will seek out and find the wild pest and mate with it. And the result of that they will be sterile and not lay any fertile eggs," said Dr. Simmons.

To translate, go forth and frolic, but in futility.

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