UVM Scientist Saves Kale By Killing Pests With 'Unrequited Love'

Aug 12, 2016

The Swede Midge is thought to have made its way from Europe to Canada and then down into the United States. It’s caused problems for Vermont farmers, damaging crops like kale and broccoli.

At the University of Vermont, Associate Professor of Agriculture Yolanda Chen is researching ways to keep the swede midge away from crops. She spoke to VPR about how the midge damages crops and the ways they’re trying to fight of this invasive species.             

On the research being done at the University of Vermont:

We are the only lab in the U.S. working on this invasive pest and the thing with this midge is that it attacks all kinds of brassicas; Asian greens, kale, kohlrabi, cauliflower and cabbage.

What we're trying to do is find solutions that are suitable for both organic and conventional growers to prevent these [midges] from even laying eggs on the plants. We've found that even as few as three larvae can lead to a distorted growth and [that] leads to completely unmarketable crops.

The prevention methods they’re testing:

One of the main things that we're trying to figure out is using the sex pheromone of the midge. The female will have kind of a scent that she releases that says basically ‘I'm ready’ and the male is able to track that in the field and find her.

The cool thing is in many systems, typically with moths that are pests, people have found the pheromone, identified it and synthesized it and released [it] at a very high levels to confuse the males.  

"They think that they're in heaven, that they're surrounded by all these lovely midge females but they can't find them and they get exhausted and that's what causes them to die. It's a story of unrequited love." — Yolanda Chen, UVM associate professor of agriculture

Suddenly, the density of this odor is like thousand times greater than it ever encountered normally. They think that they're in heaven, that they're surrounded by all these lovely midge females but they can't find them and they get exhausted and that's what causes them to die. It's a story of unrequited love. Unfortunately though like the costs of those compounds are really prohibitively expensive.

On the timeline of the work:

The main limitation for us is really around funds. Every single thing I have to apply competitively just to get enough money. So for some of the major pest that are rapidly [spreading] around the entire country there are millions [of dollars] but this is only in kind of a small corner of the U.S. and I have to compete against all the other problems that are out there. We’re trying we're trying to raise money in all sorts of different ways including little web sites

We kind of scrape together different funds [and] I'd say basically the more money we have the more we can try different kinds of ideas. With money it's about people, ideas, time and space and those are the things that I'm managing it in order to try to deliver solutions.