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Swansea University researchers develop all-natural alternative to pesticides

A project led by Professor Tariq Butt, who heads one of the leading insect mycopathology (insect pest control) teams in the UK at Swansea University, has developed a naturally occurring, sustainable alternative to pesticides.

This development could not only help to preserve the environment, but could also dramatically reduce costs for farmers.

The project was funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) under the Horticulture LINK programme, the main government vehicle for sponsoring industry-academic applied research in horticulture. The project involved a variety of partners from different sectors, and focused on the problem of vine weevils and western flower thrips, insect pests that destroy numerous important crops worldwide, causing damage that could potentially run into hundreds of millions of pounds per annum.

The new approach would significantly reduce the impact on human health, the environment and pesticide resistance.

Professor Butts teams development of the fungal biological control agent (BCA) Metarhizium anisopliae for the control of vine weevils and western flower thrips in horticultural growing media has yielded highly successful results.

Professor Butt, who is based at Swansea Universitys School of Environment and Society, said: We concentrated our efforts on identifying a fungus that occurs naturally in soil, and that is a natural pathogen to the pests.

The team discovered that a certain strain of the fungus, Metarhizium, is deadly to vine weevils and western flower thrips. Applying the fungus to the crops growing media, such as peat, coir or bark, we discovered that we could control the subterranean stages of these pests, and thus contribute significantly to the overall pest control strategy.

The Metarhizium project needed a variety of partners from many different sectors and we were lucky to have help from Koppert Biological Systems, Bord Na Mona, Blue Xylem, the Horticultural Development Company, Symbio, Johnsons of Whixley, and W Godfrey and Sons who all had a great bearing on the success of our findings.

Working with industrial partners meant we could see the real-life effects of the fungal-BCA. We also worked with Defland, Wallings and Bells Brothers Nurseries to test out our work.

Metarhizium whether applied as a drench or premixed into the growing medium gave excellent control of the vine weevil larvae and thrips pupae.

The team used Metarhizium combined with only 1% of a conventional chemical pesticide achieving control comparable to the chemical used at the full rate, therefore reducing chemical inputs by 99%. By combining the Metarhizium with a species of nematode (or roundworm), which is also parasitic to vine weevil larvae, they achieved almost total control equalling a huge environmental success.

Metarhizium has now been registered in Europe with Novozymes, the world leader in bio-innovations. Hugh Frost, European Agronomist at Novozymes, said: The Novozymes BioAg business has been working with Swansea University to better understand the performance of the entomopathogenic fungus, Metarhizium anisopliae, and so develop products that can be registered for innovative, biological crop protection.

Research is on-going and Novozymes is keen to investigate the further potential of this fungus in controlling other insects, in wider application, to assist growers in producing crops in an efficient, yet sustainable, manner that meets their challenges of a decreasing portfolio of conventional pesticides.

Dr Paul Sopp, of Fargro Ltd, a company that markets specialist horticultural products across the UK, said: The potential of Metarhizium to control thrips and vine weevils is a significant step forward in the control of both pests.

Professor Butt added: The success of the project is great, and will potentially change the nature of vine weevil and western flower thrips pest control. The benefits are far reaching not just for those with organic farms or nurseries but also for conventional growers, offering an effective, environmentally friendly alternative to chemicals.

For further information about the School of Environment and Society at Swansea University, please visit:

  • Swansea University is a world-class, research-led university situated in stunning parkland overlooking Swansea Bay on the edge of the Gower peninsula, the UK’s first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.  Founded in 1920, the University now offers around 500 undergraduate courses and 150 postgraduate courses to more than 13,800 students.

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