Can wasps help find diseased crops? - WALB.com, Albany News, Weather, Sports

Can wasps help find diseased crops?

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August 1, 2002

When you think of a wasp you normally think of a very painful sting. But, researchers in South Georgia are finding out certain wasps are handy for forensics and farmers.

The trained wasps are learning how to find dangerous chemicals, moldy crops and even sniff out explosives. The Agriculture Research Service of USDA and University of Georgia Researchers in Tifton are using the wasps natural instincts to help the community. These "Bug Detectives" are getting ready to investigate in the field.

Part-time Farmer, Grady Thompson, looks at his peanut crops, "See right here. I don't see any disease they're all pretty clean." Thompson says not all diseases are easy to see. He explains, "Like it is now, we don't know if we have problems or not. We can sit down and inspect close, but not for Aflatoxin, we don't."

The only way farmers can tell if their crops are attracted by Aflatoxin, a toxic mold, is to take their plant and look at it under a microscope. Now wasps are being trained to detect in the field. Research Entomologist Joe Lewis explains, "You can train them to any chemical or say smell this and let me know when you find this and you may not know what the chemical is."

These types of wasps are not the kind that sting humans. The little bug detectives are natural born searchers. Lewis says, "In order for them to reproduce they have to find this one of a kind caterpillar hidden in a large cotton field. It's like searching for a needle in a haystack. So, they have to be very good."

The training exercise is a quick work-out for Wasps...for example, an odor, like the fungus that produces Aflatoxin, is put inside a dish. The smell of food is mixed with the chemical odor. Post-Doctoral Associate, Moukaram Tertuliano, explains, "Now I put holes around the sugar water to pull the air chemical out."

The wasps are trained three times for ten seconds with 30 seconds in between training. The wasps have brains the size of a pin head, so how are they so smart? Lewis says, "Oddly enough, despite their small brain, when they link the odor to the taste, they will connect it to food and behave in a certain way."

This is how it will work in the field. A Wasp trained to detect Aflatoxin, will be put in the top portion of a container. A vacuum will suck in the air in the container from, lets say, a peanut plant. If the plant has the toxic mold, the wasp will smell the odor, thinking it's food and crawl into the hole, tripping a buzzer or light.

The wasps in training are hungry for food because they're starved for several days. Lewis explains, "You got to reward them that they got the right job and you let the others see that."Like giving a K-9 dog a treat, the only problem, "Bug Detectives" don't have leashes and don't listen to commands. Lewis says, "The Advantage, you can rear them in large numbers, train fifteen of them in 15 to 20 minutes, by the 100's and thousands. They're inexpensive, quick and easy."

Each wasp can be trained to smell a different chemical. While researchers are busy in the labs getting wasps ready for the field, farmers are buzzing about the possibilities. Thompson says, "Right now we have a scout to go out and scout our cotton, if we have these bugs to send out and say go out there and check on them, that would be a cheap way to do it."

This experiment is the tip of the iceberg. Wasps are good students, but there may be more detectives in the insect world.

Researchers train at least fifty wasps a day at the University of Georgia Experiment Station in Tifton.

Right now the wasps are learning how to sense the toxic mold on plants, but eventually will be trained to help law enforcement find explosives and drugs. Researchers hope to put the wasps to the field crop test by December.