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Introducing tiny wasps as a natural alternative to pesticides could be a dream come true for organic farmers. Or it could be an ecological disaster, as introducing one species to combat another species often turns out to be. However, after a "detailed" study, scientists are looking at using tiny parasitic wasps as a natural solution to pesticide to protect crops. The Telegraph reports that researchers John Werren, a professor of biology at the University of Rochester in New York, and Stephen Richards at the Baylor College of Medicine, Texas, and their research team sequenced the genomes of three parasitic wasp species, and in their study (published in Science Magazine) reveals that these little insects could be useful for pest control.
Because the wasps are so tiny - often smaller than the head of a pin - they go unnoticed in their role of keeping other pests in check, such as caterpillars.
The key in using them as pest control is that wasps target specific insects, and there are 60,000 species of the wasps. "Therefore, if we can harness their full potential, they would be vastly preferable to chemical pesticides, which broadly kill or poison many organisms in the environment, including us," says Professor Warren.
"These genome sequences will be a major tool for agricultural pest control," said Chris Smith, assistant professor of biology at San Francisco State University and one of the study's authors, as reported in Science Daily. "Many people may not realize how dependent humans are on these tiny wasps which protect our food crops and save the U.S. billions of dollars each year by reducing crop loss."
According to Science Daily, "Among the future applications of the Nasonia genomes that could be of use in pest control is identification of genes that determine which insects a parasitoid will attack, identification of dietary needs of parasitoids to assist in economical, large-scale rearing of parasitoids, and identification of parasitoid venoms that could be used in pest control."
However, it's difficult to get whole-heartedly behind the idea of using pests to control pests when you read other past articles such as this one also from Science Magazine:
Insects have frequently been drafted to fight invasive weeds and pests, but these so-called biological control agents can also attack innocent native species. Now comes the most detailed example yet of how deeply a control agent can infiltrate an ecosystem. On page 1314, ecologists report that parasitic wasps from Texas and China that were introduced into Hawaii more than 50 years ago to prey on sugarcane pests are now dominant players in the food web of a remote native forest.
It still seems safer to lean towards companion gardening as a solution to massive monocultures to help aid pest control - or even spices seem more preferable. We've seen too many examples of failed attempts at using one species to control another to rush onto this as a brilliant idea. Perhaps worth exploring the potential, but warily so.