Wheat School: Wireworm a tenacious pest that keeps coming back


Nature is pretty amazing, but that wonder and adaptability can translate to a huge problem in a crop. Wireworms, for example, can determine they don’t like what is on the menu when you seed your crop in the spring, wait until the following spring, and attack a more vulnerable crop instead. What’s more, they can do that several years in a row. It’s a remarkable adaptation, but it’s led to a problem that’s getting bigger each year.

Dr. Haley Catton is an Agriculture and Agri-food (AAFC) research scientist at Lethbridge, Alta. She studies wireworm, and in this episode of the Wheat School, RealAgriculture’s Dale Leftwich speaks with Catton about these pests that just keep coming back. (Story continues after video.)

Catton begins by explaining why she decided to do research on wireworm. “I started my career here two-and-a-half years ago, and I asked farmers what are the most important things for me to study and wireworm kept coming up and coming up. And the reason for that being, it’s a complicated pest with not many answers.”

The life cycle and diet of wireworm is important to understand, Catton says. The wireworm spends its adult life as a beetle. Adults lay eggs in the soil and when those eggs hatch, the larvae can live in the soil two to seven years. “They have a long life cycle, they’re in the soil so they’re hard to study, they are hard to monitor, and they’ll eat almost all your crops,” she says.

Lindane used to control wireworm, but it is no longer available. As Catton says the replacement for Lindane is just not up to the task. “Wireworm is a major problem because there’s not a lot of chemical control available, you can use neonicotinoid seed treatments but those don’t kill the wireworms they kind of put them to sleep.” The wireworm is affected, but not enough to kill it. To make things worse, after it comes out of its stupor, it can just decide to wait till next year’s crop to see if it is more to its liking. Plus, neonicotinoid access is currently under review by Canada’s Pest Management Regualtory Agency.

As Catton says, there really is a need for more knowledge. “We don’t know very much about wireworms. There’s three to five main species in Alberta, but we don’t know where the beetles lay their eggs. We don’t know their preferences, so if you have a group of females that lay eggs in your field you’re going to have problems for up to seven years. We really need to figure out where those females like to lay their eggs and see if we can hack their life cycle and see if we can protect fields from further infestations.”

Scientists, in fact, know very little about wireworm partially because they are so difficult to study.  Wireworms hate the light and stay underground. It is hoped that the work at AAFC Lethbridge can help shine some light on this re-emerging pest.

For more Wheat School episodes please follow this link.

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