Insects could be Earth’s ultimate heroes

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Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Insects have continuously been making headlines with the eco-friendly potential they could offer the planet. From using insects to produce more sustainable protein and dairy products, to using them for biological pest and weed control – they have been lauded for all these functions.

This year, the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) officially opened its mass rearing centre for agents against invasive weeds and the biological control of insect pests. The centre is funded by the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries. Dr Roger Price, research team manager at the ARC’s Plant Health and Protection (ARC-PHP) institute, Roodeplaat, says they have been rearing agents for the biological control of invasive weeds for many years.

“We keep them in quarantine and have an extensive quarantine research facility, but when we release them, the agents take a long time to naturally disperse themselves. They are established, but it takes some time.

“The aim is to mass rear these agents and quickly implement the technology around South Africa so the agents can spread a lot quicker than they do naturally. Biocontrol will work eventually, but we need to speed it up to make sure we see the impact of the money spent on the projects,” says Dr Price.

He adds that one of the projects that excites him most is the biological control of pompom weeds, the pink weed that is found all over the Highveld, Mpumalanga. A thrips that damages and deforms the plant has been released in these areas. Soon, they will release a flower feeding moth that has been mass reared at the ARC’s facility.

Another important agent that has just been released is an insect that attacks invasive Prosopis in the Northern Cape, which has invaded more than 12 million hectares of arid land and is sucking up all the water from the water table. The agent is an Evippe species, a moth released in February 2021.

Dr Riana Jacobs-Venter, senior researcher: ARC-PHP, spoke about the national asset collection that the ARC houses.

“Biosystematics houses four collections of insects, nematodes, spiders and mites, and fungi. There are 200 000 spider and mite specimens, and 168 00 nematode specimens which are dried and preserved on microscope slides. The fungal collection is the only one that contains both live and preserved specimens, of which 63 000 are preserved and 27 000 are living,” says Dr Jacobs-Venter.

The national asset contains specimens that represent the biodiversity of the country and is proclaimed as such by government, which means that all South African citizens can benefit from it. This collection represents data from over 100 years, which means we can trace over 100 years’ data of South Africa’s biodiversity, irrespective of the changes in land use.

In 100 years, we will be able to use the data we collected today as a reference to the changes in the past century. This is an important long-term investment for South Africa. – Ursula Human, AgriOrbit

Watch a Plaas TV episode about the ARC’s facility to learn all about it.