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Reducing gypsy moths by disrupting mating

SPLAT GM-O! What was that?  Or, what is that?  No, it is not a new GMO (genetically modified organism). Rather, it stands for gypsy moth-organic. It is an organic, biodegradable formulation for the control of gypsy moths using mating disruption.

Gypsy moth is an invasive forest pest that was introduced in Massachusetts in 1869. This European pest was part of an experiment to start a silkworm industry. The experiment failed, and the caterpillars escaped and began feeding on the leaves of many species of hardwood trees throughout the northeastern states. This nonnative pest can and has caused a lot of tree death over the years. Intervention is key. Without it, the natural spread of this pest is estimated at 13 miles per year.

It starts with figuring out where the gypsy moths are. When there is a severe, early summer outbreak, it is obvious where they are by the vast number of caterpillars eating leaves and causing defoliation of mature trees, especially oak trees. By the end of June, the caterpillars have stopped eating and have transitioned to a cocoon, emerging as adult moths. The mothers are active in July through August when their primary purpose is to mate and lay eggs for the next spring, when the cycle continues. When the populations are at damaging levels, intervention includes aerial insecticide applications to kill the caterpillars in the spring.

Another way to know where gypsy moths are is through the use of pheromone traps that attract and trap the male moths. Annual trapping in organized grids helps the Ohio Department of Agriculture determine population levels and take an early intervention approach. That’s where  SPLAT GM-O and other products like it that contain the gypsy moth pheromone come into play. When a low-level gypsy moth population is identified, aerial applications are made right before the emergence of the adult moths.  Adding the extra pheromone into the area confuses the male moths, preventing many of them from finding the female moths. Therefore, there is a reduction in the number of fertilized eggs, reducing the overall population.

SPLAT GM-O is a relatively new product that has become an alternative to the traditionally used pheromone impregnated plastic flakes. Both are applied by crop-duster type planes, disrupt the mating of only gypsy moths, and are completely harmless to humans and animals. Seems to me that SPLAT GM-O is an improvement on the traditional flakes.  SPLAT GM-O is certified organic under the USDA’s National Organic Program. It is made entirely of food-grade materials and has the consistency of hand cream. It is applied at a rate of 6 grams per acre from a plane or helicopter flying 100 to 200 feet above treetops. it is quickly biodegradable and hardly detectable when applied, which is an improvement on the traditional flakes. The flakes would biodegrade but take much longer.

On the job, I have been a part of Ohio’s battle against the gypsy moth since 1990. Some tools we have used over the years have stayed the same, but used in different ways. Others have been replaced with better products and SPLAT GM-O is one of them.  Agricultural research is still as important than ever.

Mary Smallsreed is a member of Trumbull County Farm Bureau and grew up on a family dairy farm in northeast Ohio.