Swarms of orange midges dancing around an ear of wheat can be a worrying sight for growers – in bad years the UK has lost one million tonnes of grain to midge pests. But chemistry start-up PheroSyn has a smart solution, unveiled during the Start-Up Showcase at this years’ REAP conference.
Their small size and evening activity make midges, such as the notorious orange wheat blossom midge (OWBM), difficult to detect, and the difficulties mounted in 2016 with the UK government ban of the most effective treatment, Chlorpyrifos.
In response, PheroSyn has developed a cost-effective Smart Monitoring system using the insect’s own communication channel: Pheromones.
Smart, sticky and smelly
“Midges such as OWBM use pheromones to communicate and find a mate over long distances,” says Dan Bahia, co-founder and Business Manager at PheroSyn. “Our company aims to manufacture these natural high-value pheromones and then supply them into the agribusiness sector.”
“The pheromone is loaded into a slow-release mechanism, housed in a prism of card with a sticky inner surface,” the co-founder explains. “By surrounding the crop with just a few of these traps, the grower can easily determine whether pest control is necessary and, if so, when will be the most effective time to make the application.
“We’re looking to make pesticide use smarter in crop protection, for safer, greener and cost-effective insect pest management that is crucially also climate-friendly.”
With increased temperatures being seen in the UK over the past decades, pest outbreaks are becoming increasingly unpredictable. “It’s vitally important for the grower to have a monitoring approach in place,” warns Dan, previously of the Smart Crop Protection team at Rothamsted Research.
He explains that midge swarms can migrate long distances on winds, before settling on a crop. After mating, the female lays her eggs into the developing grain buds of the wheat. “Once the eggs are laid, it’s too late for topical spraying,” Dan explains, “so the insecticide is needed early, to kill the female, before the eggs enter the grain buds.”
Pheromones have been used as part of IPM strategies for over thirty years, but the need to extract the chemicals from plants meant only specific pests could be targeted. “That’s where PheroSyn comes in,” Dan says. “We’ve started off with these midge pests but with the expertise we’ve developed, we could create synthetic pheromones for control against any insect pest.”
Pheromone traps have been shown to reduce costs for growers. “Smart monitoring approaches with pheromones are designed to remove the need for prophylactic pesticide application, therefore reducing spraying overall,” explains Dan, who co-founded PheroSyn in 2019 alongside a highly experienced team of Rothamsted chemists.
“The big problem with pesticides is that insects can become resistant to them,” says the co-founder. “Another benefit of using our pheromones in smart management systems is that not only will chemical pesticide application be reduced, but the longevity of the pesticide will be potentially extended by reducing the rate of development of pesticide resistance.
“We’ve created a product that’s very difficult for the insect to adapt to – the pheromone is identical to what the insects themselves are producing, and our slow release mechanism ensures that the amount of pheromone also matches that created by the insect.”
The team, which has a combined 40 years chemistry experience, received an immediate boost when they were awarded seed funding from this year’s Shake Climate Change competition. “The award gave us an incredible chance to work with experts, develop the business and the way we are selling our products – and it’s given me the ability to spend all of my time guiding the business through its initial stages.
“Our founders have a huge amount of experience in the scientific area. The expert guidance in entrepreneurship and start-ups from the Shake Climate Change competition will allow us to develop our business expertise, refine our business model and draw up a really solid investment plan.
“In addition to the OWBM pheromone, we’re now able to produce the saddle gall midge and pea midge pheromones for sale and we’re in the process of scaling up production for commercial volume. We’ve already been approached by members of the Agribusiness community who see the tremendous potential of pheromones but have until now been unable to exploit them due to unavailability.
“Based on previous work, we’ve been able to roll out three products immediately, producing at lab-scale, and we’re in the process of scaling this up for commercial volume. We’re very excited to have joined the Agribusiness community and are looking forward to meeting farming partners as part of the Agri-TechE cluster at the REAP conference.”