Armyworms: the very, very hungry caterpillar
Ken Wilson, Lancaster University; @spodoptera007
I study insects that eat food crops in Africa. I’m particularly interested in armyworms – which are not in fact worms, but caterpillars that grow up to be moths. They’re called armyworms because they often occur in mass outbreaks of up to 1000 caterpillars per square metre! In large crowds like this, they quickly run out of food and so go marching, like an ‘army of worms’. Because they occur in such vast numbers, and feed on staple food crops, like maize, wheat, millet and rice, they can often cause considerable damage to crops and impact on the food security of African farmers and their families.
Armyworms can often be effectively controlled using chemical pesticides. However, these can be damaging to the environment and can kill beneficial insects such as bees and other pollinators. My research is therefore trying to develop an environmentally-friendly way of controlling armyworms using their natural diseases. In particular, we’re developing a biological pesticide based on a virus that naturally kills armyworms. That might sound scary, but these viruses are very specific to armyworms, so even other insects (including bees and other pollinators) are completely safe.