Sugary poo could be used to lure destructive plant pests to their doom

Credit: Unsplash/CC0 Public Domain

Spotted lanternflies communicate through their foul-smelling secretions — called honeydew, a new study reports in Frontiers in insect science. This invasive species has impacted crops in the northeastern US, but little is known about how these insects interact for reproduction or feeding. According to this latest research, the insects’ honeydew releases various chemicals into the air that attract other lanternflies. Surprisingly, these effects are sex-specific, which may be the first known case of such signals in insects known as planthoppers.

“This research is important because the first step in controlling pests is to understand their biology and behavior,” said Dr. Miriam Cooperband of the US Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Plant Protection and Quarantine Division (USDA APHIS PPQ) in the US. “As we learn more about the behavior of the spotted lanternfly, we hope to find a vulnerability that we can use to develop pest control agents to reduce population and spread.”

Attractive scents

Although these insects are known to leave their droppings in the undergrowth, they have a peculiar habit of congregating in large numbers on only selected tree trunks. Other logs are mysteriously left untouched. These clumps of lanternflies can secrete so much honeydew that the surface of the tree turns white and foamy and gives off a smell of fermentation.

To study the signals from these secretions, Cooperband and her collaborators separately collected honeydew samples from male and female lanternflies in the field for testing in the lab. The researchers then gave lanternflies a choice between areas with or without the different types of honeydew to see what attracted them.

Surprisingly, males were strongly attracted to male honeydew, while both males and females were only slightly attracted to female honeydew. While it is still unclear what would trigger this behavior, it is consistent with observations of how these insects behave in the field.

The team then analyzed the different components of the honeydew to determine which produced the strongest signals. Five molecules were tested for attraction and found to have specific sex attracting profiles. Two molecules called benzyl acetate and 2-octanone attracted both sexes, one molecule called 2-heptanone attracted only men, one molecule 2-nonanone attracted only women, and one molecule, 1-nonanol, repelled women but no men.

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Pest control

These findings are just the beginning for a better understanding of how to potentially control this invasive pest. There are many more questions, such as whether there are seasonal variations in this behavior, and whether there are interactions with microbes in the honeydew that produce the necessary chemicals.

“The behavior and communication of spotted lanternflies is quite complex, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to our research on chemical signals, such as those in honeydew, we are also interested in the role of substrate vibrations in their communication system,”, Cooperband said, “Future research may focus on understanding how they find each other when they gather and find mates using multiple types of cues.”

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More information:
Volatiles from male honeydew secretions attract conspecific male spotted lanternflies, Lycorma delicatula (Hemiptera: Fulgoridae, Frontiers in insect science (2022). DOI: 10.3389/finsc.2022.982965 , … nsc.2022.982965/full

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