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Pest in class

TResearch Summer 2023

Horticulture and Entomology Senior Research Officer Michael Gaffney is helping to lead a collaborative Teagasc project to automate pest control practices and tackle the ever-important issue of food security.

Horticulture may be one of Teagasc’s smaller departments, but as any good entomologist will tell you; small things can have a big effect. Studying insect pests and other invasive species is a crucial aspect of the preventative work involved in crop protection and working to ensure successful crops for future growers, to mitigate problems of food security.

What does your career path at Teagasc look like?

I started out at Teagasc in Kinsealy, initially as an MSc student in 2002 in conjunction with UCD, which subsequently was converted into a PhD. In 2006 I took a research position at the University of Wales, Swansea, but my area of work was similar to what I had been doing at Teagasc, developing and deploying biological insecticides.

In 2007 I returned to Teagasc, working as a horticultural advisor, where I had responsibility for protected crops  meaning crops grown under glass or plastic, mostly in soilless growth media. I worked primarily as an advisor until  2013, when I transferred to a research officer position – I had been continually involved in research alongside the advisory work but eventually switched to it full time. Partly, that’s because horticulture is a very diverse area and the  needs of the sector change, so we have to be flexible in our roles.

How did you originally get into entomology and horticulture?

I was a late convert to the field – I initially did biology and maths at Maynooth University, which at the time was a less typical route into horticulture. I had some lectures on biocontrol which touched on entomology, and it piqued my interest a bit. Then when I was looking for postgrad programmes, I found one on developing fungal biocontrol agents; at the time, the combination of entomology and fungi struck me as unusual, and seemed like it would be an interesting path to follow – and here we are!

How has this field of research changed over time?

One of the clearer shifts I’ve seen in crop protection, is the drive towards developing alternatives to synthetic pesticides. For example, the use of biological products such as entomopathogenic fungi and nematodes have been widely adopted in major crops such as mushrooms and soft fruit for managing pests – these are organisms that can infect and kill pests through cuticle penetration. While these approaches are most successful in soilless growth media in protected crops, there is potential, with further development, for them to be used effectively in soil-grown  crops outdoors.

Therefore, there’s growing acceptance of newer, perhaps less invasive, approaches to pest control, and increasing acceptance that these new approaches work differently from traditional pesticides and thus require different ways of thinking and different ways of actually evaluating their effectiveness.

Could you explain what Integrated Pest Management is?

Integrated Pest Management – IPM – is essentially a catch-all phrase to describe an approach to crop protection that involves the consideration of multiple control options. The term reflects thought and consideration of the pest, disease or weed lifecycle, its population size and the ‘threshold’ at which economic damage may occur in the crop and what management options may be available other than solely applying a pesticide.

It is about careful observation and information-based decision-making, so only the pesticides absolutely required are applied. This approach benefits all stakeholders including growers, although there is a need to increase, through research and development, more effective IPM strategies, particularly for outdoor crops.

A recent project you’ve been involved in for integrated pest management is the HALY.ID project — could you explain what it’s about?

HALY.ID is a collaborative European research project that the Tyndall National Institute is working on in partnership with Teagasc. We are working together on the design and implementation of an automated pest monitoring system.

A key component of IPM is knowing when a pest is actually in your crop. Pest traps – either sticky traps or pheromone based – are installed in many crops and then regularly collected for observation and identification. This process can be time-consuming and costly – sending staff to collect traps, observe and report, particularly from remote, hard-to- reach areas, and there is often a time delay from when the trap was deployed and when the information becomes available to the grower.

So, the HALY.ID project arose from the question: can we automate this process? Not just automated imaging, but also automated identification of pests — in this case, Halyomorpha halys, or marmorated brown stink bug, from which the project takes its name.

The system developed takes a picture of the pest trap once every 24 hours and uses AI software to identify if the insect pest is present. It then communicates that finding to the grower. This helps reduce the time lag between trapping the insect and identification with the daily snapshot giving you a regular update, significantly reducing the amount of time staff would have to contribute to trap maintenance.

Another benefit of this system is how deployable it is; there’s the one-off installation of it, it runs on a self-sustaining power source and then it just stays in place, monitoring.

We’re currently in our first full season of monitoring in an apple orchard in Italy, but our preliminary data from last year was positive in terms of insect identification. The system needs another full season to validate results, and then hopefully it can be further developed to be able to identify a greater number of pests.

TResearch Summer 2023

Michael Gaffney and Research Officer Helen Grogan inspect mushroom crops at the Mushroom Research Centre, Teagasc, Ashtown

What are some of the future challenges in the field of pest management?

The big challenge coming is in relation to climate change – how it will affect crops directly, but also how it affects pest and beneficial insect lifecycles.

Pests such as aphids are vectors for many plant viruses; warmer, earlier springs would allow them to fly and spread earlier, impacting crops at more vulnerable development stages. In addition to this, due to national and European policy changes, we will have to integrate more alternative, non-pesticide-based crop protection strategies at a time of likely increasing pest pressure, which will be challenging.

From a horticultural perspective, reducing and eliminating peat as a growth media and moving to alternative materials will be a significant transition for the horticultural sector. Through the Beyond Peat project, we are testing and developing alternatives to peat in key horticultural crops and learning how we will need to alter our crop production protocols. One of our key objectives in this will be observing the changes in pest and disease epidemiology caused by the new production practices and the impact this will have on our IPM systems. Given how relatively rapidly we will need to transition away from peat, this is a very significant challenge for growers, researchers and advisors.

Up close and personal

What’s your favourite animal?

The vine weevil; they’re the most elegant little insect. They’re a very rudimentary pest but have a huge capacity to reproduce and resist pesticides, and they are a problem every single year. They are massively ordinary, but massively effective in their ordinariness!

If you hadn’t ended up in research, what other job would you have wanted to give a go?

I always wanted to be a chef but was convinced by my parents to do science as a backup — so I never got round to the chef-ing!

What are you most proud of professionally?

I really like the opportunity to work in different scientific disciplines of relevance to horticulture, such as Integrated Pest Management, growth media and food safety and to be able to do that as part of international projects. I think it helps to promote the research we are doing, but also helps us to work collaboratively to try and solve some of the big challenges we are facing in the production of fruit and vegetable crops – challenges that, given the complexity and range of horticultural production systems, we would not be able to address on our own.

Photography: John McElroy.