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Improving lives by solving problems in agriculture and the environment

Protecting leeks and onions from pests

The invasive leek moth poses a significant and immediate threat to producers of leeks, onions, garlic and chives in North America. The larvae mine the green tissues, reducing the marketability of crops. The pest’s distribution is expanding, with no signs of suppression by indigenous natural enemies. We are supporting an integrated pest management (IPM) programme run by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada to combat the leek moth using specialized natural enemies from its area of origin.

Project Overview

So, what's the problem

The leek moth, Acrolepiopsis assectella (Lepidoptera: Acrolepiidae), is an herbivorous pest of cultivated Allium species, commonly found on leeks, onions, garlic and chives. The larvae mine the green tissues, and in exceptional cases even the bulbs, of their host plants and can reduce the marketability of the crops they attack.

Since the accidental introduction of this Palaearctic species into Canada, leek moths have been having an increasing impact on Allium production in the eastern provinces. For several years, leek moth populations were initially restricted to the region surrounding Ottawa, the nation’s capital. However, this distribution has since expanded West toward the great lakes region, East toward the maritime region, and South into the United States. With no signs of suppression by indigenous natural enemies, the leek moth poses a significant and immediate threat to Allium producers in eastern North America.

What is this project doing?

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada launched an integrated pest management (IPM) programme to combat leek moth in North America. CABI has been supporting this programme in one important aspect: classical biological control (the use of specialized natural enemies from the pest’s area of origin).
The project objectives included:
  • surveying the natural enemies of leek moth in central Europe, near the centre of its natural distribution
  • selecting promising candidates and assessing their potential (safety and efficacy) as classical biological control agents
  • submitting a petition for the release of most promising agents in Canada
  • conducting controlled releases of approved agents to establish permanent populations in areas where leek moth occurs

Results

In 2004, CABI performed an extensive literature review and began conducting field surveys and a life-table study to obtain information on leek moth parasitoids in Europe and identify potential biological control agents. Allowing mortality from the natural enemy to be compared with other sources, life-tables also allow the contribution to pest population regulation to be assessed. These surveys concluded that a 1cm-long parasitoid called Diadromus pulchellus (Hymenoptera: Ichneumonidae), which attacks and kills leek moth pupae, was the most promising candidate for introduction into North America. This was based on its consistent association with leek moth and the fact that it was the only parasitoid obtained from that pest that was considered to be relatively specific.

Subsequent studies of D. pulchellus investigated its host specificity, cold tolerance and efficacy. The host specificity tests were carried out between 2006 and 2008 and demonstrated that D. pulchellus will attack species only very closely related to leek moth, of which there are very few in eastern North America and none that occur in similar habitats to leek moth. A field trial conducted in 2008 indicated that D. pulchellus is likely to be very selective of the habitat in which it forages, since the parasitoids appeared not to forage on cabbage plants infested with suitable hosts, despite the fact that these plants were within 1m of the leeks in the field. Furthermore, based on the literature review and discussions with taxonomists, there are no known field records of this parasitoid from any hosts other than leek moth.

Previously, it was not known how D. pulchellus over-wintered in Europe, so it was unclear whether it would tolerate the severe winter conditions in certain parts of North America. A number of tests were run in 2007 and 2008 to assess the cold hardiness of the immature and adult stages of the parasitoid. These experiments indicated that D. pulchellus only overwinters as an adult, at which stage it is capable of withstanding freezing temperatures for extended lengths of time. This suggests that the agent would be able to survive North America’s cold winters.

Parasitoid efficacy trials were conducted in 2007 and 2008 to investigate the impact of releasing large numbers of the agent into leek moth-infested fields in Switzerland. Several hundred parasitoids were released at each experimental site to mimic releases that could one day take place in infested Allium crops in Canada. The results of the field trials were very promising, with attack rates of around 50% in three of the four trials. This study demonstrated that large numbers of high-quality agents could be reared easily in the laboratory and mass-released to suppress leek moth populations.

A petition (application) for release of D. pulchellus in Canada was submitted to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in May 2009 and approval was granted in September 2009. First releases were conducted in Canada from 2010 to 2012 by AAFC. In subsequent years, a larger number of agent releases will be conducted at selected sites with significant leek moth problems. The host specificity of D. pulchellus and its capacity to parasitise a significant proportion of leek moth pupae is expected to reduce the damage caused by this pest in Canada.

You may be interested to refer to our book 'Biological Control Programmes in Canada 1981-2000', which is published by CABI.

The team

Project Manager

Staff image of Tim Haye

Tim Haye  Head Arthropod Biological Control

Rue des Grillons 1 CH-2800 Delémont
Switzerland
T +41 (0)32 4214883
E t.haye@cabi.org

Project team

Staff image of Wade Jenner

Wade Jenner

Global Director, Plant Health Systems Development (PHSD)