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Spotlights on intelligent pest management innovators

Start-up company featured on BBC Online and makes top 'clean technology' business list

2 December 2010

Estimates vary, but insects may consume up to quarter of the world's food from production to storage and distribution. Ensuring food security for millions therefore demands that agricultural pests be controlled in fields, silos and in transit at the lowest cost to the environment.

Killing insects in a more sustainable manner might not seem like the most desirable or fashionable of pastimes, but a company previously funded by BBSRC is showing that this work can be executed intelligently and with lower environmental impacts - activities that have not gone unnoticed in the business or media world.

A moth pheromone trap in an apple orchid. Image: ExoSect

A moth pheromone trap in an apple orchid.
Image: ExoSect

Exosect are a provider of 'Intelligent Pest Management' services and aim to help food producers move away from the use of conventional insecticides. To do this, they have employed some novel tactics.

Generation sex

In the article ' How are sexually-confused insects helping poor farmers' BBC Online recently featured Professor Philip Howse's research at The University of Southampton. He found that tiny wax particles inside the pitcher plant stick to insect's feet (or tarsae) via electrostatic attraction which makes the insect lose grip and fall into the plant's digestive juices. Howse then looked at materials that work in a similar way and discovered and patented 'Entostat' powder - a wax powder which also develops an electrostatic charge and therefore adheres to insects.

Entostat powder, which is derived from a wax that can be sustainably harvested from a palm tree Corpernicia prunifera, is the platform technology for Exosect's range of products. The powder sticks to insects and can be formulated with different active ingredients.

For example, Entostat is formulated with sex pheromone specific to various moth pests in agriculture. The male moth is attracted to the powder dispenser and becomes covered in the pheromone powder. Not only can it no longer detect female moths to mate, but being covered in female pheromone attracts other males and the knock on effect leads to mating breakdown in the locale.

Furthermore, the powder can then be passed from insect to insect, increasing its impact away from the original dispenser.

Exosect Managing Director Martin Brown says the important factor is that using Entostat as a delivery platform means that minute quantities of active ingredient are required. "Our products can also be used in an IPM (integrated pest management) programme," he says, citing for example the use of conventional sprays in an apple orchard for the first generation of codling moth and their product Exosex CM to cover the remaining generations by disrupting sex pheromones. "Sprays are not used anywhere near harvest, which helps growers to supply produce with zero residues," says Brown.

The system is in use to fight rice stem borers in India, and on vineyards and apple orchards in Argentina, the EU and the UK, respectively.

Product placement

An ExoSect product to control mites in honeybee colonies has been acquired by Bayer CropScience. Image: ExoSect

An ExoSect product to control mites in honeybee colonies has been acquired by Bayer CropScience.
Image: ExoSect

BBSRC funded Howse's core work in the mid 1990s. Exosect was then the recipient of two grants in the early-to-mid 2000s that were designed to help small businesses commercialise innovative research.

Exosect's product range now includes traps to tackle cockroaches, mating disruption products to control codling moths (Cydia pomonella, major apple pests), yellow stem borer moths (Scirpophaga incertulas), and stored product pests in food manufacturing sites) as well as devices to tackle clothes moths and the Varroa mite that has been implicated in the decline of honeybee hives.

The insecticide-free approach has gained the company a place on The Guardian Global Cleantech 100 list, 2010 – recognition for promising clean technology companies most likely to make significant market impact over the next 5-10 years – for the second year running.

"16% to 20% of stored grain is lost globally to insect pest damage and this is just one sector," says Brown. "Our products can protect food in the field, storage and in the food manufacturing plant. They will be a major contributor to securing our food in the future."


Arran Frood

tel: 01793 413329