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Video transcript: The hunt for African armyworm

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April 2013

Full report: Hunting the African armyworm

Professor Kenneth Wilson, Lancaster University
My name is Ken Wilson and I'm a Professor of Evolutionary Ecology at Lancaster University and I'm particularly interested in the interactions between parasites and their hosts, and in particular insects. And my favourite insect is this guy here, the African armyworm, 'Spodoptera exempta'. And I've been working on this insect for about 20 years now and what we've been trying to do over the past few years is to try to understand the natural interaction between the African armyworm, a major crop pest throughout sub-Saharan Africa, and it's natural disease virus called SpexNPV, also known as Spodoptera exempta nuclear polyhedrosis virus, which is why we call it SpexNPV because it's easier to say.

Video shows Professor Wilson in the car

It's December 21, everybody is getting ready for Christmas, and I am on my way to the airport to catch a flight to Zambia to assess the food security crisis caused by armyworms.

Video shows Professor Wilson at Manchester airport and on his flight to Zambia

I've got a busy couple of days ahead of me. What I am hoping to do is to visit some farmers who have been affected by armyworm, and assess the impact on food security, I am going to collect some armyworm samples to take back to the UK for analysis, and if all goes to plan I hope to meet with the Vice President of the country to discuss the armyworm situation and what can be done about it going forward and the role that biopesticides might play in the future.

It's about 20 hours flying time to Zambia so it's 20 hours there and 20 hours back and just 33 hours in the country, so effectively a day and a half to some work.

Plane touches down

The armyworm season runs October to April. Prof Wilson visits affected countries every year.

Well, I've just arrived in Lusaka. It's pouring with rain outside, pretty wet and miserable, but being in the tropics I'm sure the rain will go pretty soon and hopefully we'll be able to get out and do some field work.

Car journey

We're going to go out into the villages and see what damage armyworm has been caused. On our way here we've already seen some damage caused to pastoral grasses, which looks pretty devastating.

Donald, African farmer
We have had a lot of them here just anywhere you see you see them, the armyworms yeah the armyworms.

Video shows armyworms on eaten crops

Professor Wilson
So Donald, tell us about this area.

Donald, African farmer
Basically, this whole land was green but the outbreak of these armyworms physically they are amazing grazers and they've turn the whole land which was green to almost bare, which is the way it is looking now. They are brown really. And these are just reminents because if you had come 4 or 5 days ago when it was all green, really there were like all the leafs are covered by these armyworms.

Car journey

Video shows a crop field devastated by armyworms

Professor Wilson
Field where armyworms have attacked.

Video shows a dead armyworm being carried away by ants

An armyworm that was not so lucky.

Video shows a comparison of an unaffected and affected crops

Professor Wilson
This is what the crop should look like. Next door, however, it is not so good.

This is Annie Matutu and this is her field. Tell us what you have done with your field.

Annie Matutu, African farmer
So this field, it was affected with the armyworms so what we did we buy cypermethrin then we sprayed all the ground of the field and we dig a trench all around the fields then we started spraying every day in the evening we sprayed this trench so that the armyworm can't move into our field and destroy our meals. So you can see this field is looking nicely before we sprayed.

[Pesticides such as cypermethrin can be effective but many farmers cannot afford or access them. SpexNPV virus could provide a natural alternative. Manufactured in east Africa to develop expertise.]

Professor Wilson
Is the chemical costly?

Annie Matutu
Chemical? It is cypermethrin

Professor Wilson
Does it cost a lot of money?

Annie Matutu
It was the 150,000 for 2 litres.

[150,000 Kwacha is equivalent to cost of 125kg maize]

Video shows a comparison of an unaffected and affected crops

Professor Wilson
Treated with chemicals and not treated with chemicals. That's all damage caused by armyworms.

Can you show the armyworm?

Video shows boy showing a plate containing armyworms

This is a plate infested with armyworm collected by the children.

Video shows Donald with picking out pupae of African armyworms

So this is Donald my assistant who is carefully picking out pupae of African armyworm so we can take them back to the UK for scientific analysis.

So it is 8.40pm. I arrived in Zambia, I have forgotten how many hours ago. Start again… It is 6 o'clock in the morning. I have been here for 24 hours and I am just off to go to see the Vice President to discuss the armyworm situation and what can be done for it to go forward - exciting.

Car journey

Video shows photograph of Professor Wilson with the Vice President of Zambia and his staff.

So that was a very good meeting with the Vice President of Zambia and his staff to discuss the armyworm crisis and the things that can be done going forward and we also discussed the use of NPV as a biological control agent for African armyworms. The Vice President and his team are very keen to do some trials in Zambia with a view to having NPV available as a biological control agent against armyworms next time they attack. It's good to see the research paying dividends.

[In the photo: Dr Guy Scott, Vice President of Zambia, Chair, Disasters and Mitigation Committee]

Plane journey

Professor Wilson back at Manchester airport
Well here I am at Manchester airport and we are goodness knows how many hours since leaving. Arrived safe and sound, unfortunately the same can't be said for my bag which apparently is still stuck in South Africa together with all the samples I collected so it is going to be a little while yet before I can start analysing those data. Still, Christmas now.

Well as you can see I got back home safely. Christmas is upon us. It's late afternoon on Christmas Eve. My armyworm samples are still in my suitcase somewhere over the Sahara Desert but it has been an inspirational trip. Visiting Mrs Matutu to see the efforts that she is going to to try and project her crops, her livelihood, her family's food from armyworm, at the moment using conventional pesticides but who knows in a few years time hopefully available to her will be SpexNPV the biopesticide we are working on. Meeting Dr Scott the Vice President of Zambia was also inspirational in the efforts that his country are doing to try to combat the armyworms in these very unusual times and it was encouraging to see the level of interest that high level and national level in the work that we are doing and again hopefully we shall have something available for these countries to use next time armyworm attack. It's been a very long weekend over 10,000 miles nearly 40 hours of flying but back home now in the comfort of my home and it is time to forgot about armyworms and to move on to thinking about Christmas and getting into the Christmas spirit to drink to the Christmas spirit and have a mince pie or two. Merry Christmas. 

Video shows Professor Wilson in the lab with the armyworm samples

[Professor Ken Wilson had no news of his bags and samples for 3 days. Then he unwrapped these presents to find his Zambia Armyworm samples intact enabling his lab to continue working as planned.]

ENDS

Credits

This video may be reproduced in its entirety with due credit to BBSRC.

All media (c) BBSRC unless otherwise stated.

Image, music and video credits:

  • Video shot by Professor Ken Wilson, Lancaster University. Edited by Arran Frood
  • Infected armyworm (c) Ken Wilson
  • Larva collection (c) Wifred Mushobozi
  • Music 'Zambezi Trail' and 'Hawaii Journey' from www.cinephonix.com