Harnessing the power of Mother Nature’s chemical cues

Semiochemicals are natural compounds
emitted by plants and animals to elicit
desired behaviors. Illustration by
Renato Leal, ISCA Technologies.

The natural world is a complicated place, populated by millions of species of plants and animals.

So just how do male and female insects of the same species find each other for mating in a jungle abuzz with thousands of species? Similarly, how do plants attract the right pollinators? How do mosquitoes know where to lay their eggs? The answer is semiochemicals: the naturally occurring compounds that plants and animals produce to elicit desired behaviors from other organisms.

The group of compounds known as semiochemicals includes the better-known pheromones, chemicals that animals of same species use to communicate with each other. Sex pheromones, for instance, are emitted to attract mates. Mating, however, is just one behavior needed for a species to avoid extinction. Pregnant mosquitoes, for instance, release a pheromone when they lay their eggs in a puddle that signals to other females that they’ve found a suitable aquatic habitat for their young.

When too many bark beetles infest a pine tree, they emit a repellent that tells approaching beetles, “Hey, this tree is taken. Go someplace else!”

Other semiochemicals are released to compel certain behaviors from organisms of very different species.  Flowering plants, for example, release floral compounds to lure the bees, wasps, or hummingbirds they need to dust their ovaries with pollen. Bees in Africa, meanwhile, release a compound that repels elephants, preventing these behemoths from raiding their honey-laden hives.

ISCA is a world leader in the use of semiochemicals for pest management. We have mastered how to harness these naturally produced compounds, including pheromones, plant volatiles, flower oils, sugars, and proteins, to manipulate insect behavior in ways that protect crops and forests, and prevent the spread of disease.

By mimicking systems already found in nature, we can create sustainable agricultural pest and disease vector control while posing no threat to the environment or public safety.

Semiochemical advantages

Resistance unlikely: Insects are far less likely to develop resistance to semiochemicals than to conventional pesticides.

Non-toxic: Semiochemicals contain no poisonous substances and pose no threat to humans, non-target insects, or wildlife.

Effective: Because they are a natural part of an insect’s ecology, semiochemicals target specific species to cause desired outcomes.

Semiochemical strategies

Disrupts the Mating Cycle: Female sex pheromones are a type of semiochemical that attracts males for mating. In pest management, pheromones are instrumental in reducing insect populations by preventing them from procreating. When a pheromone solution is used on crops, male insects become confused by the abundance of the applied pheromone and are ultimately unable to find a female for mating. This proactive approach reduces pest populations without killing insects and without using a single drop of pesticide.

Attracts and Kills Insects: Semiochemicals can also be used on crops to attract and kill insects. In this strategy, insects are drawn to and consume the semiochemical solution, which contains a trace amount of pesticide to effectively eradicate the pest. Because the pesticide is consumed by the insect, rather than simply coming in contact with its cuticle, the amount needed is small, and the solution is used on just a tiny fraction of the crop, drastically reducing the amount of pesticide applied compared to the conventional “cover spray” method. The attract and kill method leaves no chemical residue on fruit and vegetables.

Naturally Repels Insects: When semiochemical repellents are placed on healthy plants, they trick insects into believing it is decayed or already colonized, signaling that the plant would not make a viable host. Semiochemical solutions have protected entire forests from the damaging effects of mountain pine beetles without harming other wildlife and without blanket spraying of pesticides.