The fruit fly menace has been a major problem over the years for the Australian horticultural industry. In fact, it is classified as one of the most destructive and difficult pests to control, but this is likely to change in a few years’ time. A team of scientists based in South Australia is developing a powerful defence against this pest. The project referred to as Sterile Insect Technology (SIT) is expected to be a major breakthrough in fruit fly control.
The ambitious three-year project is being carried out at the National Sterile Insect Facility in Port Augusta with the aim of producing 50 million sterile fruit flies a week by 2019. The key objective is to safeguard the multi-billion dollar horticulture industry across South Australia and Victoria. But what does this technology entail? Well, this is what we are going to discuss in this article.
What Is Sterile Insect Technology?
The SIT or Sterile Insect Technology is a highly specialised insect control method that uses genetics or a wide scale form of insect birth control. It’s a scientific method that’s designed to reduce the number of fruit flies to reduce the intensity of the pest infestation. This technique mostly involves the breeding of Queensland fruit flies and sterilising the males with an x-ray before they are released into the wild population to reduce the infestation.
How Sterile Insect Technology Works
Like any other pest control method, the idea is to reduce the number of the pest. Although most farmers have been using chemicals to suppress the population of the fruit fly, this method has a negative impact on the quality of produce. With Sterile Insect Technology (SIT), it’s more of a natural way of controlling the population and doesn’t affect the quality of horticultural products. The technique works by releasing sterile male fruit flies into the infected regions where they mate with the females. As they are sterile, they cannot fertilise the females, reducing the numbers of fruit flies. Note that a fruit fly has a very short lifespan and that’s what makes the technique effective.
How the SIT Factory Work
The entire project is the part of the $45 SIT Plus initiative spearheaded by Horticulture Innovation Australia. The facility at Port Augusta is part of a wider research on ways to improve the horticultural industry. The facility which is estimated to cost around $3.8 million is located approximately 350 kilometres from Adelaide according to Dan Ryan, the Program director.
According to Mr Ryan, the factory works by breeding fruit flies throughout the entire growth cycle. The process starts from egg collection. The facility keeps males and females where they are allowed to mate to produces eggs that are collected on a larval tray, then hatch into larvae.
After maturity, the larvae are then taken to the pupae rearing room where they are raised into pupae. It’s at the end of this stage before the pupae can develop into an adult that they are covered with a bright iridescent dye for easy identification in the wild.
From the dye-making room, the flies are x-rayed and are then ready for release into the wild. Mr Ryan also noted that it takes a very little dose of x-ray to sterilise the fly, but they have to be 100 per cent sure. The facility makes use of state of the art equipment to ensure high levels of accuracy, particularly during the x-ray stage. Once the sterile flies are in the wilderness, they trick the females, and the population is crushed. This way, the horticulture industry in Australia will be protected.
The Importance of the Research
According to the latest study, it’s estimated that the Queensland fruit fly destroys an estimate $300 million worth of fruits and vegetable every year. When converted into real money value, this is a huge loss to the horticulture industry. According to Mr Ryan, the research will be a game-changer for the management of the most destructive pest in the horticultural industry in South eastern Australia. He also noted that the success of the project would not only ensure South Australia remains fruit fry-free but would also help reduce pest population across the country.
Mr Ryan also noted that infestation of fruit flies threatens the overseas market. “South Australian overseas market is based on freedom from the Queensland fruit fly, and this means a lot of money to the industry,” he said. “If the industry loses this market, it would impact on the value of business will be devastating and thus the need to have the industry protect from these pests” he continued. Mr Ryan also noted that the technique would mostly help farmers in endemic regions manage the pests. It’s important to note that growers can do little in controlling the invasion in their farm but suffer from the reinvasion from off the farm. “With this SIT, it will be possible to work on a large region uniformly,” he added.
Will SIT Eliminate ‘A Solution In A Can’?
Well, this is definitely a yes. Chemical control has for the longest time been used to control horticultural pests including fruit flies. According to Biosecurity SA executive director, Will Zacharin, the facility in Port Augusta will put South Australia on a world map in SIT. To him, this is the first purpose-built fruit-fly facility in this country to ensure that they have significantly ramped up the number of sterile flies. The factory is expected to provide flies right across south eastern Australia for those areas that need it. This move will significantly reduce or even eliminate the reliance on the ‘solution in a can’ since it’s a natural way of controlling pest population.
The executive director also noted that it will be a long-term project that will be good for the producer, consumer, and environment. The amount of chemical used to deal with this pest will be reduced, and this will be great for the market, mostly export or overseas markets.
What’s the Future of Fruit Fly Management?
According to Mr Zacharin, SIT is the future of fruit fly management. He was confident that the program would have a huge impact on other major horticultural regions across southern NSW and Victoria which also suffers greatly from fruit fly infestation. He was quick to note that the project was very small compared to some overseas factories which produce up to a billion flies a week. It is more like a pilot facility in this region, but the method effectiveness has been tested elsewhere. It’s environmentally friendly, less expensive in large scale and enhances the quality of the horticultural products, and that’s why it’s the future of fruit fly management.