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Managing nutrition for control of aphids and flea beetles

Tom Dykstra and I discussed the concepts of plant health, nutrition management, and insect resistance in a rapid fire, intense one hour webinar, with a specific emphasis on controlling aphids in sugar beets and flea beetles in canola.

While the conversation was fairly high level, and didn’t get into the nuts and bolts of implementation, Tom’s knowledge of insect metabolism and the type of food sources they require to survive is unparalleled.

If you want to learn how to grow insect resistant crops, this webinar is a must listen. You kind find the recording on KindHarvest.ag here.

Tom uses a refractometer as a research tool, and describes a brix index of plant susceptibility to to different groups of insects at different brix levels. There is a big difference between using using brix as a research tool and using it as a crop management tool. You can read my thoughts on using brix here.

The degree of protein synthesis determines insect susceptibility

Plant absorption of ammonium instead of nitrate influences the degree of insect susceptibility. Excessive nitrogen in any form results in excessive soluble amino acids within the plant that enhances insect development and population growth.

From the podcast interview with Larry Phelan.

John: I’d also like to understand the insect attraction piece a bit better. You mentioned that when you have this surge of nitrogen supply on the non-organic farms from the nutrient application period, you have an increased attraction because you have a nutrient-rich food source. Why can insects not utilize plants that don’t contain high levels of amino acids as a food source? They would also contain some level of amino acids, wouldn’t they?

Larry: Yes, all plants are going to have some levels of free amino acids, and they can also digest protein—let’s keep that in mind too. But it’s going to take energy for that insect to digest that protein.

Furthermore, a lot of plants have defenses that involve the inhibition of enzymes that break down protein in the insect. These are called proteinase inhibitors. And in terms of what we call inducible defenses, this is one of the responses of many plants to insect attack. They start the production of these proteinase inhibitors in order to reduce the insect’s ability to digest that protein. It basically knocks out those proteinases in the insect. The insect doesn’t necessarily starve, but it slows its development way down.

Well, in that situation, if you’ve also given that plant these high levels of nitrogen and it’s accumulating these free amino acids, that now short-circuits that plant defense system. So, in other words, the insect doesn’t need those proteinases as much because it’s getting these free amino acids that it doesn’t have to break down.

John: Got it. That was a piece that I had always not fully understood. I’ve heard it described that insects don’t have the capacity to digest complete proteins and that they’re dependent on soluble amino acids as a food source. And that never quite made sense to me. It made sense from a theoretical perspective, but it didn’t make sense to me that plants might have no amino acids versus one plant having very high levels of amino acids.

Larry: Yeah, it’s a matter of degree. And even proteins vary in terms of their digestibility for insects too. And, of course, insects evolve enzymes that are going to be most effective in digesting the proteins they’re likely to encounter, depending on what host plant they feed on. 

How to Propagate Aphids

It is important to propagate aphids in our fields so the beneficial insects such as lady beetles have something to feed on. It is quite easy to produce a tremendous aphid population which can sustain a large number of beneficials and not be negatively impacted. We just need to give them the right environment.

Here are the easy steps to produce an optimal environment for aphids, which require free nitrates in the plant sap.

Step one, apply more nitrogen then the plants can utilize at the current growth stage.

Step two, do not supply magnesium for better photosynthesis.

Step three, do not apply sulfur the plants needs to produce sulfur-bearing amino acids and complete proteins.

Step four, do not supply molybdenum for the nitrate reductase enzyme.

Step five, do not apply any boron that might boost plant immunity.

If you follow these five very simple steps, you can be sure that your crop will provide the perfect food source for aphids. In addition, it will also be the optimal food source for many other larval insects such as corn rootworm, earworm, corn borer, cabbage looper, tomato hornworm, and others. Really for any larvae. Propagating these larvae provides a ready food source for songbirds and beneficial insects, a valuable ecosystem service.

Of course, if you do not desire to propagate these insects on your crops, the solution is obvious. Do the reverse of the five easy steps, and these insects will not be able to use your plants as a food source.

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