Nematodes: Agriculture’s microscopic secret weapon

Nematodes: agriculture's microscopic hero
Published: Mar. 22, 2023 at 7:17 AM EDT
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WATERTOWN, New York (WWNY) - Northern New York has an infestation that the rest of the world doesn’t: the alfalfa snout beetle, which ruins corn and alfalfa crops.

But the north country also has a secret weapon that other areas don’t. It’s the persistent nematode, which has been studied by Dr. Elson Shields for more than 30 years.

“It was an unsolvable problem, costing farmers thousands of dollars,” he said. “So, as we explored different issues, we stumbled upon persistent biocontrol nematodes.”

These microscopic wigglers are the only way to successfully get rid of the snout beetle. They’re collected in Jefferson County and reared in larvae. Then they can be sprayed onto fields.

Mary DeBeer runs DeBeer Seed and Spraying, a business in Moira that raises these nematodes.

“This is how nematodes are delivered, they’re all rinsed out for you, so you don’t have to do any screening yourself,” DeBeer said. “The farmer can apply through manure application or sprayer, both ways you can be successful.”

How do they work? As the snout beetle lays eggs in the soil, nematodes attack at the larvae stage, crawling into their bodies.

“They release a bacteria they carry with them, the bacteria kills the insect with septicemia, dissolves the innards of the insect, the nematodes become reproductive, and when the resources are consumed, they burst out and search for other insects,” Shields said.

And the best part is, once a field is sprayed by nematodes they will stay there forever and never fail at killing off the beetle.

“So, it’s a single application which lasts forever,” Shields said. “We did a study in northern New York across 75 fields where we followed them for 10 years with 50,000 soil samples, and we never found them not to persist.”

Although the alfalfa snout beetle is only an issue here, the nematodes can be used against other insect pests, too. Our Jefferson County nematodes are shipped nationwide to combat corn rootworm.

“Amazingly, those strains of nematodes do their job as far west as Roswell, New Mexico, Auburn, Alabama, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa,” Shields said. “They do fine that way.”

Using these organic nematodes is not only effective, it saves farmers thousands of dollars and is more environmentally friendly.

“So, if you’re putting on 50 acres of nematodes, there’s 50 gallons of nematodes there for easy math,” DeBeers said.

As researchers continue with these nematodes, they hope to combat even more insects and save even more crops.