Saving crops with spider venom

A new pesticide to protect crops.

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A bee-friendly insecticide made from spider venom and the snow­drop plant has been developed by scientists in the United Kingdom. It could be an alternative to neonicotinoid pesticides that many believe are at least partly responsible for colony-collapse disorder (CCD), one of the greatest threats to bees and consequently to food production.

Neonicotinoid pesticides make up 24 per cent of the world insecticide market, and are restricted in Europe because of suspicions among some scientists that they affect beneficial pollinators. “About 90 per cent of the world’s plants are directly reliant on pollinators to survive,” says Geraldine Wright, one of the researchers.

“If we destroy the biodiversity of pollinators then it will be irrelevant how effective our pesticides are, because we will not have any crops to protect.”

The researchers combined venom from an Australian funnel-web spider with lectin (a carb-binding protein) from the snowdrop plant to create a novel pesticide. While it can kill a range of insects when consumed including butterflies, moths, beetles, bugs and flies that compromise crops it has little effect on bees, even when at higher dosages than they would encounter in the field.

While other pesticides are absorbed through the pests’ exoskeleton and work on sodium channels, this pesticide must be consumed, the venom working instead on calcium channels in the brain, causing paralysis. Calcium channels are more unique in the insect kingdom, so the pesti­cide can be tailored to target insects more specifically.

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