Better Pest Control Through Biology

Geek Culture

Photo courtesy Erich G. Vallery via Creative Commons. Photo courtesy Erich G. Vallery via Creative Commons.

Photo courtesy Erich G. Vallery via Wikipedia, used under Creative Commons License.

Paul Stamets is a mycologist with a little mad scientist thrown in. Author of the book Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, when his house was attacked by carpenter ants years ago, he sought an out-of-the-box solution from the natural world. He wasn’t content to simply poison them with conventional pesticides. Instead, he turned them into zombies.

What Stamets used was a mushroom from the cordyceps family. This is a family of virulent parasitic fungi that attack insects, each species of fungus attacking only one species of insect. In the case of the fungus that attacks ants, the fungus infects the body of the ant and, when it is ready to produce a mushroom moves into the ant’s brain. Once there, the fungus takes over the ant’s motor functions, causing it to climb higher where the spores can spread farther. Then the fungus makes the ant hold on tightly to a leaf or branch while the fungus kills the ant. Some days later, a mushroom emerges from the ant, spreading spores to start the whole process over.

Once Stamets found the right species of fungus, he tried to spread it to the ants, but found that it went to spore too quickly. As the fungus and the ant have been co-evolving for millennia, the carpenter ants immediately recognized the scent of the spores and gave them a wide berth. After some culturing, Stamets was able to develop a pre-sporulating strain of the fungus and grew it onto some rice. He then put the rice in the path of the ants, where they promptly consumed it with abandon. A few days later, he was ant-free. The best part is that each ant who ate the tainted rice produced a mushroom that produced millions of spores. Future ants who might consider invading the structure will smell the spores and avoid the house. This can provide years of protection.

This led Stamets on the path to using this as a natural, and possibly superior, alternative to conventional pest control. Thus far, the few sound bytes he has produced on the subject have been rather guarded on details, awaiting his patent. All he has said is that his method will kill anything with a queen and continue to repel or kill for 20 years.

Recently Stamets announced that he had received two patents on his fungal pest control solution. I know that I, personally, can’t wait until there are more details available on how this is going to work. How is it applied, spores or mycelium? Is it dependent on finding and wiping out an existing infestation? Is it something else entirely? They also mentioned in the release that they had a treatment for mosquitoes as well. Personally I find that very exciting. Hopefully this product will come to market soon!

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