Microscopic Worms: Israel’s organic answer to saving its date industry

Volcani Agricultural Institute researchers have developed a biological weapon to save date palms from their deadliest pest.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

Researchers at the Volcani Agricultural Institute have made a discovery that will protect the date industry in Israel and around the world from its most serious adversary, according to a Ynet report.

The red palm weevil, originally from South Asia, attained “major pest status” in the Middle East over 30 years ago. They kill the palm trees by burrowing inside the stem, laying up to 300 eggs each, and then the hatchlings do the rest, eating through the internal parts of the tree.

Until now, the only way to save the trees was early detection and treatment with chemical insecticides. Now, the researchers say, there will be a more efficient and environmentally safer way to do so, by using microscopic worms called nematodes.

Nematodes as pest control

“The nematodes are worms that are naturally found in the soil and are able to detect their prey,” explained Dana Ment, an insect pathologist at the Volcani Institute. “When they find it, they enter the body and secrete bacteria into the blood which begins to multiply, produces toxins and kills the insect. The nematodes do it to the palm weevil as well.”

The experiment using a chemical preparation of nematodes for pest control with date palms was a first, said the report. Brought from Germany, the preparation was used on a grove in Kibbutz Ashdot Yaakov in the Jordan Valley where sensors embedded in the trees indicated an infestation. On Wednesday, the researchers checked the trees and found an astounding 70% success rate in killing off the weevils.

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Nematodes are used in Europe to kill moths and beetles that damage corn and potatoes, respectively. Now Israel’s researchers have found another valuable service they can provide, although Ment stressed that it will not be available on the market in Israel until the licensing process is complete.

The discovery should help Israel’s date industry gain prominence in the organic produce niche, as the worms are a biological pest control instead of a chemical one.  In general, Israel is already the world’s biggest exporter of medjool dates, according to the Israel Plants Production and Marketing Board, an industry valued in the tens of millions of shekels.