Published: 1995-03-19


Researchers at AgCanada and Cornell University have developed a technique to control the Colorado potato beetle, a major pest not only of potato but also of tomato and eggplant. The beetle is native to Mexico, where it actually feeds on two wild Solanaceous weedy relatives rather than the domesticated potato. It has spread throughout the United States (except California), from western Europe through the Mediterranean region all the way to China. Entomologist Prof. Ward Tingey of Cornell said that the beetle will likely reach North Korea by the year 2000. It is primarily a temperate pest, and does not exist as a crop pest south of Mexico or in the Andes, where potatoes are native. If this beetle is not a problem in your area, the technique may still be helpful with other beetles. 

The Colorado potato beetle has become resistant to many pesticides. An innovative technique developed by AgCanada and researched by Cornell is the use of “trench traps” to catch the beetles as they walk out of fields in search of new food sources or places to overwinter. 

This technique, like most successful pest control programs, relies on a knowledge of the insect’s biological cycle. Farmers often rotate their potato crops to adjoining plots of land in an effort to control the beetle’s damage to their plants. The effectiveness of this practice is increased by digging deep (minimum 30 cm/12 in, and up to 91 cm/3 feet) trenches around their fields and lining them with 1.5 mil black plastic mulch. 

Potato beetles emerge from their winter hibernation in the soil in the previous year’s field and disperse to the new field by walking up to 45 m/150 ft from their hibernation site. They do not generally fly to find new food sources, as many other pests do. In an effort to reach the new potato field, the beetles fall into the plastic-lined trench, and, unable to crawl out, starve to death within 10-14 days. 

The design of the trench is important to the success of this control method. It must have at least a 65° angle. The plastic lining is also key in the control: the beetles are able to climb out of the trenches if the plastic is clean (as when new, or just after a rain) due to their fine leg hairs, but they cannot crawl out when the plastic is coated with fine dust particles. Prof. Tingey recommends that growers place their trenches next to roads or well-used pathways so that they are redusted after a rain. Drainage of the trench is effected by perforating the trench bottom every 3m/10 feet. Though some insects may escape the trenches through these perforations, in test areas they have often been killed by a fungus, Beauveria bassiana, which thrives in the dark, moist areas below the trench. Farmers find masses of white webbed fungus on dead beetles when they peel back the plastic. 

The technique can be used at both ends of the season: at the beginning, to trap insects as they attempt to enter a field, and at the end, as they leave the field to overwinter after the potato foliage is killed before the potato harvest. One main disadvantage is that the plastic does not usually last more than one year and needs to be replaced as new areas are dug. 

The technique is not presently being used for control of other pests, although presumably it could be used for other beetles which disperse primarily through walking or crawling rather than flying. In Controlling Crop Pests and Diseases, Rosalyn Rappaport writes that army worms and cutworms, which migrate into crops by crawling, can be trapped and killed in ditches dug around plants. She specifies that the “side of the ditch nearest the crop must be straight, though it need not be more than 10 cm (4 in) deep. The worms cannot crawl up a sheer slope.” In many situations, the plastic lining for the trench may not be necessary, and you could experiment with alternatives. (Scott Sherman has used a cut-away PVC pipe buried at ground level to catch chinch bugs.) If you have field success with variations on these methods, let us know and we can relate your experiences to others in our network.