Fruit flies fitted with tiny backpacks to save farms

The CSIRO is putting RFID sensors on Queensland fruit flies to study their behaviour in the hopes of saving Queensland's crops.

(Credit: CSIRO)

The CSIRO is putting RFID sensors on Queensland fruit flies to study their behaviour in the hopes of saving Queensland's crops.

What do Tasmanian bees and Queensland fruit flies (AKA Q-flies) have in common (aside from six legs, two wings and segmented eyes)? They both wear little tiny little backpacks — but, unlike the bees, which are wearing the backpacks in an attempt to save their colonies, the CSIRO is trying to stop the flies.

Last year, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority banned the two pesticides used by Queensland farmers to keep Q-flies at bay, dimethoate and fenthion, both of which pose a health hazard to humans.

However, this has left Queensland's fruit and vegetable crops vulnerable to their most dangerous predator. The Q-fly affects citrus, orchard fruits, grapes and vegetables, and pest management costs an estimated AU$26 million per year.

However, using technology deployed earlier this year to study bees in Tasmania, the CSIRO hopes to figure out a way to beat the flies.

Using tiny RFID chips — the current size is 2.5 x 2.5 millimetres, although the CSIRO is developing a smaller, less intrusive 1.5 x 1.5-millimetre version — researchers will be able to record when swarms of fruit flies pass by certain checkpoints. This information will then be used to figure out swarm behaviour.

This information on its own isn't particularly useful, but the CSIRO has another trick up its sleeve: sterile insect technology (SIT). Releasing sterile males into the population has been demonstrated effective at controlling, suppressing or even completely eradicating fruit fly populations. The sterile males mate with the females, but no offspring is produced, greatly reducing the number of eggs laid in fruit and vegetable crops.

It isn't currently known where Q-flies mate; by tracking their movements with the RFID sensors, the CSIRO's researchers will be able to determine the best location to release the sterile males. The information will also help determine the best places to lay traps and baits, as well as help farmers in current pest-free zones plan for potential future outbreaks.


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