Oecophylla smaragdina weaver ants are important biocontrol agents of fruit crops in Thailand but their mutualistic association with honeydew-producing insect pests can result in an ineffectual crop protection and cause economic harm to farmers. I will take an innovative, application-oriented, and interdisciplinary approach by disrupting the weaver ant-Hemiptera mutualism in Thailand with sugarcane molasses as honeydew and sugar alternative in pomelo (Citrus maxima) and eventually improve the yield of pomelos and of queen brood, a socioeconomically valued edible by-product of which its harvesting is compatible with weaver ant biocontrol. Specifically, I will evaluate the impact of molasses and sugar provisioning on 1) weaver ant presence in the trees; 2) abundance of honeydew-producing insect pests; 3) weaver ant tending of honeydew-producing insect pests; 4) abundance of the natural enemies of honeydew-producing insect pests; 5) plant damage by honeydew-producing insect pests; and 6) quantity, nutritional composition, and microbial load of pomelos and queen brood. I will apply the experimental treatments (i) molasses provisioning of weaver ants, (ii) 50% sugar solution provisioning of weaver ants, and (iii) no molasses/sugar provisioning of weaver ants (control), with appropriate replication and sample size during 23 months. KU Leuven and Kasetsart University experts will coach and advise me in relevant insect identification, plant damage symptoms, interpreting analytical results, project management, and will analyze nutrient composition and microbial load of pomelos and queen brood. I will be exposed to a corporate research environment through a secondment at the biocontrol company Biobest. I will promote the project on Twitter and YouTube and organize a field workshop targeted at agricultural researchers.
Fields of science
- HORIZON.1.2 - Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) Main Programme