Scientists Use Bug Power to Save Sabra Cactus

The hope is that ladybugs can save the prickly pear from the threat of aphids.

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Ladybugs hard at work saving sabras and eating aphids.
Ladybugs hard at work saving sabras and eating aphids. Credit: Ancho Gosh / Jini

More than 150,000 ladybugs were released yesterday in the Banias Nature Reserve in an effort to save the iconic sabra prickly pear cactus from a voracious aphid that threatens to render it extinct in a number of regions of the country.

Ladybugs are a natural enemy of aphids, and are often used to control aphid infestations.

The Jewish National Fund and the Volcani Agricultural Research Institute began receiving reports from the Hula Valley a few months ago about an aphid that was killing the cactus. Research showed that the Dactylopius opuntiae species of aphid was injecting toxins into the tissues of the plant, in order to make them easier for the insects to draw nutrition from them but also killing the plants.

For now the aphid is mainly restricted to the Hula Valley and the margins of the Golan Heights, but experts fear it will spread.

The prickly pear is native to Central America, where the aphids have natural enemies that keep their populations in check. The Israeli researchers had to search for natural foes of the aphids in Israel or to import them from abroad, a long and arduous process because of the need to determine that their introduction would not endanger the life cycles of animals or of other plants.

The researchers tracked down a species of ladybug that has been used in Israel for decades as a biological pesticide and which was happy to dine on Dactylopius opuntiae. BioBee Biological Systems, a biological pest-management company, raises large quantities of this ladybug in its laboratories, and yesterday 150,000 of them were placed on sabras in affected areas of the Banias. If the trial proves successful, the project may be expanded to other areas.

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