The Agricultural Research Service (ARS) has granted an exclusive license to South Carolina Scientific, Inc., of Columbia, S.C., to produce and market an ARS-developed insect sex pheromone that can help control the pink hibiscus mealybug, a crop pest that can cause up $750 million in damage annually to U.S. crops.

Chemist Aijun Zhang at the ARS Invasive Insect Biocontrol and Behavior Laboratory in Beltsville, Md., developed the pheromone. The pink hibiscus mealybug (Maconellicoccus hirsutus) causes severe economic problems worldwide by attacking a wide range of plants, including vegetable and citrus crops, forest trees, and many species of ornamental plants.

The pink hibiscus mealybug is native to Asia, but appeared on U.S. soil in 1984 in Hawaii via imported cargo. It was found in California in 1999 and reached Florida in 2002.

The sex pheromone, placed inside sticky traps, effectively monitors and traps mealybug males in the field by drawing them into the traps. The initial pheromone development was performed under a research agreement between ARS and South Carolina Scientific, Inc. Work is now under way to improve the process for chemically producing the pheromone.

By luring males to traps, the sex pheromone would provide a much more economical, convenient, and useful detection and monitoring tool. There's also a second potential control strategy. Zhang found that relatively high concentrations of the pheromone repel males away from the source. In this scenario, the pheromone could control the pest by disrupting mating.

Another advantage of the pheromone, Zhang found, is that natural enemies, or biological controls, of the pest aren't lured to the pheromone source. This allows scientists to chart the effectiveness of the biological controls used to combat the mealybug without artificially concentrating these natural enemies near the traps.

ARS is a scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.