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Line Trapping: A Promising Method for More Accurate Pest Monitoring

pheromone line-trapping

Christopher Adams, Ph.D., postdoctoral researcher in entomology at Michigan State University, checks a line of five pheromone traps for codling moth (Cydia pomonella) in an orchard. Adams and colleagues have found that placing five traps in a line and averaging the catch number from them produces a more reliable sampling of pest abundance, less prone to variability and false positives or false negatives, than a single trap placed on its own. (Photo credit: Christopher Adams, Ph.D.)

It’s easy to think of a pheromone trap as a lure, putting out a scent and waiting for insects to come rolling in. But insects aren’t sharks; they don’t sense the proverbial blood in the water from great distances. They move much more randomly, and pheromone plumes don’t broadcast all that far—a couple dozen meters, perhaps, but often less.

For the past decade, researchers led by James Miller, Ph.D., at Michigan State University have been refining our understanding of how insects move and interact with pheromone traps. In particular, they’ve studied the codling moth (Cydia pomonella), a global pest of apple and pear orchards, and found the standard pheromone traps for the pest emit plumes of no more than five meters. “Rather than envisioning a codling moth pheromone trap functioning as a vacuum cleaner sucking up males from great distances,” Miller says, “we deduced that it had very weak ‘suction’ and that the males were doing most of the work in moving around randomly until arriving at that weak suction.”

The problem, then, with a pest that staggers about and a trap that is not broadly attractive is variability: one trap in a field might catch zero moths, or it might catch 30. And when a pesticide application for codling moth could cost $1,000 for a 20-hectare plot, that kind of randomness makes for a potentially costly lack of reliability in predicting the actual abundance of a pest.

Placing more pheromone traps at multiple locations throughout an orchard to get a more representative sampling, however, has been an unattractive option for pest managers for the simple added time cost of visiting multiple trap locations throughout the season. But, a new approach that Miller and colleagues have tested effectively addresses that problem: lining up multiple traps in very close proximity to each other.

In an experiment reported this week in the Journal of Economic Entomology, a team led by MSU postdoctoral researcher Christopher Adams, Ph.D., show that five codling moth pheromone traps placed in a line, each four meters apart, produce catch numbers—when averaged across all five traps per line—that are much less variable than single traps at their own location.

line-trapping experiment histogram

When comparing catch numbers from a single pheromone trap for codling moth (Cydia pomonella) versus the mean catch of a line of five traps in a single location, researchers at Michigan State University found the line-trapping method to be far less prone to variability than the single-trap method. The range of the average line-trap catch in 36 tests was 1- 12, while the range of single-trap catches in those tests was 0-32. (Chart originally published in “Line-Trapping of Codling Moth (Lepidoptera: Tortricidae): A Novel Approach to Improving the Precision of Capture Numbers in Traps Monitoring Pest Density,” Journal of Economic Entomology)

In their report, Adams and co-authors write that they were inspired by long-line fishing: “In pondering this problem, we were struck by its parallels to the challenge fishermen face in needing to deploy multiple baited hooks across fish habitat while minimizing travel and service time per hook. A favored solution to this optimization problem in fishing is long-line fishing, where multiple baited hooks descend from short snood lines at increments from a tow-line. This configuration dramatically raises the probability of catch by summing the reaches of plumes emanating from all bait point-sources.”

For the insect-trapping version, they conducted the experiment by pairing a single pheromone trap with a five-trap line, with 70 meters between the two, in a commercial apple orchard, and releasing 100 male and 100 female codling moths from each of four locations in the orchard. This setup was conducted in six separate zones, with each test lasing one week, and repeated six times during the 2015 growing season, for a total of 36 paired tests. They then calculated an average catch among the five traps in each five-trap line and compared that to the single catch number of the solitary trap.

line-trapping experiment schematic

Michigan State University researchers compared catch numbers in a line of five pheromone traps spaced closely together versus a single trap on its own in the same orchard, as shown in the illustration above. At each release point (R), 100 male and 100 female codling moths were released. (Image originally published in “Line-Trapping of Codling Moth (Lepidoptera: Tortricidae): A Novel Approach to Improving the Precision of Capture Numbers in Traps Monitoring Pest Density,” Journal of Economic Entomology)

The resulting numbers were clear: The mean catch of a five-trap line in 36 tests ranged between one and 12, while the catch number of solitary traps ranged more widely, from zero to 32.

Miller, senior author of the study and now recently retired from his role as distinguished professor of entomology at MSU (and also an ESA Fellow), says the study found that the five traps in a line compete only slightly with each other, which aligns with previous findings of small plume reach and the moth’s random movement. “But, most important from the practical perspective is that the troublesome variation with catch number in an individual trap is overcome by averaging the catch of five traps that can be deployed all at one site so as to keep costs low,” he says.

In 2015, Miller and Adams co-authored a book, Trapping of Small Organisms Moving Randomly, with Jeffrey Schenker and Paul Weston, that detailed the applications of their research for pest management. Miller says a diverse array of insects move randomly, meaning the line-trapping method may likely be useful for a wide range of insects, both pests and beneficials, and could mark a significant advance for the pest-management field.

“Line-trapping promises to raise pest management procedures to a new standard of precision that should increase grower profits and increase the food supply and food safety, while reducing environmental damage,” he says.


  1. I like the concept of a line versus the single spot recording for trapping. Though the thought comes to my mind, wouldn’t a random locations of random plot points be a better use for measurement for pest management? If we are trying to keep product loss down as well as helping to understand how pheromone range is affected then couldn’t the experiment be expanded upon by setting the experimental field in a grid with random numbers locations selected on the grid then be able to measure the difference? I understand the line being able to “catch” in the pest using the pheromones released in the line, but could there also be an amplification of the pheromones due to the close range of the line to each other?

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