A Study of Neonicotinoid Seed Treatments in Bt Maize: Insect Resistance Management, Efficacy, and Environmental Fate

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Virginia Tech

Roughly 79-100% of maize in the United States (US) is treated with a neonicotinoid seed treatment (NST), and transgenic (GMO) maize, Zea mays L. (Poaceae), that produces insecticidal toxins by way of genes derived from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), occupies more than 75% of maize acreage. Among a variety of secondary pests targeted by NSTs, the primary soil-dwelling pest targeted by Bt maize is the western corn rootworm (WCR), Diabrotica virgifera virgifera LeConte (Coleoptera: Chrysomelidae). Transgenic Bt technology has dramatically reduced insecticide use for WCR, and insect resistance poses the greatest threat to its utility. To delay resistance to Bt traits, in 2010 the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved a "refuge-in-a-bag" (RIB) insect resistance management (IRM) strategy, where 5% of seeds do not express Bt toxins (i.e., "refuge" maize). The RIB strategy is intended to preserve Bt trait effectiveness if mating between 'resistant' insects from Bt plants and 'susceptible' insects from refuge plants occurs at a high enough frequency. Investigations into the effectiveness of RIB for WCR have shown that beetles emerged from Bt plants tend to vastly outnumber beetles emerged from refuge plants, which contributes to low rates of mixed mating. Large proportions of Bt beetles is one of several factors that contributes to resistance development, and resistance to all currently-available WCR-Bt traits has been documented. I conducted field experiments in two regions (Indiana and Virginia) comparing refuge beetle proportions in NST-treated (NST+) and NST-untreated (NST-) 5% RIB maize, to determine whether NSTs may be limiting refuge beetle emergence. To assess advantages of combining use of Bt and NSTs, I compared stand, root injury rating, and yield between NST+, NST-, Bt and non-Bt maize in both states. I also measured neonicotinoid residues in soil, water, and stream sediment within and surrounding fields of maize, to study the off-site movement and soil residence time of these compounds. I found that 5% seed blends did not produce large populations of refuge beetles in any site-year, and that NSTs showed inconsistent effects on refuge beetle populations. Treatment comparisons showed inconsistent benefits of NSTs when combined with Bt traits. I detected neonicotinoid residues in soil matrices throughout the growing season (range: 0 – 417.42 ppb), including prior to planting, suggesting year-round presence of these compounds. My results suggest that, while the effects of NSTs on Bt IRM may be inconsistent, the benefits of universally applying NSTs to Bt maize for soil pests may not be worth the ecological costs of doing so in all cases.

Zea mays, neonicotinoid seed treatments, western corn rootworm, Diabrotica virgifera virgifera LeConte, Bacillus thuringiensis Berliner, resistance management, seed blend refuge, environmental fate