Counting the ever-evasive plant bugs infesting your cotton crop while the scorching rays of the sun beat down on your hunched over figure could soon be a thing of the past. Scientists with USDA's Agricultural Research Service say cotton growers may soon be able to rely on remote images, instead of random field counts, to scout for pests like the tarnished plant bug.

USDA researchers are testing the effectiveness of combining remotely sensed, multispectral images with pest-scouting data to develop variable insecticide prescriptions that may do a better job of controlling tarnished plant bugs.

The new system, being tested by ARS entomologist Jeffrey Willers at the Crop Science Research Laboratory at Mississippi State University in Starkville, Miss., uses multispectral imagery to draw a correlation between plant vigor and pest density. It relies on a digital camera sensitive to different wavelengths of light mounted in an aircraft flying over a cotton field at various altitudes. The camera records images that can then be processed to display variations in plant vigor. Next, scouts use transect-line search patterns and drop cloths to search for plant bugs in each of the areas corresponding to the different stages of growth captured by a digital image.

According to USDA research, plant bugs are more common in areas with more vigorous plants. "The research indicates that scouting and multispectral imagery data can be combined to create a geo-referenced pest density map. Such a map could then be uploaded into a pesticide ground sprayer that would dispense pesticide only where needed."

"This system," the researchers say, "is not only better at locating a variety of pests, but also provides growers with a more cost-effective method of controlling them by improving the placement and timing of pesticide applications. Rather than spray an entire field at one rate, this system allows growers to vary the coverage. Unsprayed areas can act as safe havens for a variety of beneficial insects that can then repopulate the field after spraying. This all translates into less chemical usage."

In addition to ongoing ARS research at the Crop Science Research Laboratory at Mississippi State University, researchers at the Stennis Space Center, Mississippi State University and Louisiana State University are also working on the remote sensing project.