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Bringing tropical plants into the house for the winter, or a short biochemistry lesson

Karl Foord, UMN Extension Educator

Jeff Hahn.
Each fall brings the challenge of not only what tropical plants to keep over the winter, but also how to keep them healthy in the Minnesota winter home environment. Invariably despite all efforts I will provide winter refuge for aphids and mites. It seems like this is the perfect time to use imidacloprid. As a systemic it will control the aphids and has no chance of impacting natural populations of insect predators or pollinators in this environment. However, Imidacloprid will not control spider mites. Why not?

The fact that an effective insecticide will usually not harm a mite seems counter intuitive. After all they are both Arthropods i.e. small creatures with exoskeletons and jointed appendages. Although following this basic pattern, the body structure differences between mites and insects are dramatic. On closer inspection the mite has no antennae, no wings, 4 pairs of legs, an unsegmented abdomen, and simple eyes. Whereas an insect such as a bee will have 3 body parts, 2 compound eyes, 2 antennae, 4 wings, 3 pairs legs, and a 2kf.jpg
Karl Foord.
segmented abdomen. These physical differences reflect a very ancient common ancestor.

The first arthropod fossils date to the Cambrian @ 555 million years ago (mya). From this common ancestor five groups emerged, 1.Trilobites - extinct, 2. Arachnids (spiders & mites), 3. Centipedes and millipedes, 4. Crustaceans, and 5. Insects. The Arachnids and centipedes are more closely related to each other than to the crustaceans and insects. So a lobster is more closely related to a bee than to a spider. Who would have thought? The oldest arachnid fossil dates to the Silurian period 420 mya, while the oldest insect fossil dates to the early Devonian 407 mya. Sometime in the Cambrian period 542 - 488 mya or Ordovician 488 - 433 mya the insect and arachnid lines diverged. During this time the animals diverged physically as well as metabolically. Imidacloprid capitalizes on the metabolic differences.

Insecticides vary in their mode of action, one of which is to interfere with the nervous system. Imidacloprid mimics the action of acetylcholine (a neurotransmitter). The normal functioning system calls for rapid degradation of acetylcholine to maintain control of neural 3kf.jpg
Karl Foord.
transmission; a little like an on off switch. Imidacloprid is not degraded by normal enzymatic control and thus leaves the switch on which overexcites the nervous system and removes control from the insect. Imidacloprid is specific for insect nervous tissue and doesn't affect mites or mammals in the same manner.

I plan to drench the soil in the pots containing tropical hibiscus, dwarf olive, dwarf Cavendish banana, Australian tree fern, two palms, and the climbing fig. I'll not drench the dwarf Meyer lemon or the star jasmine as I expect them to flower next year and know that the imidacloprid is persistent and could harm pollinators. I have read that bees are attracted to tropical hibiscus, but I have never observed bees visiting these flowers.

My only regret in bringing in the house plants is that I know they suffer from low light intensity. Wouldn't it be great if we could all afford a winter greenhouse for tropical like the one at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum?

Download a copy of the geologic time scale and access Jeff Hahn's article on mite control.

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