Can electrostatic fields limit the take-off of tiny whiteflies (Bemisia tabaci)?

Electrostatic fields are abundant in the natural environment. We tested the idea that electrostatic attraction forces between tiny whiteflies (Bemisia tabaci) and the substrate could be substantial to the point of limiting their take-off. These insects are characterized by a very small body mass and powerful take-offs that are executed by jumping into the air with the wings closed. Wing opening and transition to active flight occur after the jump distanced the insect several body lengths away from the substrate. Using high-speed cameras, we captured the take-off behavior inside a uniform electrostatic field apparatus and used dead insects to calculate the electric charge that these tiny insects can carry. We show that electrostatic forces stimulate the opening of the insect's wings and can attract the whole insect toward the opposite charge. We also found that whiteflies can carry and hold an electrical charge of up to 3.5 pC. With such a charge the electrostatic field required to impede take-off is much stronger than those typically found in the natural environment. Nevertheless, our results demonstrate that artificial electrostatic fields can be effectively used to suppress flight of whiteflies, thus providing options for pest control applications in greenhouses.

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