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From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, October/November 2005

The Lure and Trap of Pheromones

Using traps baited with pheromones can prevent and eliminate pest infestation.

by Judy Black

Pheromone traps, long used in the agriculture industry for controlling pests in fruit orchards, have come into their own in commercial facilities as effective tools when used as part of an integrated pest management program (IPM), an essential, yet sometimes overlooked step in food safety.

These traps, which have been revolutionary in battling stored product insects such as the Indian meal moth, are often used in food processing facilities or warehouses but can also be effective in restaurants or grocery stores — all areas that simply can not tolerate pest infestations.

As their name suggests, such traps lure pests by relying on insect pheromones — the chemical signals that attract members of a species or colony to one another and help them communicate.

In the last 50 years, more than 1,000 pheromones have been identified and isolated. The work of insect pheromones often goes unnoticed. When ants trail, they typically follow a line. They do this because the ants are laying down a pheromone with their abdomens, chemically telling the other ants which way to go.

The irresponsible use of traditional pesticide treatments, such as sprays and dusts, can allow for airborne contamination of food, affect users in the immediate area or contaminate the equipment, utensils and surfaces that come into contact with food.

Problems can also arise if a pesticide is stored on a shelf above or near food items. This creates the possibility of drips or deliberate contamination attempts. However, pheromone traps provide an enhanced element of safety by reducing the potential for food contamination from chemicals stored on-site. They are self-contained and present no danger to product or person.

The FDA “encourages the use of insect traps in grain and food storage pest management programs.”1 Pheromone traps are more effective than fogs and residual sprays because they allow the following two things:

Disruption of the typical insect mating cycle by confusing males and drawing them to a trap. This keeps them from seeking out females, thereby reducing the likelihood that the population will continue to grow.

Identification of breeding sites; the use of pheromone traps allows pest management professionals to hone in on problem areas and find the source of any given infestation. Traditional pesticide applications, such as fogs, merely treat a wide surface area to knock down existing populations, leaving eggs and larvae untouched and able to re-establish their numbers.

It is estimated that five to 10 percent of all stored food products are discarded in the United States each year at the cost of billions of dollars.”2 Pheromone traps have only had documented success when used with stored product insects, such as the Indian meal moth or Mediterranean flour moth. However, some work has been done with cockroach pheromones, and recently, scientists were able to synthesize the cockroach aggregation pheromone. Research continues to indicate that the chances of developing a useful cockroach pheromone trap are good.

Pheromone traps should be used by pest management professionals to help pinpoint and identify a stored product insect issue inside a facility. The numbers of insects caught in any given trap will help a professional determine where pests are living and breeding. Pheromone traps can be used for mass trapping in a heavy infestation, but an experienced professional will use them as markers for hunting down and eliminating the source of the problem.

Identification of the pest is extremely important and is the first step in solving any pest problem. Proper identification tells a pest management expert many things, revealing clues on where to look for the source of the problem and in what position traps will be most effective.

Pheromone lures are usually placed in sticky traps suspended from ceilings, placed in a tent-like shape on a shelf or attached to some other structure. In general, the traps should be placed near potential pest harborages. They are specific to certain species and must be selected and placed accordingly.

For example, if you have a stored product pest beetle that doesn’t fly, traps need to be near the ground. If you have a large warehousing area where potential food sources are stored on pallet racks, placing some traps low and some high can help the pest management expert zero in on the problem area.

A recent study conducted by entomologists, Dr. Christian Nansen and Dr. Tom Phillips, WHO ARE THESE GUYS? indicates that the placement of the traps is very important to their effectiveness. The researchers placed pheromone traps at varying heights in storage sheds that simulated the back room of a small retail establishment and a larger warehouse, and recorded the number of Indian meal moths caught in the traps. In the smaller room, the traps near the ceiling captured the most moths. In the larger areas, traps placed near walls caught more moths overall compared to traps hanging freely.

Drs. Nansen and Phillips also found that attaching a horizontal “landing platform” to half of the traps that hung freely significantly increased total moth captures.

Pheromone traps are one tool in the arsenal of environmentally responsible pest management firms. Pest prevention is a key component of any food safety program. Food safety auditors and health department inspectors see pest infestations as critical violations. The fact is that if your facility has an unchecked pest infestation, it also has a food safety problem. But the excessive use of pesticides may also pose risks, making environmentally responsible pest management essential not only to human health and safety but also to the integrity of your brand.


  1. Mallis, Arnold. Mallis Handbook of Pest Control. Mallis Handbook & Technical, 2004.
  2. Mallis, Arnold. Mallis Handbook of Pest Control. Mallis Handbook & Technical, 2004.

Judy Black, M.S., B.C.E., is technical director of the Pest Prevention Division for The Steritech Group, Inc. (Charlotte, N.C.). Reach her at 303-596-7868 or



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