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Follow the light: Modifying pest and beneficial behaviour in vertical farming by altering the growth environment

Principal Supervisor: Dr Andrew BeachamLink opens in a new window  

Co-supervisor: Dr Joe Roberts (HAU)

PhD project title: Follow the light: Modifying pest and beneficial behaviour in vertical farming by altering the growth environment

University of Registration: University of Harper Adams

Project outline:

Pressure on agricultural land from a rising global population is necessitating the maximisation of food production per unit area of cultivation. The concept of Vertical Farming (also known as plant factory) approaches in an attempt to provide a greater crop yield per square meter of land is rapidly gaining momentum (Beacham et al., 2019). However, despite its promotion as a problem-free solution to food production, there remain many issues with vertical farming, such as the control and management of pests and diseases that require more detailed investigation in order for its potential as a contributor to food supply chains to be determined (Roberts et al., 2020).

Vertical farms frequently employ LED lighting to provide an energy-efficient source of illumination for the crop. However, light wavelength, along with other environmental variables such as humidity and temperature, affects the behaviour of both pest and beneficial arthropods (Roberts et al., 2020) and influences host plant defence responses (Vanninen et al., 2010). Furthermore, different arthropod species respond differently to such variables (Kim et al., 2019). Therefore, a growth environment regime that can provide both high quality and rapid crop production whilst avoiding deleterious effects on arthropods needs to be determined.

This project will use the mite predator-pest study system comprising the phytophageous pest two-spotted spider-mite (Tetranychus urticae) and biocontrol agent predatory mite Phytoseiulus persimilis. It is already known that light wavelength, particularly in the ultraviolet-B range can affect the mite behaviour and survival (Osakabe, 2021). However, the effects of light and other environmental variables on pest and predator behaviour and distribution in vertical farms, which present unique physical environments for arthropod dispersal, has not been investigated.

Whilst photosynthetically-active radiation (PAR) can be defined as light within the visible spectrum (400-700 nm) absorbed and utilised by photosynthetic pigments, research is revealing that a wider spectrum of light can influence growth and behaviour of plants and arthropods including infra-red (IR, >700 nm) and ultra-violet (UV, <400 nm). This had led to a new definition of biologically-active radiation (BAR), encompassing wavelengths from 280-800 nm.

This interdisciplinary project will investigate the effect of environment variables including different BAR light wavelength combinations, on crop quality and defence, pest and beneficial behaviour using a custom-built vertical farm module system at Harper Adams University. The use of environmental variables as a behaviour modifier for pests and beneficials, deterrent or attractant for trapping pests will be examined, along with host plant physiological and defence responses, with the aim of identifying lighting treatments to maximise crop yield and quality in vertical farm structures.


Beacham et al., (2019) J Hort Sci Biotech 94(3): 277-283. Kim et al., (2019) Pest Manag Sci 75(12): 3135-3143. Osakabe (2021) Appl Entomol Zool 56: 139-155. Roberts et al., (2020) Ann Appl Biol 176(3): 226-232. Vanninen et al (2010) Ann Appl Biol 157(3): 393-414.

BBSRC Strategic Research Priority: Sustainable Agriculture and Food - Plant and Crop Science and Renewable Resources and clean growth - Industrial Biotechnology.

Techniques that will be undertaken during the project:

Growth and analysis of plant material in vertical farming units. Whole plant physiological assays for photosynthetic activity and stomatal conductance. Plant defence hormone measurements. Insect behavioural and physiological assays, gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) analysis of plant volatiles.

In addition, masterclasses and mini-projects which will be available to the student could include: bioinformatics, programming statistical analysis using R, hydroponic culture, vertical and urban farming and integrated pest management.

Contact: Dr Andrew BeachamLink opens in a new window