The Pheromone Kitchen

by Alain VanRyckeghem, BCE

We are lucky at Insects Limited to produce most of our important insect pheromones in the lab and thus have control of inventory and quality of product going to the customer. Did you ever wonder what goes on in the pheromone synthesis lab?

It can be a lot like cooking in a kitchen. You can create a finished product like soup, but along the way there are several steps of preparation, cleaning, boiling, filtering, and of course tasting. Pheromones begin with raw (chemical) ingredients. The recipe to get from step one to step two may vary from one chemist (cook) to another, so it is the chemist’s choice of ingredients and how to combine them that can determine the quality, quantity, and chemical structure (flavor) at the end of each step. Chemists ‘taste’ the product along the way with a gas chromatograph. If that batch of product is substandard, it is thrown out (properly disposed of) and the process has to start over.

Sometimes the ingredients are boiled in order to combine them; other ingredients are frozen to -110°F before they can be combined because they will catch fire (now that is spicy!) Often we have to combine them under nitrogen (no air) again because they can catch fire. After completion of an initial product, it may be filtered to remove solids, or it could be distilled like whiskey to get the pure ingredient (alcohol, for example). The purity of the product is our most important factor before we move on to the next step.

Pheromone Kitchen

Some of the pheromones require only a ‘one pot’ assembly and the product is made in a day or two of mixing. Purification can take several more days afterwards. A few of our pheromones have several steps (from 6 to 15). The more steps there are the more costly the pheromone becomes because you get less and less after each of the purification processes. The glass pots we use range in size from as small as a shot glass to as big as a keg of beer.

Once the pheromone is made it is either used on its own or combined with other pheromones to make a blend that is specifically attractive to one or two insect species. Because of our on-site chemistry lab, we are able to manufacture pheromones for minor pests that most other chemical manufacturers will not do because of low volume. These include: Cigarette beetle, Hide beetle (8-pheromone blend), Varied Carpet beetle, Black carpet beetle, Furniture carpet beetle, Lesser and Larger grain borers, Rice weevils, Granary weevils, Angoumois grain moths, and, of course, our Clothes moth pheromones.

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