An Updated Perspective of Biocontrol and IPM
Many of the beliefs, protocols and cognizant thoughts which guide conventional growers in their operations must be thrown out the window when one wants to embrace biocontrol and IPM (or collectively known as the Green Methods). The basic differences are simple: the conventional grower utilizes a reactive mindset — meaning he or she sees some bugs and gets some spray to kill said bugs; the unconventional grower (hey, that’s us) utilizes a proactive mindset — meaning he or she takes action before the bugs are seen. Biocontrol is not something which can work quickly and satisfy our basic needs for instant gratification.
The Four Ps
Brush up and prepare yourself. This is harder to do if this is your first attempt at playing the Green Methods game as there’s so much to familiarize yourself with, but it does need to be done. Get those ducks all lined up straight.
If this is your first year as a grower, accurate prevention will be difficult. You’ll have no records to rely on to help you determine what pests you’ll have and when you’ll have them. To properly prevent pests at this early stage in your career you’ll need to speak with your cooperative extension people, area growers (join a growers’ association so you can meet these folks), and your suppliers (seed, bug, plant). Between these sources you shouldn’t be blind-sided with unexpected pests.
Give it some time. Like many things in this world you won’t become an expert overnight. Do expect some tough times, setbacks and rough spots on your road to mastery. You’ll begin as an apprentice to the art itself, you’ll progress to the level of journeyman, and then you’ll become a master, but it won’t happen in one year or even two. Again, give it some time.
This goes hand-in-hand with Patience. Get your butt kicked once, twice, three times, get up and keep fighting. Don’t give up. Others before you, people less brilliant than yourself, have made it work. You can too. It is possible. This is true of the smallest grower in the world; this is true of the largest.
The Green Methods is not a one-pot wonder meal. It’s made up of several portions. Each portion or element, in its own right, is incomplete, but when served in concert the Green Methods become whole and very satisfying.
One of the largest elements is biocontrol. Biocontrol is the utilization of natural enemies of pests. The commercially available natural enemies employed by growers — like the ones shown our catalog — are actually produced in insectaries for that purpose. However, there’s nothing written that says one can’t use indigenous, wild natural enemies, just remember that you have to invite them in and make a home for them. It is easier, though, to use the good bugs produced by insectaries. This ensures there are adequate numbers on your side and that they are on site in a timely manner — before you have a huge infestation, which will often be the case before the wild bugs show up. Biocontrols are living organisms used to thwart other living organisms — and that could mean anything. In this text, though, biocontrol’s a collective term for two general types of insects or mites: predators and parasitoids. Predators, as you’ve probably guessed, eat their prey (your pests) for a living.
Predators typically respond to established pest populations. If you use predators for a purpose outside of just trying to establish a few in a given outdoor area, you probably won’t be able to retain them in numbers suitable for pest control.
This is where parasitoids come in. Parasitoids are used preventively before pests become established. In this way their use is sacrificial. But that’s okay. If we put parasitoids in an area, they, in an effort to save themselves and raise their young, will search high and low for signs of pests. They will also move out, beyond the structure (if outside conditions are favorable) and will widen their circle of protection.
Examples of predators would include beetles, mites, certain true bugs, some flies and some midges. Parasitoids would mostly include tiny, non-stinging mini-wasps and some flies. Nematodes (the good ones) should also be considered parasitoids as they enter their hosts and destroy them — but nematodes won’t usually be used preventively because their travel ability is limited; you’ll want to introduce them when the pests are available in the suitable form.
Most parasitoids, though, unlike predators, need the pests for reproduction which is why they’ll search so thoroughly. Many parasitoids do host-feed to sample the flavor of their intended hosts, but they will primarily eat pollen, nectar or honeydew (the latter being the sweet and sticky excrement of certain soft-bodied pests).
Predators are less thorough. While it is true that they need pests for their young — raising young being their primary focus in life — they don’t need them the way parasitoids do. They won’t lick their plates clean and consume everything in the house. It is for this reason that during an active infestation predator releases should be supplemented by parasitoid releases to tie up the loose ends, so to speak.
A typical employment strategy of using biocontrols — any biocontrols — is to make lots of little releases over a period of time. This is typically a lot more effective than making single, inundative releases. Biocontrols are tools. Long-term establishment is unlikely in most cases (even though that it seems the establishment of biocontrols is what many folks want you to believe will happen). The numbers thin over time. The best way to explain this is as follows: When you plant a garden (unusual plants in rows) or fill a greenhouse (July tropics during a January freeze) your actions are not very natural (nothing wrong with it, but not natural). Mother Nature will counteract your activities — in an effort to restore balance — by introducing the counterpart to your efforts. In this case it’s pests. Mother Nature wants to thin your plant numbers. In turn, we go to war with nature to save our own. We can do this in many different ways.
For we biocontrollers, though, it means introducing an unnaturally high number of biocontrol agents — not to restore balance but to actually tip the scales the other way; to give us the advantage. Biocontrols are a tool; we use them. Mother Nature, in turn, responds again by trying to thin our good-bug numbers. That’s why we introduce our good bugs again. We want to get the advantage and keep it. Again, those who use biocontrols are not trying to restore balance and save the world (though some may believe this, the success stories are too few), we’re just trying to get through the season without destroying the earth or killing anyone except the pests.