My post from last February described modes of action for biopesticides that target plant diseases…as well as the difference between a biopesticide and a biostimulant. January’s post described the modes of action of five biofungicides in an ongoing vegetable trial. But there are plenty of insect and mite pests out there, too. You can attract or release predatory or parasitic insects and mites or beneficial nematodes to deal with these arthropod (insect and mite) pests. But you can also use bioinsecticides that control insects and mites. The active ingredients include microorganisms (bacteria, fungi, viruses), plant extracts, or other naturally-occurring substances. Want to know how they work? Keep reading.
Bioinsecticides can have one (or more) of the following modes of action:
- Kill on contact
- Kill after ingestion
- Inhibit feeding
- Inhibit growth
- Inhibit reproduction
The examples included in the following descriptions are reported either on the bioinsecticide labels or in promotional materials produced by the manufacturers. And these are just examples, not meant to be an exhaustive list of bioinsecticides with each mode of action.
Killing on contact
Some bioinsecticides need to directly contact the body of the insect or mite in order to kill it. Bioinsecticides that contain living fungi work this way. The tiny fungal spores land on the insect or mite pest, germinate (like a seed), and infect the body of the pest. The fungus grows throughout the pest’s body, eventually killing it. If the relative humidity is high enough, you might even see insects that look like they are covered with powder or fuzz (but this is not necessary for the pest to die). This powdery or fuzzy stuff growing on the pest is the fungus producing more spores. Bioinsecticides that contain the fungal species Beauveria bassiana (e.g., BotaniGard, Mycotrol), Metarhizium anisopliae or brunneum (e.g., Met52), or Isaria fumosorosea (NoFly) are examples of fungal bioinsecticides with contact activity.
Bioinsecticides that contain spinosad (including Entrust, SpinTor, and others) work because the active ingredient affects the nervous and muscular systems of the insect or mite, paralyzing and eventually killing it. It can kill the pest either through contact, or through ingestion (more on that in a moment). The bioinsecticide Venerate contains dead Burkholderia bacteria (strain A396) and compounds produced while growing the bacteria. One mode of action of Venerate is that it contains enzymes that degrade the exoskeleton (outer shell) of insects and mites on contact.
Killing by ingestion
Some bioinsecticides need to be eaten (ingested) in order to kill. Pesticides that contain the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (often called Bt for short) as the active ingredient are a good example. Proteins that were made by Bt while the bioinsecticide was being manufactured are eaten by insects and destroy their digestive systems. Several different subspecies of Bt are available as bioinsecticides, and the subspecies determines which insect pest it will be effective against. There are many bioinsecticides registered in NY that contain Bt as an active ingredient. Check NYSPAD for labels, and make sure you choose the right pesticide for the pest and setting where you need control. Bt products do not work on mites, aphids, or whiteflies.
Insect viruses are another example of a bioinsecticide active ingredient that kills through ingestion. For example, Gemstar contains parts of a virus that infects corn earworms and tobacco budworms. Once these caterpillars eat the Gemstar, the virus replicates inside the pest, eventually killing it.
Some bioinsecticides repel insects from the plants you want to protect. However, this mode of action may only work on certain pest species, or certain life stages of the pest. Read and follow the label. Bioinsecticides containing azadirachtin or neem oil, and Grandevo are reported to have repellent activity for some pests. Grandevo contains dead bacteria (Chromobacterium substugae strain PrAA4-1) and compounds produced by the bacteria while they were alive and growing.
If you want insect and mite pests dead as soon as possible, I understand the sentiment. But in many cases stopping the pests from eating your plants would be just as good, right? Some bioinsecticides cause pests to lose their appetite days before they actually die. Like bioinsecticides that kill pests outright, some bioinsecticides that inhibit feeding require ingestion, while others work on contact. And these bioinsecticides may work this way for only certain pest species of certain ages. Read and follow those labels! Bioinsecticides containing Bt require ingestion and some can stop pest feeding before actually killing the pest. The same goes for Gemstar (corn earworm virus). This is another mode of action of azadirachtin products against some pests.
Many insects and mites need to molt (shed their skin as they go from one life stage to another). Bioinsecticides that interfere with molting prevent pests from completing their life cycle. Like feeding inhibitors, these bioinsecticides won’t directly kill the pests you have, but they can prevent them from multiplying. This is another mode of action (again, for certain pests at certain stages of development) listed for azadirachtin products and Venerate (Burkholderia spp. strain A396).
There are two main types of bioinsecticides that prevent or slow insect reproduction. Pheromones are compounds that confuse insects that are looking for mates. If males and females can’t find each other, there won’t be a next generation of the pest. Pheromones can be especially useful when the adults that are looking for mates don’t feed (e.g., moths). Isomate and Checkmate are two examples of pheromones available for certain fruit pests. Other bioinsecticides actually reduce the number of offspring produced by a pest. This is one of the modes of action of Grandevo (Chromobacterium substugae strain PRAA4-1) against certain pests.
Why do I care?
Do you mean besides the fact that you are a curious person and you want to know how biopesticides work? Knowing the mode of action for the pesticide you use (among other things) allows you to maximize its efficacy. Does the bioinsecticide need to contact the pest, or be eaten by it? This determines where, when, and how you apply it. Do you want to use a bioinsecticide that inhibits growth of the pest? Make sure you use it when pests are young. (Sidenote: Like all biopesticides, bioinsecticides generally work best on smaller populations of younger pests.) Is the first generation of the pest the one that causes the most damage? Don’t rely on a bioinsecticide that inhibits reproduction. Although if the pest overwinters in your field and doesn’t migrate in, maybe you could reduce the population for the next season.
Now is a great time of year to consider the insect and mite pests you are likely to encounter this season, then learn which bioinsecticides include these pests (and your crop and setting) on the label. Always read and follow the label of any pesticide (bio or not). How do you know whether these bioinsecticides are likely to work in NY on the pests listed on the label? That’s a topic for another post. In the meantime, the Organic Production Guides for fruit and vegetables from NYS IPM are a great place to start. When available, they report efficacy of OMRI-listed insecticides (including some bioinsecticides). Your local extension staff are another great resource.