Practicing good integrated pest management in the greenhouse requires correct identification of the pest. Accurate pest ID is also critical to successful use of biocontrol. Aphids are a good example. Biocontrol of aphids works best when you match the biocontrol agent to the aphid species you have. When I first learned this, I was a bit intimidated, because aphids are pretty small, and I’m not an entomologist. But the four aphid species you are most likely to encounter in your greenhouse are actually pretty easy to differentiate.
Anatomy of an aphid
In order to successfully ID aphids, you need to know (just a little) about aphid anatomy. All aphids are pretty small (between approximately 1/16 and 1/8 inches long). In addition to six legs and a body, aphids have antennae. Antennae attach near their eyes and are angled back over their bodies. They also have two little “spikes” that protrude from their rear end. These are called cornicles. Not so bad, right?
Green peach aphid
Green peach aphids come in different colors (from green to, well, peachy pink) and they are one of the smaller species. Their cornicles are the same color as their body (whatever that color is), and have dark tips on the ends. Green peach aphids also have an indentation in their head between the bases of their antennae.
Melon (or cotton) aphid
Melon aphids (also called cotton aphids) also come in a range of colors that include light yellow, green, dark green, or almost black. Regardless of the body color, the cornicles will always be dark. Also, there’s no indentation in their head between the bases of the antennae. This is another small aphid species.
Foxglove aphids are large (for an aphid). Their bodies are light green, but often shiny. There is an indentation in their head between their antennae. Their antennae are extra-long, extending well beyond the end of their body, and appear to have dark spots on them because the joints of the antennae are dark. The joints of their legs are also dark. Check where the cornicles attach to the body of the aphid. Foxglove aphids have darker green spots on their bodies at the base of the cornicles. These aphids usually like to hang out on the lower leaves of a plant, though they will infest flower petals sometimes.
Another large aphid, potato aphids come in pink and green. They look like they have a dark stripe running down the middle of their backs, and their body appears faintly segmented. They also have an indentation in their head between the antennae. Of the four species we’re discussing here, only the melon aphids lack this indentation.
To see these features, you will need a little magnification, but you don’t need a fancy microscope. Find a hand lens or a magnifier with 10X magnification. I like to keep one in my backpack so I’m always prepared.
There are even some relatively inexpensive 10X lenses you can snap on to your smartphone or tablet. Not only does this turn your device into a little microscope, but you can take a picture to document what you see (and show to an expert, later).
You can also find (at least some of) these four aphid species outside. Last summer I spotted the aphid below on an acorn squash plant in August. Now that you know what to look for, what species do you think it might be?
One minor complication: Each of these four aphid species can either have wings, or be without wings. Usually aphids you find in a greenhouse have no wings, so you can stick with the above descriptions. But winged aphids can appear in the greenhouse, particularly when populations get very high. If you find aphids with wings in your greenhouse, the above descriptions won’t apply; ask for some help from your local extension office.
Choosing the right natural enemy
A good biocontrol option for aphids is a parasitoid wasp from the genus Aphidius. These tiny wasps are called parasitoids because they lay their eggs inside of aphids. As the young wasp grows, it kills the aphid and turns it into a mummy.
But if you want to purchase Aphidius wasps to release in your greenhouse (or the banker plants and prey that support them; read more here), you’ll need to know which Aphidius species to use. Aphidius colemani works well against green peach and melon aphids, while Aphidius ervi works well against foxglove and potato aphids. Another natural enemy you can use is Aphidoletes aphidimyza. This is a tiny fly whose larvae are voracious aphid predators. Although it seems to be less effective against foxglove aphid, it may work well in combination with another natural enemy.
Like all biocontrols, Aphidius wasps and Aphidoletes larvae need to be released while your aphid population is very small, before it gets out of hand. Aphid infestations can explode very quickly! Scout your crop regularly, and keep records so you know which aphid species you are likely to have. (Consider the Pocket IPM Greenhouse Scout app to help you with your scouting and pest management.) Then plan your biocontrol releases accordingly. Parasitoids and predators for aphids should be released preventatively on crops that are prone to aphids.
If you’ve inspected your aphids at 10X magnification, and still aren’t sure which species you have, contact your local extension office for help with ID. If you are planning to send a picture, make sure that it is clear and shows the features of the aphid that you now know are important (antennae, body, cornicles).
You can learn more about aphid biocontrol in this factsheet from John Sanderson (Department of Entomology, Cornell University) on managing aphids in a greenhouse. Identification of these four common aphid species and which biocontrols you can use against them are also summarized here. The natural enemies listed in the chart are meant to be a starting place. Maximizing the efficacy of your aphid biocontrol program takes some trial and error and willingness to fine-tune your program to the crop and environmental conditions you’re dealing with. Suppliers of aphid natural enemies also have great information about how to use these biocontrol agents most effectively.
By the end of our first field season, we had started using six different methods to establish wildflowers as habitat for beneficial insects (plus a weedy mowed control treatment). We also collected data on how much time and money we spent on establishment and how successful our weed management was. You can read about results from Year 1 in my post from last November.
But beneficial insect habitat establishment is not a one-year project. The establishment methods we started to implement in 2018 are ongoing, including periodic mowing of direct seeded plots, and hand-weeding of transplanted plots. We’ll keep track of how much time and money we invest in these plots in 2019, too.
And we want to know whether these plots are actually attracting beneficial or pest insects. So, in 2019 we are starting “Phase II” of our beneficial insect habitat work. We want to know which and how many insects (and other arthropods, like spiders) are being attracted to each type of plot. We will also count insects in no habitat plots (weedy, mowed occasionally) and mowed grass plots in the middle of the Christmas tree field for comparison.
Insect collection began in early May, and we are using four different techniques:
Sweep net – This is what it sounds like. We “sweep” a net through the air above the ground to capture mostly flying insects, or those who may be resting on the plants.
Butterfly and moth count – We walk through the field, counting how many of each butterfly or moth species we see in each plot.
Pan traps – These are bright yellow and blue bowls filled with soapy water. One bowl of each color is placed in each plot for 2 days, then we collect the insects that have been attracted to the colorful bowls and were trapped in the soapy water. This method will help us count flying insects, especially bees and wasps.
Pitfall traps – These are clear plastic 16-oz deli cups (like you might use for take-out food) that are sunk into the ground in each plot. Insects that crawl along the ground fall in. We will use this method to count mostly ground-dwelling insects.
I will write another blog post or two about this project during or at the end of this season. If you want to see more frequent updates, follow me on Twitter (@AmaraDunn). I’ll post weekly pictures of this project, including which beneficial insect habitat plants are blooming each week. You can also see lots of pictures from this project on Instagram (biocontrol.nysipm).
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
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.
Fair warning, this is going to be a longer post. But partly that’s because there are so many pictures. I will start with the overview, then go a bit deeper into the weeds (literally and figuratively). To help you navigate more quickly, here’s a sort of table of contents that will quickly take you to the information you may be most interested to read:
Remember back in June when I told you about the different techniques we were comparing for establishing habitat for beneficial insects? Time for an update! Here’s a brief, two-page summary of the first year of this project. For all the juicy details (and lots of pictures), keep reading!
First, remember that when I say “beneficial insects”, I mean both pollinators and natural enemies of pests. (Technically, arthropod would be a better term than insect, because spiders and predatory mites are some of the beneficial creatures we’d like to attract.) Fortunately, the same type of plants provide food and shelter for both pollinators and natural enemies on your farm or in your garden.
We used six different techniques to establish this habitat during Spring, Summer, and Fall of 2018. Treatment E was our control, where we did nothing but mow (after initial herbicide applications).
Replace dead plants
Till, transplant, mulch
Replace dead plants
Till, direct seed
Till, plant buckwheat
Mow 1x, till, plant buckwheat
Mow 1x, transplant
E – control
Till, lay plastic
Remove plastic, direct seed
Herbicide 2x, till 1x
Till 1x, direct seed
We transplanted the following species in treatments A, B, and D:
Number of plants in each 5 x 23 ft plot
Blue false indigo
Tall white beard tongue
Rudbeckia fulgida va. Fulgida
Little bluestem (grass)
New England aster
Symphyotrichum novae- angliae
We planted seeds in treatments C, F, and G. The seed mixture we used was the Showy Northeast Native Wildflower & Grass Mix from Ernst Seeds, which included a more diverse species mix. This mix changes a bit from year to year. If you’re interested, you can learn about the details of the specific mix we used here.
Labor and costs
Not surprisingly, there were big differences in how much time and money we spent on different treatments this first year. The costs and hours below are for a total area of 460 ft2 (0.01 A) per treatment. Most of the cost differences are due to the huge difference in seed versus transplant expenses. We paid about $2 per plant and needed 180 plants for each treatment. In contrast, we spent about $12.50 on seed for each treatment. You can find itemized lists of cost and time inputs for each treatment here.
Time (person hrs)
A – spring transplant
B – spring transplant & mulch
C – spring seed
D – buckwheat & fall seed
E – control
F – solarize & fall seed
G – herbicide/tillage & fall seed
But, there were also big differences in how quickly the plants established. By September, both treatments (A and B) that had been transplanted in the spring looked like well-established gardens, with large, blooming wildflowers.
We were generally pleased by how well most of the spring transplants survived. Although all the transplants came in 50-cell flats, some were larger than others, and the larger transplants survived better. We were fortunate to be able to plant into nice moist ground, so except for a little water on the day of transplanting, we didn’t irrigate. Survival might not have been as good if we’d had different planting conditions.
In contrast, the much less expensive treatment C was not looking too impressive even by October. A few partridge peas and blackeyed Susans bloomed this year, but otherwise it didn’t look much different from the control plots. In mid-summer, it looked like we were growing more ragweed than wildflowers.
Two of the treatments (F and G) were planted with seeds this fall, and one treatment (D) was transplanted this fall. So it’s really too early to tell how successful those treatments were. Stay tuned for more updates!
Details on weed control
What about weeds? The graph below shows the average percent of the surface area of each plot that was covered with weeds versus planted beneficial habitat species on September 19, 2018. (Thank you, Bryan Brown, NYS IPM Integrated Weed Management Specialist for doing a weed assessment for us!) While we spent about the same amount of time weeding treatments A and B (the time difference is due to the time spent mulching treatment B), we achieved much better weed control with the mulch than without it!
In treatment B, we spread chipped shrub willow mulch about 3 inches deep around the transplants. If I were to do this again, I would spread it thicker. I was disappointed with how many weeds were growing through the mulch just a month after transplanting.
But weeding twice during the season pretty much took care of the weeds in treatment B. Treatment A was also weeded twice, but as you saw in the graph earlier, weed control by the end of the season was not as effective.
I think we’ll have to wait until next year to really understand how weed control is working in treatment C. Remember, the strategy was to slowly deplete the annual weed seedbank by allowing weeds to germinate, but preventing them from producing more seed. This is not supposed to be a quick establishment method, and it wasn’t.
Buckwheat as a weed-smothering cover crop
By the time Bryan did our weed assessment, it had been 3 weeks since we mowed the second planting of buckwheat. Ideally, we would have transplanted shortly after mowing the buckwheat. But, the second crop of buckwheat was starting to set seed by the end of August, and our transplants weren’t scheduled to arrive until the end of September. So we mowed the buckwheat early to prevent it from contributing its own seed to the weed seedbank. But this meant that a lot of weeds had time to germinate before we transplanted the habitat plants. The buckwheat certainly suppressed a lot of weeds during the growing season, and I hope that this will help reduce weeds next year.
Overall, we were pleased with how the solarization worked. We laid down 6 mil clear plastic (leftover from a nearby high tunnel) in early June, and did a little weed control around the edges of the plastic just once during the summer to prevent more weed seed production and to prevent shading of the plots.
We also learned that solarization will not control purselane. In contrast, the purselane thrived only under our clear plastic, and nowhere else in the field. The plot that had the most purselane also had the most other (mostly grass) weeds. I think the purselane pushed the plastic away from the soil and reduced the temperature a bit, allowing other weeds to grow.
Some other plots were virtually weed-free when we pulled the plastic up in October. (Did you see how large the error bar was for weeds in treatment F in the weed graph above? This means there was a lot of variability between plots in this treatment.) Our soil temperature probe happened to be in the plot with the most purselane, and we still achieved maximum soil temperatures of 120 °F (at a depth of about 3 inches), compared to 90 °F in a nearby control (treatment E) plot.
Repeated herbicide and tillage
At the weed assessment in September, the plot that had been alternately treated with herbicide and tilled looked best in terms of weed control. Like treatment C and all the treatments planted (by seed or by transplant) in the fall, I think we’ll get a better idea next year of how effective this method was at suppressing weeds.
Timing of fall planting
One thing we struggled with this fall was deciding when to plant the wildflower and grass seed mixture. One source recommended the seeds be planted sometime between October and December. We were cautioned that if we planted the seed too early, some species (especially blackeyed Susans) might germinate this fall, and the young seedlings would be killed by an early frost before they established. But we were also afraid of waiting too long and not being able to till the soil (treatment G, only) if it got too wet. And we wanted a nice smooth seedbed. In treatment F, we suspected that leaving the clear plastic on into November would protect the weeds from the cooler weather. But we worried that taking it off too early would only allow more weed seeds to blow onto the bare ground.
Finally, we compromised and planted the seeds on October 18 and 19, after our first hard frost, and once it looked like the nighttime temperatures would be in the 40’s (or below) for the next 10 days. It was only a week after the last tillage in treatment G, and the soil was still relatively dry. Those who live in the Finger Lakes know that late October and early November were pretty wet this year, so I’m glad we planted when we did. If you are trying to time fall seeding, I would recommend that you keep an eye on the 10 day forecast to see when temperatures are starting to cool. But if you get a dry sunny day to plant and it’s reasonably cool, I wouldn’t delay.
So if I want to plant habitat for pollinators and natural enemies next year, what should I do?
First, think about the time, money, and equipment you have available, as well as the area you’d like to plant. There probably isn’t a single right way to establish this habitat, but there may be a best way for you.
You can find more details on the techniques we used (and some links to other resources) here.
This post was written by Amara Dunn, Brian Eshenaur, and Betsy Lamb.
This work is supported by the Crop Protection and Pest Management Extension Implementation Program [grant no. 2017-70006-27142/project accession no. 1014000] from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
For much of this summer, many people in NY had “water” at the top of their lawn care list. White grubs are another concern for home lawns. But finding a grub in your lawn does not automatically mean that you need to treat. Before you think about doing anything to your lawn to kill grubs, you should know how many grubs you have, and which species they are. If you do need to treat, consider using biocontrol.
Good news! It’s the perfect time of year to scout for white grubs. Starting in mid to late August, and continuing into October, grubs that hatched from eggs laid during the summer will be just beneath the surface of your lawn, feeding on the roots of your grass plants. This is the time to look for grubs. You might also notice some damage to your lawn from white grub feeding during this window.
Take a look at this fact sheet for detailed instructions on sampling your lawn. All you need is a piece of paper, something to write with, and a shovel or trowel. Check 1 foot by 1 foot squares around the lawn. If you have a bulb planter with a diameter of approximately 4.25 inches, or a golf course cup cutter, this works, too. Make notes about where you’ve sampled and how many grubs you found in each spot. Save the grubs from each sampling location separately.
If you didn’t find any grubs, please don’t treat your lawn! You are wasting money, and applying unneeded pesticides (or biocontrol nematodes) is never a good idea. If you did find grubs, it’s important that you determine which species they are. Why? Because the white grubs you are likely to find in NY are the immature (larval) stage of many different insect species. And each species causes different amounts of damage to your lawn. This means that the number of grubs your lawn can tolerate before it’s damaged – and therefore the number of grubs you should tolerate before treating for grubs – depends not only on the overall resilience of your turf, but also on the grub species you have. Check out the following table:
Fortunately, identifying grubs is easy, too! All you need is a penny, a hand lens with at least 15x magnification, and this online Grub ID tool. First, use the green “Learn how to identify grubs” button to find out which part of the grub to look at and how to hold it. Next, follow the instructions to compare each grub you found to the size of a penny.
Finally, inspect its rear end with a hand lens to determine which species you have. Once you’ve identified the species, click on the species name to find specific management information. Now, look at that table again. For the species you found in your yard, do you have more than the listed number per square foot (or per 4.25-inch diameter soil core)? If not, then don’t waste time or money treating your lawn.
Most likely, only a few spots in your lawn (if any) warrant grub treatment. This is why you took careful notes about where you found grubs. Late August through September is also a good time to use a curative treatment for grubs in NY. The grubs are small and easier to kill. Some chemicals are effective when used at this time (but not the ones that are taken up by the plant!). A preventative pesticide that is taken up by the plant and kills the next generation of grubs when they start feeding in the late summer and fall should be applied in May or June. Before using any pesticide, find out if it is allowed in NY and find the product label using the New York State Pesticide Administration Database (NYSPAD). If a product isn’t listed in this database, you may not use it in NYS (even if you can buy it online). You must follow all instructions on the label.
But why use a chemical when you could use a biological control? Entomopathogenic nematodes are tiny beneficial worms that don’t harm plants, but kill grubs. See how they do it by watching this short video. Why wouldn’t you want these nematodes working for you? Beneficial nematodes are a curative white grub treatment, so they should be applied between mid to late August and October. But you still only need to apply them to spots where grub numbers exceeded the thresholds in this table. You can purchase nematodes from garden centers or online garden supply stores. Look for the nematode species Heterorhabditis bacteriophora and Steinernema feltiae.
For both species, make sure to follow the instructions on the package for storing and applying them. Nematodes will be harmed by ultraviolet light, so apply them around dawn or dusk, and water them afterwards to wash them into the root zone of the grass (where the grubs are). Any type of sprayer (as long as it doesn’t contain a fine mesh) or even a watering can will work to apply nematodes. If you use a sprayer, keep the pressure below 30 pounds per square inch. When you’re mixing up the nematodes, if non-chlorinated water is available, use that. Chlorinated water is fine for watering them in after you apply them.
Regardless of what treatment you use, scout your lawn again next year to find out how well your IPM strategy worked, and if there are other areas you need to treat (or not).
This post was written by Amara Dunn (NYS IPM) and Kyle Wickings (Department of Entomology, Cornell University).
Are mosquitoes bothering you while you enjoy summer in your backyard? An IPM approach is definitely the way to go. Start by checking your yard to see where water might be standing. It could be in toys, flower pots, tarps, wheel barrows, gutters, bottle caps, or so many other places you may not have noticed. Removing standing water from your yard takes away places where mosquitoes breed. Less mosquito breeding, fewer mosquitoes. Always think prevention first when you’re addressing a mosquito problem. Read more about mosquito IPM on the Think IPM Blog and What’s Bugging You?
If there are still some containers you just can’t empty (for example, a lined garden pond), you can find some biopesticides (remember, some biopesticides are biocontrols, too!) in your local garden center to help you with your mosquito IPM. Just make sure you follow all instructions on the label of any product you buy. Read all about mosquito biocontrol on this new fact sheet.
And, if you want to learn so much more about IPM for both mosquitoes and ticks, you still have a little time to register for the 4th Annual NYS IPM Conference on Integrated Management of Ticks and Mosquitoes. But hurry – the conference is August 7th!
As I mentioned in my January post, I am excited to be working with two NYS IPM colleagues (Dr. Betsy Lamb and Brian Eshenaur) to demonstrate the costs, labor, and effectiveness of different methods for establishing habitat plants for pollinators and other beneficial insects. Remember, habitat for pollinators is also habitat for insects and mites that are natural enemies of pests on your farm or in your garden. Thus, planting for pollinators enables you to practice conservation biocontrol. These demonstration plots are located around a new research planting of Christmas trees at Cornell AgriTech at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, NY. What we learn from this project can help you choose the best way to establish your own beneficial habitat (on your farm, around your home, near your school, etc.)
We are comparing 6 different methods of establishing habitat for beneficial insects, plus a control (Treatment E). Treatment E plots were sprayed with herbicide last fall and this spring, and will be mowed once this year. A summary of the plan for the other treatments is below.
Because of when spring tillage occurred, plots that were scheduled to be tilled in the spring did not need a second herbicide application. About a week after spring tillage, Treatment C plots were direct seeded. I hand-broadcast a mixture of native wildflower and grass seeds at a rate of half a pound per 1,000 square feet. This worked out to be 26 g of seed for each 5-foot by 23-foot plot. To make it easier to broadcast such a small amount of seed, I first mixed the seed for each plot with about 3 cups of boiled rice hulls. After raking the seed in gently with a garden rake, I stomped the seed into the ground to ensure good contact with the soil. In a larger plot, you might use equipment like a cultipacker or lawn roller to achieve the same result.
I broadcast (again, by hand) buckwheat seeds in the Treatment D plots at a rate of 70 pounds per acre (84 g for each of these small plots), and raked them in on May 31st. If the buckwheat establishes well, it will smother weeds during the summer, and we can mow and transplant into these plots in the fall. We plan to mow this crop of buckwheat when it starts flowering and then reseed it, for a total of two buckwheat plantings this summer.
We transplanted by hand 15 species of wildflowers and 1 grass species into plots assigned to Treatments A and B on June 4th. Because we were able to transplant right after it rained, it wasn’t too difficult to plant into the untilled plots (Treatment A). Some of them still had some stubble from the cover crops and weeds that had been growing in this field last year, and were killed by fall and spring herbicide applications.
The day after we transplanted into Treatment B plots, we mulched the plants to a depth of about 3 inches to (hopefully) control weeds for the rest of the summer while the habitat plants get established. We used chips from shrub willow because they were available, but other types of mulch would work, too.
Finally, we laid clear high tunnel plastic over the plots receiving Treatment F. Ongoing research from the University of Maine suggests that soil solarization can be an effective form of weed control, even in the northeast. So we’re giving it a try! To maximize the efficacy of this technique, we laid the plastic when the soil had been tilled relatively recently, and was still very moist. To keep the plastic firmly in place for the whole summer, we rolled the edges and buried them 4-5 inches deep, then stomped the soil down around all the edges. In the fall, we will hand broadcast a mixture of native wildflower and grass seeds over these plots (same mix as Treatment C).
We’ll give weed seeds in the Treatment G plots a few more weeks to germinate and grow (depending on the rain). Then we’ll kill them with an herbicide, and till these plots again to induce more weed seeds to germinate. Then we will repeat the herbicide application, till again, and so on. This should reduce the weed seed bank in the soil over the course of the summer. After a final tillage in the fall, we will broadcast seed from the same wildflower and grass mix we used for Treatment C. Fall is the recommended time for direct seeding beneficial insect habitat in the northeast. This treatment will also have the advantage of a full season of weed control prior to planting (also recommended). The downside is that it will take longer to establish the beneficial insect habitat.
As we get these plots established, we’re keeping track of the time spent on each treatment and the costs of materials. In the late summer or fall, Dr. Bryan Brown will assess weeds in each treatment, and I will photo document how well our beneficial insect habitat plants have established in each plot. All of these data will help you choose the method that fits your timeline, budget, and equipment/labor availability. Stay tuned for more updates…including an invitation to a field day (not this year), so that you can come see the results of this project for yourself!
Now that the weather is getting warmer and you’re spending more time outside, you might notice ant hills in your lawn. Reaching for a can of something that will kill them should not be your first move! These ants may be cornfield ants (known among scientists as Lasius neoniger). They are yellowish brown to dark brown, and about 1/8 of an inch long (or slightly longer). You are most likely to notice the ant hills they produce at the entrance to their underground nest in a sunny lawn where the grass is short and sparse (since this is their preferred nesting area). While the ant hills could be problematic on parts of a golf course where the grass must be kept very short, they aren’t big enough to be a problem in your backyard (if you’re mowing your grass to the correct height, which should be about 3.5 inches).
In addition to being harmless to humans – they don’t sting or bite – these ants are actually good for your lawn! They eat the eggs of grass pests, including Japanese beetles. One study found that when these ants were present in turf grass, they reduced the numbers of white grubs and other grass pest larvae. Choosing not to apply pesticides to kill these ants will help you practice conservation biocontrol in your own backyard! In other words, by protecting the natural enemies of lawn pests, you will have fewer lawn pests (and less damage) to worry about.
Although these cornfield ants should be a welcome addition to your lawn for the reasons I’ve just described, if the hills they create are bothering you, there are some simple IPM solutions. Water and fertilize your lawn appropriately and use one of the top two height settings on your mower when cutting your grass. These strategies will help you achieve a denser, taller lawn. This type of lawn is less desirable for building new ant nests, and will make remaining ant hills less noticeable. For more information on maintaining healthy lawns, see the Cornell Turfgrass program’s Lawn Care: The Easiest Steps to an Attractive Environmental Asset.
A few final (but important) notes. Cornfield ants in your yard are a good thing. Ants in your home are a different story entirely, and NYS IPM has information on how to avoid in-home ant problems. If you are uncertain about what type of ant you have, consult an expert for proper identification. Your local extension office is a great place to start. Or, you can submit a sample to the Cornell Insect Diagnostic Laboratory.
If you are thinking about trying biological control, of course you want to know if it is effective. The short answer is, “Yes!” But of course it depends on which biocontrol organism you want to use (and how), which pest you want to manage, and where.
First, you should ask yourself a question: What do I hope to achieve? Some great reasons to use biocontrol for pest management include:
Protecting the environment and human health by using more environmentally-friendly pest management strategies
Reducing the number of chemical pesticide applications to a crop
Preventing (or dealing with) pesticide resistance
Meeting a need for a short REI (re-entry interval) or PHI (pre-harvest interval) on the crop
Biocontrols are the most effective (and cost-effective) management strategy (definitely true for some pests and settings!)
Second, in what context are you using biocontrol? Biocontrol is best used within a larger integrated pest management strategy. Are you using good sanitation and cultural practices (e.g., adequate but not excessive nutrition and water) that promote healthy plants? Are you regularly checking your plants so that you will notice pests when they are still infrequent (scouting)?
Biocontrol should also be preventative (before pest pressure becomes high). If you are expecting to use only biological control to solve an already out-of-control pest problem, you will probably be disappointed. Similarly, if environmental conditions are very favorable for a pest, a biocontrol solution will probably be insufficient.
Each year, university researchers, extension staff, and private companies conduct efficacy trials to quantify how well pest management strategies work. Knowing how a biocontrol product/organism performed in these trials can help you decide if you want to try it on your farm or in your yard. It helps to know a little about how these trials are structured. Efficacy trials typically include some combination of the following types of control treatments:
non-treated control – plants are exposed to pests (either naturally, or deliberately by the researcher), but no pest management strategy is used; disease/damage severity should be highest in this treatment
chemical control – plants are exposed to pests, and a chemical pesticide is applied to manage the pest; sometimes an “industry standard” (what is typically used to manage that pest in that crop and setting) is designated by the author of the study; if no industry standard is designated, comparisons can still be made to the chemical treatment that worked best; disease/damage severity should be very low in this treatment
non-inoculated control – no pest pressure (i.e., plants were not deliberately exposed to the pest); sometimes disease or damage still occurs because of natural pest pressure, or because disease or insects spread from other treatments in the trial; disease/damage severity should be lowest in this treatment
Efficacy trials also include statistical analysis. In a nutshell, this analysis tells you whether two values are really different (often described as “statistically different”), or not. If two numbers are not statistically different from each other, it means that only by chance is one larger or smaller than the other. If you did the same experiment again, you might see a different relationship. One common way of expressing these differences is by using letters. If two treatments are assigned the same letter, then they are not statistically different. So in the example below, Bio1 is statistically different from Bio3 but neither Bio1 nor Bio3 is different from Bio2.
When interpreting an efficacy trial, you should compare a biocontrol of interest to the control treatments. Of course, it would be great to see biocontrol products that are just as effective as the chemical control (like Bio4), and sometimes they are. Sometimes, a biocontrol may be less effective than the chemical control, but more effective than taking no pest control action (like Bio3). Sometimes there’s so much variability (represented by the lines extending above and below the blue bars on the chart, called error bars), that a biocontrol product is not statistically different from either the non-treated control, or the chemical control (like Bio2). This makes it difficult to draw conclusions about how well the product worked.
But, it’s not always quite that simple. For example, in these efficacy trials, researchers deliberately expose plants to pests, and often they manipulate the environment to favor pest populations. For example, they might over-water plants to promote a soil-borne disease like damping off. While there can be value in assessing product efficacy in a “worst case scenario”, this may be much higher pest pressure than you are likely to encounter on your farm or in your yard. When looking at efficacy trials, you should consider:
How much disease/damage was observed on plants that were not protected in any way (non-treated control)? If it’s too low, it’s hard to be confident that the biocontrols being tested were effective, since even unprotected plants were pretty healthy.
How much did the most successful treatment (chemical control) reduce disease/damage? If even the “best” pest management strategy in the trial was not very effective, then pest pressure may have been too high, and it’s not surprising that the biocontrol was ineffective. If you practice good IPM, you likely won’t experience such high pest pressure.
How was the biocontrol applied (alone, or as part of a spray program with other products)? Applying single products in an efficacy trial can simplify interpretation, but may not mimic how you plan to use a biocontrol product. If a biocontrol was applied in combination with other products, you should compare the “biocontrol + other products” treatment to the “other products alone” treatment to see what the biocontrol added to pest management.
What was your goal, again? For example, if you are hoping to replace one or two chemical applications in a larger spray program with a biocontrol, then a moderately effective biocontrol product (like Bio3) may meet this goal.
Because the efficacy of a biocontrol can depend a lot on the environment in which it is used (temperature, humidity, soil conditions, etc.), it’s also a good idea to initially try a new biocontrol in a small area of your farm or yard, and keep notes on what you did and how well it worked for you. You can modify your plan to find what works best for you. The manufacturer or distributor should be able to provide you with important details on how (and for how long) the biocontrol should be stored, and exactly how and when to apply it. And (as always!) if you are using a biocontrol that is also a pesticide (see previous post), make sure that you read, understand, and follow the label.
The following resources summarize efficacy results for biocontrol of plant diseases. As I find efficacy summaries of insect and mite pest biocontrol, I will add them. Or, feel free to suggest efficacy resources you know of in the comments!
At this time of year, glossy catalogs start arriving in my mailbox full of pictures of all the beautiful fruits, vegetables, and flowers that I could grow after the snow melts. What these pictures don’t usually show are the arthropod (insect, mite, and related species) pests that can’t wait to eat what I plant. There are many IPM strategies you can use to fight back against these pests, and you can learn more here.
One of these strategies (and seldom is a single strategy sufficient) is to think about what else is growing near the vegetables, fruits, and flowers you want to protect. There aren’t just pest arthropods in your garden. These pests have natural enemies, too. If you provide good habitat for the natural enemies (including food and shelter), you will attract more natural enemies, and they are likely to consume more pests, protecting your plants. This is one way to practice conservation biocontrol – protecting and supporting the biocontrol organisms (natural enemies) that are already present.
So, what makes good habitat for natural enemies? In general, plants that bloom throughout the growing season (early spring to late fall) provide pollen and nectar to the natural enemies that use these as alternate food sources (in addition to pests). These plants also provide good shelter, both for natural enemies and the arthropods (including some pests) they feed on. As these natural enemies reproduce in the habitat you have created for them, they will also venture beyond this habitat and into your fruit, vegetable, and other flower plants, where they will eat more pests.
What is good habitat for natural enemies is also (in general) good habitat for pollinators. You have probably already heard how important pollinator protection is. Those glossy catalogs (or wherever else you buy your seeds or plants) likely sell species and varieties labeled as being “good for pollinators”. Just make sure you include plenty of variety. Because most plants (especially perennials) bloom for a limited time, you will need multiple species to ensure season-long blooms. Also, the variation in height and structure of the plants will provide diverse habitat for all of the different natural enemies you want to attract.
And what about protecting a larger area of plants (like a 5-acre field of pumpkins on a farm)? Will creating habitat for natural enemies help with pest control? The answer is complicated. It probably depends on a lot of things. How big the field is, how much habitat there is and where it’s located, which pests are a problem, and other pest management strategies (especially use of chemical pesticides) will have an impact. Research has shown that in some scenarios, yes, providing habitat for natural enemies can reduce some pest populations in some crops (one example).
Later this spring, I and two of my NYS IPM colleagues (Dr. Betsy Lamb and Brian Eshenaur) will set up a field experiment that will answer this question (over the next several years) in a Christmas tree planting. We will also compare different strategies for creating this habitat (seeds versus plants, and different weed control methods). Stay tuned for updates!