Tag Archives: fruit

Battling Fire Blight with Biologicals

This post was written by Anna Wallis, Kerik Cox, and Mei-Wah Choi (all from Cornell’s School of Integrative Plant Science, section of Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology). Thanks for sharing your research with us!

Since this is a slightly longer post, here’s a little table of contents:

Biological Modes of Action

What products are currently available and where do they fit in?

Results from the Cox lab

The verdict on biologicals for fire blight management

Streptomycin is a clear asset in the fire blight arsenal—it is inexpensive, effective, and reliable. However, antibiotics may not always be a viable option. More and more, biological materials are holding their own in the fight, with an increasing number of products on the market claiming protection for both blossom and shoot blight. Biological materials are still relatively new to the apple scene, an industry with a long track record of effective disease management. So why change to biologicals, and how do they work?

There are a multitude of reasons driving the growth of antibiotic alternatives. Organic production eliminated antibiotic use in 2014 in the United States. In European markets, they are prohibited or severely limited. Pressure from regulatory organizations and markets to use more sustainable management techniques will not be slowing any time soon. The prevailing evidence supports that responsible streptomycin applications do not seem to select for resistance in the pathogen. Yet, resistance continues to appear in commercial settings.

So, what are these biological materials and how do they work? In the ‘What is Biocontrol?’ tab above, Amara provides an excellent overview of biocontrol, as defined by the EPA and industry. Here I’ll review the biological modes of action and specific materials available in the context of fire blight management. I’ll also provide a snapshot of how biological programs have performed in our research orchards. There is no intention to endorse any specific trade products, rather this is an attempt to provide a neutral perspective and overview of the current market.

Biological Modes of Action

Biological materials available for fire blight management are typically biopesticides falling into the biochemical or microbial category. This means they are derived from natural sources (i.e. plant extracts or minerals) or they are composed of microcorganisms and/or their products.

To understand how biologicals can be used in fire blight management, it’s first important to review the important features of the disease. A thorough description of the disease cycle, symptoms, and causal organism can be found on this Cornell Fact Sheet. Fire blight is caused by Erwinia amylovora, a bacterial pathogen which preferentially colonizes the floral surface, specifically the stigma or the sticky part of the tip of the female organ. First, enough heat must be accumulated for colonization to occur, which can be predicted by disease forecasting models such as MaryBlyt (if you’re familiar with the disease and pest prediction tool NEWA, this is the model used in the fire blight prediction model there). Then there must be a wetting event to wash the bacteria into the natural openings in the flower, the nectary at the base of the floral cup. Unlike fungi, bacteria cannot penetrate plant cells directly, so they rely on natural openings and tissue damage to invade their host.

Pictures (counterclockwise, from top left) of a yellow glob of bacteria oozing out of a dark, necrotic canker on an apple stem; a dead cluster of apple blossoms; a dead apple shoot curved like a shepherd’s crook; the base of an apple tree trunk with a dark canker.
Figure 1. Simplified disease cycle for Erwinia amylovora, causal agent of fire blight. Clockwise from top left: primary inoculum is produced in the spring as bacterial ooze from old cankers; inoculum is transferred to open flowers and causes blossom blight; blighted blossoms provide additional inoculum which is transferred to young leaf tissue damaged by wind or hail causing shoot blight; bacteria may also travel systemically via the vascular system of the plant leading to canker blight; cankers produced from blossom, shoot, or canker blight provide an overwintering site for bacteria to colonize the tree in the following season.

Biologicals can disrupt these events by:

  1. Outcompeting the bacteria during colonization of the plant
  2. Producing antibiotic metabolites, killing the pathogen prior to infection, or
  3. Priming natural host defenses, making the plant more resistant to the bacteria. This is called ‘Induced Resistance’

A simplified view of these events is depicted in Figure 2.

Two identical pictures of a cluster of open apple blossoms. Left photo with a red circle around the yellow floral parts (stigmas) and a blue curved arrow from this circle to the base of the flower (nectary), representing the colonization of the stigma by E. amylovora and a wetting event washing the bacteria into the plant. Right photo with the red circle and blue arrow, plus a yellow ‘X’ over the red circle, indicating protectant activity at the stigmatic surface, and a brown ‘T’ with the top facing the stigma, indicating the induction of plant defenses.
Figure 2. Depiction of fire blight blossom infection and how biological materials interfere. (A) In order for a blossom infection to occur, flowers must be open and receptive, heat accumulation must be sufficient for E. amylovora to colonize the stigma (red circle), and there must be a wetting event (blue arrow) to wash the bacteria into the floral nectary. (B) Biological materials protect against infections by outcompeting the pathogen or producing antibiotic metabolites (yellow ‘x’) or priming host defenses (red letter “T”).

Like any product, these materials require precise applications, to ensure they are in the right place at the right time to provide effective control (Figure 3). Materials with competitive action or antimicrobial metabolites that ‘protect’ the flower (protectants) must be applied when the bacteria is present or just before. This enables sufficient, timely colonization or interaction with the pathogen. Induced resistance materials (defense inducers), also called Systemic Acquired Resistance or Induced Systemic Resistance materials (SARs or ISRs), must be applied prior to infection events, with enough time to activate the host response. (Click the image below to enlarge it.)

Seven pictures of apple buds in a row, depicting growth stages in chronological order: 1. dormant (closed, brown buds), 2. green tip (green leaves just starting to emerge), 3. half inch green (about ½” of green showing), 4. tight cluster (cluster of green floral buds in center of emerged leaves), 5. pink (floral buds showing pink color), 6. bloom (open blossoms), and 7. petal fall (cluster of very small fruitlets). At several stages, words are printed above indicating actions to be taken for fire blight management. At dormant “Prune out cankers”, at green tip “Copper”, at pink “Pre-bloom defense inducers”, at bloom “Protectants”, at petal fall “Post-bloom defense inducers.”
Figure 3. Approximate timing of biological materials corresponding to phenological stages of apple for blossom and shoot blight protection. In any fire blight management program, it is essential to remove inoculum (old cankers) during the dormant period and apply a general antimicrobial at green tip to reduce inoculum. Blossom blight control is provided by defense inducers applied prior to bloom and protectants applied at bloom. Additional applications of defense inducers post-bloom provide shoot blight control; some of the earlier applications targeting blossom blight seem to also have some carry-over effect for shoot blight.

What products are currently available and where do they fit in?

Blossom protectant type products include both bacteria and fungi. The most well-known examples include: Pantoea agglomerans, a bacterium closely related to the fire blight bacterium and an excellent colonizer of apple flowers, marketed as Bloomtime Biological (Northwest Agricultural Products), and the yeast Aureobasidium pullulans, a fungus, marketed as Blossom Protect (Westbridge Agricultural Products). Another bacterium, Pseudomonas fluorescens, is also an effective competitor and is marketed as BlightBan (NuFarm).

Materials with antimicrobial activity are most often Bacillus species, most commonly strains of B. amyloliquefaciens and B. subtillus. Currently on the market are Serenade Optimum (Bayer), Double Nickel (Certis), and Serifel (BASF).

Products that stimulate Induced Resistance response in the host plant work by stimulating two possible pathways the ISR and SAR, as mentioned earlier. These pathways are related and overlapping in the plant, and scientists are still detangling the complex molecular mechanisms involved in plant protection. Example products include Regalia, an extract of the plant Reynoutria sachaliensis or giant knotweed (Marrone Bio Innovations) and a Bacillus mycoides strain marketed as LifeGard (Certis). Another common product used in induced defense is acibenzolar-S-methyl. This is not a biological, but a synthetically derived product marketed as Actigard (Syngenta).

Many of these products have been recommended as part of an integrative management strategy outlined in an extensive report from The Organic Center, based on results from both research trials and anecdotal experience (Ostenson and Granatstein 2013). Always follow the label on any pesticide (including biopesticides) you use.

Table 1. Biological products for Fire Blight

Product Active Ingredient Mode of Action
Firewall Streptomycin antibiotic – kills pathogen
Blossom Protect Aureobasidium pullulans strains DSM14940 & 14941 competitive with pathogen
Bloomtime Biological Pantoea agglomerans strain E325 competitive with pathogen
BlightBan Pseudomonas fluorescens strain A506 competitive with pathogen
Serenade Optimum Bacillus amyloliquefaciens strain QST713 antibiotic metabolites
Double Nickel Bacillus amyloliquefaciens strain D747 antibiotic metabolites
Serifel Bacillus amyloliquefaciens strain MBI600 antibiotic metabolites
Regalia extract of Reynoutria (giant knotweed) resistance inducer
LifeGard Bacillus mycoides isolate J resistance inducer

Results from the Cox lab

Our lab conducts extensive trials evaluating efficacy and sustainability of disease management programs in our research orchards at Cornell AgriTech in Geneva. More recently testing has included various biological materials. In these trials, management programs are tested in two orchard blocks: a Gala block and an Ida Red block, established in 2002 and 2004 respectively, both on B.9 rootstock. The trees in these blocks are spaced considerably farther apart than commercial orchards in order to prevent drift between treatments.

Programs targeted either blossom or shoot blight. To provide sufficient disease pressure, trees are inoculated with a high concentration of E. amylovora at bloom. In blossom blight programs, resistance inducers are applied at pink, and protectants are applied at bloom. For shoot blight programs, resistance inducers are applied at petal fall.

Disease pressure varied from season to season, as indicated by the untreated control trees, ranging from 60 to 99 % disease incidence. Across all trials, antibiotics provided the most consistent and reliable control of both blossom and shoot blight, with less than 15% blossom and 5% shoot blight. The biological materials, both protectants applied at bloom and defense inducers applied pre-infection, also provided good disease protection with typically less than 30% incidence depending on the season conditions and the product. Compared to antibiotic programs, these materials showed greater variation both within and between seasons (i.e. greater standard deviation within a treatment and different top performers in different seasons). In seasons with lower disease pressure, biological programs tended to perform as well as antibiotics. Some of the specific results from 2015-17 are shown in Figure 4 (click the image to enlarge the graphs).

Disease was most severe in the untreated control, ranging from 60% to more than 90% of blossoms blighted and 30% to more than 50% of shoots blighted. Pressure was high in 2015 and 2017, lower in 2016. The antibiotic streptomycin always had <20% and often 0% incidence. Defense inducers outperformed protectants in 2015. In 2016 and 2017 defense inducers and protectants performed similarly, and overall disease incidence was lower.
Figure 4. Average disease incidence of four replicate trees treated with fire blight management programs in 2015 (A & D), 2016 (B & E), and 2017 (C & F). Programs included untreated control (grey bar; highest disease pressure), antibiotics (maroon), resistance inducers (blue), and blossom protectants (yellow).

The verdict on biologicals for fire blight management

Do we recommend biological materials for fire blight management? Overall, the answer is generally yes. There are several important considerations to consider. In our research orchards, the system is challenged with a very high level of inoculum to examine fine differences in product performance. These inoculum levels are much higher than would be present in most commercial orchards. Hence, we expect all programs would perform even better in a commercial setting. In addition, combinations of products seem to be the best: for example, pairing a defense inducer applied at bloom with a protectant material at bloom to control blossom blight, with follow up defense inducer applications for shoot blight. We also expect efficacy of biological materials to improve in the future. Changes in formulations improving activity (note the old and new Regalia formulations in Figure 3), as well as shelf life, tank mixing, and storage happen fairly regularly and will make products more accessible and affordable for growers.

Biologicals are still relatively new materials. As with any product, there is still much to learn about how products work in the field, the most effective management programs, and translating best practices from research to commercial settings. We believe they are a valuable part of an integrated fire blight management approach, including good cultural and mechanical practices such as planting resistant cultivars and rootstocks and removing inoculum from the orchard.


You can learn more from these sources:

Ostenson, H., and Granatstein, D. Grower Lessons and Emerging Research for Developing an Integrated Non-Antibiotic Fire Blight Control Program in Organic Fruit. The Organic Center. November 2013. Available at: https://www.organic-center.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/TOC_Report_Blight_2b.pdf

Pal, K., and Gardener, B. 2011. Biological Control of Plant Pathogens. The Plant Health Instructor, APS. Available at: https://www.apsnet.org/edcenter/advanced/topics/Pages/BiologicalControl.aspx.

Turechek, W. W., and Biggs, A. R. 2015. Maryblyt v. 7.1 for Windows: An Improved Fire Blight Forecasting Program for Apples and Pears. Plant Health Progress. 16:16–22. Available at: https://www.plantmanagementnetwork.org/pub/php/volume16/number1/PHP-RS-14-0046.pdf

How do they work? Bioinsecticide edition

When an insect is treated with the right bioinsecticide, the insect stops damaging plants, and eventually dies.
Bioinsecticides include microorganisms and other naturally-derived compounds that control insect pests.

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:

  1. Kill on contact
  2. Kill after ingestion
  3. Repel
  4. Inhibit feeding
  5. Inhibit growth
  6. 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

Tiny spores of insect-killing fungi land on the body of an insect, germinate, infect the insect, grow throughout its body, and eventually kill it.
Some bioinsecticides contain living spores of a fungus. These spores need to land on the insect. Then they germinate (like a seed), invade and grow throughout the body of the insect, and eventually kill it. If the humidity is high enough, the fungus may even produce more spores on the body of the dead insect.

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.

An insect covered in the white powdery fungus that has started growing out of its body following infection.
If the relative humidity is high enough, insects infected with a fungus may start growing new fungus on the outside of their bodies, appearing fuzzy or like they are covered in powder. Photo credit: Louis Tedders, USDA ARS, Bugwood.org

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.

A caterpillar eats a bioinsecticides that kills by ingestion. Later, the caterpillar dies.
Some bioinsecticides (blue diamonds in this diagram) will only kill pests if they are eaten first. Pesticides that contain Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacteria or insect viruses are examples of this mode of action.

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.

One leaf has been treated with a bioinsecticides that repels pests, but one leaf has not. The caterpillars are feeding on the leaf that was not treated.
Some bioinsecticides (blue diamonds and happy microbes in this diagram) protect plants because they repel insect and mite pests. This protects treated plants from pest damage.

Inhibit feeding

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.

A caterpillar eats or comes in contact with a bioinsecticide that causes the caterpillar to stop feeding.
Some bioinsecticides (blue diamonds and happy microbes in this diagram) cause insect and mite pests to lose their appetites. Depending on the bioinsecticide, it either needs to contact the pest or be eaten by it.

Inhibit growth

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).

Some aphids were treated with a bioinsecticides that inhibits growth. They stay the same size. Another aphid that was not treated grows and molts normally.
Some bioinsecticides (blue diamonds in this diagram) don’t kill insects and mites outright, but they can prevent them from molting and growing into the next life stage. Pests that can’t move on to the next life stage will eventually die without completing their life cycle.

Inhibit reproduction

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.

Male and female moths are unable to find each other and mate because of the presence of pheromones nearby.
Pheromones (represented here by blue diamonds) are a type of bioinsecticide that confuses insects looking for a mate. As a result, males and females can’t find each other, don’t mate, and don’t lay eggs.

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.

A new resource to help you protect pollinators

honey bee is perched on top of a young developing squash with the flower still attached
Many crops (and plenty of non-crop plants) rely on pollinators. Let’s protect them!

As I’ve discussed before, the natural enemies that provide biological control of pests include both larger creatures (like insects, mites, and nematodes) and microorganisms (fungi, bacteria, and viruses) that combat pests in a variety of ways. Microorganism natural enemies are regulated as pesticides (one type of biopesticide), while the larger natural enemies are not. Growers who are successfully using biocontrol insects, mites, and nematodes usually recognize that they need to apply pesticides in such a way that they are compatible with the biocontrol organisms they use. Take a look at my April post for a summary of online resources that can help you check compatibility of pesticides (including biopesticides) with natural enemies.

Some of these compatibility resources include information on the effects of pesticides (and biopesticides) on bees. Pollinators (including honey bees, lots of other bees, and some non-bees) are very important beneficial insects. You may have noticed that they have found their way into several of my blog posts. So, I wanted to let you know about a brand new resource (hot off the digital presses) to help you protect pollinators.

Image of the cover of the resouces entitled: Pesticide decision-making guide to protect pollinators in tree fruit orchards
“A Pesticide Decision-Making Guide to Protect Pollinators in Tree Fruit Orchards” is a terrific resource to help you choose pesticides (and pesticide combinations) that are least-toxic to bees.

A Pesticide Decision-Making Guide to Protect Pollinators in Tree Fruit Orchards” was written by Maria van Dyke, Emma Mullen, Dan Wixted, and Scott McArt. Although it’s focus is tree fruit orchards (and therefore the pesticides used in them), it should be useful for growers of other crops who want to choose pesticides that are least toxic to bees. A few highlights:

  • It includes information not only on pesticides used alone, but (when available) on synergistic effects when multiple pesticide active ingredients are used together. When you combine some chemicals (either in the tank or in the environment) the mixture is more toxic than both chemicals alone.
  • Where available, it summarizes pesticide toxicity to other bees besides just honey bees (e.g., bumble bees and solitary bees). You can read more about why this is important in this recent article.
  • It describes what we know about sub-lethal (in other words, negative effects on the bees that are less serious than death) effects of pesticides on bees.
  • It includes about half a dozen biopesticide active ingredients.
bumble bee feeding on a purple flower
Pollination is being done by more than just honey bees! This bumble bee (plus many more bee species) are important pollinators in NY.

You might be asking: If a chemical on this table is toxic to bees, will it also be toxic to the insect and mite natural enemies I am releasing or conserving on my farm or in my garden? I wish I had a definitive answer to that. As you can see from the nearly three pages of Literature Cited at the end of this document, collecting these data is a time-consuming process. For now, stick with the compatibility resources that are already available, and ask the companies you buy from (pesticides or natural enemies) about compatibility.

In closing, a huge amount of work went into this resource to summarize so much useful and current (as of October 2018) information in an easy-to-read table. Bravo to the authors! The Pollinator Network @ Cornell has other helpful resources for growers on protecting pollinators. Winter is a great time to make plans for using IPM and protecting the pollinators and natural enemies that are so good for the crops we grow!