5 Mistakes You May Be Making With Biocontrols

Kerri Stafford
Kerri Stafford

Starting a biocontrols program is a learning process and if there’s one thing for sure, it’s that you will make some mistakes. Here are five mistakes many growers encounter when they start with biocontrols.

Mistake #1: Looking at this as a “biocontrols program” rather than as an “IPM program.”

Most people come into a biocontrols program used to the way things are done with chemicals. They have a “zero-tolerance” mindset or expect to be able to fix a problem after it’s started. If you start out thinking you’re going to accomplish those things with a biocontrols program, you’re going to run into some roadblocks. Biocontrols don’t fix a problem. You have to use them before there is a problem.

It’s better to understand you’re implementing an integrated pest management (IPM) program. With that perspective, you’re going into this thinking about how you can use both chemicals and biologicals together. You can integrate softer, safer chemicals into a bio program. If you have a problem and have been using your biocontrols appropriately, you can spot spray. You can fix things without totally blowing up your biocontrols.

This was a change for us when we started a biocontrols program here at Cavicchio Greenhouses in 2008. We were using products in our chemical rotations that just aren’t bug friendly. You have to look at every chemical you use and the interactions they have with your biocontrols. You don’t want to kill the good bugs along with the bad bugs.

Mistake #2: Not planning in advance. Or just as bad, not adjusting a plan as needed during the season.

Planning is the biggest part of a biocontrols program. You want to be set up before any plants come in and before any issues start.

Once I have a plan for the season ready to go, I usually order everything I need on a weekly basis. Walking through our crops each week, we see if we need to make changes. Being able to adapt your plan to what you are seeing is very important.

For example, I forecast what we’ll need for our entire poinsettia program by the end of June. Poinsettias come in at the end of July. Then every week, we walk through the crop. If pest numbers are high, I’ll add a couple of things to next week’s order to build some extra protection into the plan.

A lot of the biocontrol companies will help you make a plan based on your square footage and what you are growing. The first year, we worked with a plan our supplier helped us put together. After that, we tweaked it in ways that worked better for us. It’s great to have a plan, but you have to be able to be versatile and change with the seasons, and weather patterns and what’s going on out there. If it turns out to be a big whitefly year, you want to have a good defense prepared.

Mistake #3: Having unrealistic expectations about what a biocontrols program can and should do.

Biocontrols are not a curative. You can’t wait for a problem to happen and then bring a program in. You have to start ahead of time and build up populations.

With a normal chemical program, when you see some thrips or whiteflies on a sticky card, you know you’ll be spraying soon. In a bio program, you can see a few pests on a sticky card and know it’s okay. I may know I have some pests around but I’m also seeing biocontrols on my sticky card, so that’s good. I’m looking closely at my plants and not seeing much of anything there, and what I am seeing is parasitized. So three whiteflies on the sticky card isn’t so bad. The next week if I see 10, I may bring in a little extra protection with more biocontrols, but I’m not going to go away from my plan.

It’s a hard transition to make from a chemical program to a bio program. You want to keep your same quality standards as a chemical program but give the customer a plant that is grown more sustainably.  When you start using biocontrols and you see a few pests on your cards, you get nervous. Some people will pull the trigger and spray something and then try to go back to biocontrols. That often won’t work, since whatever you sprayed may have a residual that kills your biocontrols.

Mistake #4: Not thinking about what’s happening to your product before you receive it.

If you don’t think about where your product is coming from and what it was treated with before you receive it, you may risk the possibility of having some problems in a biocontrols program. This goes for the plugs and cuttings you are planning to using a biocontrol program on, as well as finished items you have brought in to sell. Any plant in your greenhouse can play a role in how effective your bio program is. Everything we have coming in has been treated prior to us receiving it, and it may have been treated with chemicals with long residuals.

This happened to us one of our first years growing poinsettias with a biocontrol program. One of our liner suppliers treated those liners with something that harmed our biocontrols. That residual was on the plants for four weeks. We kept putting out bugs and all the bugs were dying. We had no idea why it wasn’t working.

Let your suppliers know you’re using biocontrols and ask about their spray program. Maybe they can tweak it a little bit so that it’s safe for you to start that bio program as soon as the liners arrive.

All of our suppliers are really willing to work with us. They share their lists of chemicals and have been more than happy to make a few changes.

Mistake #5: Having a “zero-tolerance” mindset.

You’re not using a chemical program anymore. Remember that IPM approach.

You have to be able to look at your sticky cards in an objective way with some tolerance and say it’s okay to have some pests. If I have biocontrols, they need to eat those whiteflies, or eat the larvae or parasitize it. That’s how they are going to live. Having some pests out there to feed your predators is a good thing.

It’s definitely hard to get past the “zero-tolerance” mindset, especially if you don’t understand the full reason for what you’re doing with a biocontrols program.

Changing that mindset in your operation is the first step but you may also have to let your retail customers know what you’re doing. We let our customers know ahead of time that we’re using biologicals, and they may occasionally see some of the biocontrols in the crop, or they may find one of the biological delivery cards on a plant. Overall, our customers have responded very positively and have welcomed our efforts to move our pest control in a more sustainable direction.

In the end, my best advice to help you avoid these mistakes is to believe in your program, follow your plan and watch it all the way through. Start slow. Ask questions.

Biocontrol companies have great staffs that will come in, work with you and help you get started. Take advantage of those resources. They want you to be successful as much as you want to be successful.

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