It hasn’t been long since most comments you heard about using biological controls — beneficial insects or mites, or prepared formulations containing microorganisms — were negative.
“It’s too expensive.”
“My customer has a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy for bugs.”
“I tried it and it didn’t work.”
Those concerns are still out there — justifiably in some cases. Biocontrols have had somewhat of a “snake oil” reputation in the past, but that seems to be changing. More and more, growers seem to be open to the idea of using biocontrols in greenhouse crops.
“They are now seen on the same level as chemicals,” says Matt Kowalski, president of Natural Industries. “As long as they work and have similar costs, there doesn’t seem to be a bias against biocontrols. In fact, I think the opposite is true. Growers really want biocontrols to work.”
So why the change in attitude toward biocontrols? In some cases, it may be the same motivation growers have with other parts of their businesses. They see it’s working for someone else.
“We’re seeing some credible large growers who are having success, and that may be opening the eyes of others. A lot of the mid-sized growers are starting to look over the fence and say, ‘If he can do it on 25 acres, I can do it on 5,’” says Kelly Devaere, product and marketing manager for MGS Horticultural.
Another bump in adoption may be from necessity. It’s acknowledged that resistance to some important traditional chemistries can develop if they’re overused.
“Pesticide resistance has historically flared interest in biocontrols,” says Carol S. Glenister, entomologist with IPM Laboratories. “Most recently, when spinosad stopped being the magic bullet for thrips, growers quickly appreciated the thrips suppression offered by the predatory mite, Cucumeris, and the nematode, Steinernema feltiae.”
Adding biocontrols to a grower’s toolbox of options can help extend the life of some of these critical traditional chemistries, as well.
“Growers can get off a material for a couple of months, use biocontrols, and then come back with it again. That can reduce the incidence of resistance,” says SuzanneWainwright Evans, owner of Buglady Consulting.
Consumer interest in sustainable food production may be playing a role in biocontrols’ adoption among growers across the board.
“In 2008, a huge consumer shift took place and the demand for organic produce went through the roof. Since most biocontrols are approved for organic use, microbial pesticides became the belle of the ball,” says Kowalski.
Having that sustainable position can provide a nice marketing message for retail customers and consumers alike.
“We have certain customers that are really excited about the idea of us having beneficials,” says Steven Wilson, who manages propagation with Costa Farms. “It sounds good saying our crop was grown with beneficial insects. The customer likes to hear that.”
Other growers are looking at some of the sustainable benefits in their own operations as well. Randy Gilde, an owner at Delray Plants, says his company has been serious about biological controls for about 10 years, with a few starts and stops before that.
“I’ll be honest — we started doing it because we thought it would be a cost savings. As it turned out, it wasn’t as much of a savings as we anticipated, but we found other benefits that are just as important. We do it because we want to be environmentally friendly and employee-friendly in our pest control programs,” he says.
Even with an increasing acceptance, there still seems to be a certain level of uncertainty or uneasiness about committing to using biocontrols. One of the biggest stumbling blocks is a distrust in their ability to work as well as conventional materials.
“I personally don’t like the word ‘biopesticide’ because it implies it’s a biological, but it works just like a pesticide,” says Bioworks’ Product Development Manager Randy Martin. “When you say that word to a person without the proper education, they may buy the product and try to use it like a chemical pesticide. They probably won’t see the same results, and then they’re disappointed and say the product doesn’t work.
“If a chemical pesticide doesn’t work for some reason, the grower may grab more chemical and spray again,” Martin says. “If a biopesticide doesn’t work, people tend to say, ‘It doesn’t work. I told you so.’”
Education on using biocontrols is improving, driven by research, consultants and the biocontrol companies themselves.
“There’s no dabbling. Either you commit to it or it’s not going to work,” Wainwright-Evans says. “If we were to do a real case study on why a biocontrol doesn’t work, I think we’d find it’s human error in the equation. Not enough was put out, the application or timing was wrong or there was chemical residue on the plants when they came in.”
“There is a considerable learning curve,” says Barner Jones, business manager for Syngenta’s Bioline products. “Every situation and environmental condition is different. Microclimates shift what you do in your greenhouse significantly. You can have a standard program plan as a skeleton, but you have to add the meat yourself. That takes some adjusting for some growers.”
Gilde agrees. “You have to change everything. You can’t just throw some bugs out,” he says. “There are chemicals you can’t use with the biocontrols, and there are others you can use, but only at certain times. You really have to follow the procedures and protocols, but there’s a lot of help out there to walk you through it. You don’t have to figure it out on your own.”
The growers who have been most successful in managing biocontrols program — and its costs — tend to be good planners, says Devaere.
“They scout. They spend the time and energy to see what they have. That’s 75 percent of the battle: understanding the trends on what’s happening in your greenhouse and making adjustments.”
As a rule, biocontrols should be used as preventatives, not curatives, Wilson says.
“We don’t wait,” he says. “We’re trying to get populations established in the crop before we have a problem. We have the crop for such a short time, we’re just trying to keep it clean from the start. If you wait until you see a problem, it’s going to get out of control fast. You have to be preventative.”
Devaere acknowledges the concern with cost is a big issue for many growers, particularly because of that preventative use.
“Most of your costs are up front with biocontrols because they’re preventative. It’s an insurance policy. It is a big bill that comes in at the same time all of your other big bills come in,” he says.
Wainwright-Evans says even with that upfront hit for the material, the overall costs of the program tend to even out.
“People say they’re too expensive, but I think in large part that’s just perception,” she says. “People don’t crunch the numbers. How do you put an economic value on not having a re-entry interval? You’re not using spray suits or tractors. How do you put a value on that?”
Managing “Zero Tolerance”
Another roadblock for some growers is “zero tolerance” — the demand from customers for a completely clean crop. Most agree that eliminating all pests from the process isn’t really possible, but for growers facing that situation, there are solutions in a bicontrol program.
“We know a lot of box store customers don’t want to see any insects, and they don’t want to see Diglyphus flying around, even though they’re beneficial insects. So what do you do? You load the plants on carts and spray the crop before it goes out. Yes, you’re knocking down the remaining beneficials, but you’re also cleaning up other pests that may still be around,” says Syngenta’s Jones. “I think the crop can still be called ‘sustainably grown,’ even with that application.”
While most of Wilson’s plugs at Costa stay in-house, he agrees that cleaning up a crop is often necessary.
“We do a drench on material that is going to outside customers to make sure they are clean. We make sure we use the safest chemcials we can get out there, but we absolutely understand the zero-tolerance situation,” he says.
The Same Products Used Better
Many times, increased adoption of a new production technique is based on significant new product introductions. That hasn’t necessarily been the case
“Are there new beneficial insects coming down the pipeline? Not really — it’s not like traditional chemistry,” Jones says. “They’re living organisms, and it takes time for them to evolve. But we have gotten better at using them.”
Wainwright-Evans says more efficient application and better understanding of the interactions of the biocontrol agents has made the products more effective.
“Some of the nematodes we use to control Western Flower Thrips are the same species we were using 10 years ago. It’s the understanding of the way we use them in the system that makes a difference. We know the timing now,” she says.
There’s still room for improvement, however, particularly in areas that can shave some of the labor costs associated with the technology, Gilde says.
“I hope the biologicals companies continue to work hard on new application methods for the different predators. That’s one of the drawbacks — you’re out there shaking a jar. When you have a 20-acre range to shake bottles out, you have eight guys out there for several hours. That needs to improve.”
The Next Steps For Biocontrols
While it’s hard to see a future where biocontrols are the primary source of pest management for greenhouse growers, it’s just as difficult to see a situation where it doesn’t continue to grow in use and importance.
We’re already seeing a trend where some of the big players in traditional chemistries are getting more involved with biocontrols.
“As the global biocontrol companies grow, they will be putting more dollars into developing new bugs or ways to control pests, as well as new ways to deliver it,” Devaere says. “It’s in the news — BASF buying Becker Underwood. Bayer buying AgraQuest. These companies are looking at the newer, softer chemistry and saying, ‘We need to be there. That is the future.’”
Regulatory issues may push more growers into biologicals as well.
“Canada has significant restrictions on pesticides. Europe has already gone through this with pesticides and fertilizers. And we’re seeing pockets in the U.S. where they are sensitive about phosphate runoff and may be willing to put pesticide regulations or limitations in place,” Martin says.
In the end, it may simply be familiarity that makes biocontrols more accepted among greenhouse growers.
“Some of the larger operations that are a little more progressive have a handful of younger growers just out of school who were exposed to the technology. They are comfortable with it and motivated to make it work,” Martin says.
If you haven’t already, it’s time to give the technology a good look, says Natural Industries’ Kowalski.
“If you are a grower and not exploring the use of biocontrols right now, you are behind the curve. If you are a distributor and not making biocontrols a priority, there are some very smart, aggressive competitors who are. If you are a manufacturer and are just starting to think about biocontrols, it is already too late.”