5 Universal Truths on Which the Experts All Agree
Using biocontrols in your greenhouse integrated pest management (IPM) program is both a science and an art. There is no one-size-fits-all program that can be prescribed for all operations. Successful use of biocontrols requires understanding the pest, the biocontrol agent, the action of individual chemistries on the biocontrols, and regular scouting to monitor all of it. It can be intimidating to someone who wants to get started. But there are some universal principles that if followed, will set the foundation for success.
1. Know Thyself
Know why you want to use biocontrols, and ask yourself if you have what it takes to be successful. Dr. Juang-Horng (J.C.) Chong, Associate Professor in the Entomology, Soils, and Plant Sciences Department at Clemson University, says he finds many successful practitioners are not using biocontrols because of an ideology; they are doing it out of necessity because conventional tools are not providing control, or customers are demanding less pesticide on the plants.
“Biocontrols are not suitable for everyone,” Chong says. “It requires deep understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of biocontrol agents, the environmental conditions most favorable to the biocontrol agents, the existing production practices and how flexible they are to incorporating biocontrols, and most importantly, lots of patience, tolerance for failure, and willingness to try again.”
Dr. Lance Osborne, Assistant Professor of Entomology at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) sends growers a questionnaire before he even visits their greenhouse to make sure they have thought through key questions. He asks about scouting, what pests they are trying to control, their awareness of potential costs, their current level of knowledge, and their willingness to use resources.
“Growers need to be truthful with themselves,” Osborne says. “I have seen growers who want to put their entire operation into biocontrols without having any real knowledge of what the predators look like, or even sometimes what the pest looks like. And if they don’t have a scout that’s going out at least once a week, they are wasting their time.”
2. Ask Questions
Ask suppliers, consultants, researchers, Extension agents, and your peers about their experiences with biocontrols.
“Other folks have already tried it, and you can learn a lot from asking questions,” Chong says.
Jennifer Browning, Technical Services Specialist for BASF Professional and Specialty Solutions, works with growers frequently on integrating biocontrols into their IPM programs. She sees many growers going to their peers for advice.
“Depending on where a grower is, sometimes there is more sharing of information because if the operations are close to one another, they attend the same meetings and know each other personally,” Browning says. “In those types of situations, there’s a lot of information shared about what works and doesn’t work
3. Start Clean
“Sanitation is your absolute best friend,” Browning says. “It’s not a very interesting part of IPM, but it is one of the most important in terms of being successful. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been out to see someone who is having problems, and they are doing all the right things chemically and biologically, but what’s holding them back is sanitation problems. It’s not that they don’t care; it is usually a labor issue.”
Browning says sanitation includes keeping floors free of weed and debris, eliminating standing water, and avoiding bringing pests into the greenhouse on clothes, shoes, and other plants.
Also make sure your operation is running clean, she says. Start when pest pressure is low and when there are not other big problems, such as irrigation issues or a large labor turnover, so you can have scouts in place.
4. Start Simple and Start Small
Osborne, Chong, and Browning all say to start small. Start with one pest that is causing problems and one biocontrol agent in one greenhouse. Don’t try to control everything all at once.
“Build your knowledge and program based on that one pest, integrating biocontrols for that pest, and how to respond to drops in biological populations or explosions in pest populations, and how to integrate chemicals,” Browning says. “And then use that information to add more pests and more biocontrols and integrate them into your program down the road.”
She emphasizes there is a learning curve, and because temperatures and other factors change not only throughout the year but from season to season, the program tends to be dynamic and will change with conditions. She recommends making sure there are people on staff who are trained to recognize when adjustments need to be made.
Osborne says to start with the pest that causes the most problems and build the program around that with the complete understanding that you may have to bring out chemicals to control other pests and diseases.
Help is available from Extension, your product suppliers and on a number of websites to find out what chemicals to use on the other pests that are relatively safe on the beneficials you are using.
“I tell growers to practice in a small area. Get to know the predators and what their eggs and immatures look like and if they are feeding on the pests. Teach yourself something before you put your whole crop at risk, because you are going to make mistakes. Once you have a good feel for what’s happening in a small area, you can build your program larger.”
5. Be Flexible
Avoid all-or-nothing thinking. Browning says some people start with biocontrols thinking they will transition away from chemicals entirely, but most people who are successful with it are doing hybrid programs that include chemistry and biocontrols.
“It can catch you up if you think bios will answer all your pest problems, or if you won’t try bios because you think you have to give up all chemicals,” Browning says.
Chong emphasizes that biocontrols should not be used as a rescue treatment, saying they work best as a preventative management tool or for small infestations.
“When infestation is widespread and threatening the entire crop, you should be flexible enough to bring back effective insecticides,” Chong says. “You also need to be aware that biocontrols are living organisms and they require favorable environmental conditions to do their best. That often means you need to change your operating practices, including not using some of your favorite insecticides or fungicides. Do not think you can incorporate biocontrols while maintaining your traditional growing practices.”
There are two ways to approach integrating biocontrols with chemicals, says Browning. The first way is to choose tools that complement each other, such as chemistry that is compatible with commonly used biological predators and beneficials. The second way is to separate them seasonally.
“Often growers will use a heavy biological program in the spring when pest populations are lower,” Browning says. “Then, when temperatures rise and pest populations start to increase more quickly, they lean more heavily on chemicals. When temperatures cool off, they go back to a more heavily biological program.”