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Exercise Biological Control: Insects and Organisms that Benefit Landscapes

Beautiful landscapes can be damaged when pests take residence. Although using pesticides can eliminate the problem, doing so can also cause environmental damage. 

Biological control provides an ecological alternative to alleviating this pesky problem. Bringing beneficial insects into a landscape keeps pests away and your clients’ concerns at bay.

A pesticide-free plan

Though pesticides are still a prevalent method of control, the landscaping industry is turning to more eco-friendly options says Dr. Barry C. Troutman, vice president of technical services for ValleyCrest Companies in Orlando, Fla.

“We are under tremendous pressure as an industry not to use pesticides,” Troutman says. “What makes us better is finding ways to avoid pest problems and to manage pests with as little pest control products as possible. Biological control alternatives are one of the strategies we use.”

Biological control is an attractive option for landscapers striving to be eco-friendly. According to Anand B. Persad, manger of plant sciences research at The Davey Institute in Kent, Ohio, this procedure can have a lasting impact if used effectively.

“Beneficial [insects] interact with the pest and reduce pest abundance, [ultimately] reducing the amount of damage to the landscape,” Persad says. “This may offer long-term solutions if the beneficials become established.”

Choosing the right beneficial

Collectively referred to as beneficial insects or natural enemies, these insects are grouped into three categories: predators (such as spiders and mites), parasitoids (such as flies and wasps) and pathogens (such as bacteria and fungi). Insects within these categories may remove the pests through three different methods: augmentation, conservation and importation. 

According to Persad, each procedure has a different purpose. Augmentation requires periodically adding beneficials to the landscape. Conservation preserves the landscape by leaving land with natural or native plant growth near a managed area.

This wild area provides a place for natural enemies to live. If the pest populations are spread thin, conservation is typically the optimal choice. Persad says that importation, which is part of the classical type of biological control, is a bit more complex.

“Importation is reserved for those cases where a new exotic has to be managed,” he says. “This is normally supervised and may be funded by the federal government.”

Persad says that although landscapers may be able to assist with distribution and monitoring exotic natural enemies for an exotic pest, they may initially need permission from state or federal agencies to perform the procedure. For example, when Florida was dealing with a Pink Hibiscus Mealybug outbreak, 4-H and other professional organizations helped coordinate the effort.

Biological control basics 

With the array of options for biological control available, determining which method to use can seem simple. Though there are various types of beneficial insects, landscapers must be cautious when using these agents.

According to Troutman, biological controls typically have particular pairings. The ladybugs that will help control aphids on a hibiscus plant will not control the mealy bugs on the same plant. Careful identification of plant pests is critical to selecting and protecting the available biological control agent to be used, Troutman says.

Being patient with pest control

Although biological control has a lasting economical and ecological impact, Persad says those using this procedure shouldn’t expect an instant fix.

“Beneficials need time to manage the pest and results may not be overnight,” he says.

According to Persad, the time that it takes for results depends on the pest-natural enemy complex. The effects of ladybug predators on aphids may be apparent in days, as they consume their prey, while some parasitoids may appear to take longer because they have to complete their life cycle within the host aphid.

Temperature can also play a role, and beneficials should be introduced in fair weather conditions to enhance their ability to settle in and optimize their effects on the pest populations.

Troutman also notes that using beneficial biological agents to control problem pests can be very challenging. You have to keep the biological control agent alive and active, which means you have to maintain the right moisture, temperature and humidity during transport and even after the agent is released on the landscape.

Biological agents work best when they occur naturally and are fostered by a comprehensive pest management program. This is a particularly difficult task for a commercial applicator that might visit dozens of properties per day.

Biological control may take a bit of additional effort, but it can have a remarkable impact on your clients’ yards. Not only can it keep their landscape beautiful and pest-free, it is also a conservational choice.

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