Bug Battles And The Science Of Land Stewardship

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by Michele S. Byers, Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

It’s estimated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that a whopping 34 percent of the average farmer’s production cost comes from controlling agricultural pests. Thankfully, this state we’re in is one of eleven with a special laboratory dedicated to helping farmers and conservation land managers find ways to control pests without using prohibitively costly chemicals that sometimes persist and pollute our soil and water.

The Phillip Alampi Beneficial Insect Laboratory in West Trenton, Mercer County, researches natural enemies of insects and weeds that damage crops, alter landscapes and threaten the state’s forest and wetland habitats. This state-of-the-art facility enables state entomologists to test beneficial insects against many types of pests in various environments – and mass produce the most effective ones.

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Landowners know how hard it is to keep yards and gardens free of damaging insect pests and weeds. Recognizing the economic necessity, the New Jersey Department of Agriculture began developing biological pest control programs in the 1920s, beginning with the Japanese beetle.

The savings can be huge. In 1987, for example, an estimated $1 million in research costs for biological controls for the alfalfa weevil netted the nation $48 million in annual savings. Current estimates put total savings to farmers and other growers at $2 billion, largely as a result of reduced need for pesticides.

Working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, the Alampi Lab has established beneficial insects to control a number of insect pests and weeds, including:

Mexican bean beetles – These bugs damage soybeans, snap beans and lima beans. The Alampi Lab raises a parasite from India that kills the beetles, and is in turn killed off by winter’s cold. The program reduces the needed amount of pesticides by over 21 tons, saving growers over $450,000 each year.

Purple loosestrife – This extremely aggressive and invasive plant can severely damage freshwater wetlands. Because wetlands are environmentally sensitive, chemical, mechanical and physical methods of controlling this plant are expensive and don’t last. In 1996, the Alampi Lab released two exotic beetles that feed on loosestrife. They’re now reducing loosestrife populations in many areas, including endangered bog turtle habitat at the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.

Gypsy Moths – Thirty-nine different biological controls have been deployed against voracious gypsy moths; 10 have become established as components of our forest ecosystems. In a 2007 study of gypsy moth egg masses, biologists found approximately 50 percent of the eggs did not hatch because they were damaged by parasites. One of the controls, a parasitic tachinid fly known as Compsilura concinnata, unfortunately also parasitizes over 200 native butterflies and moths, and has reduced the abundance of many native species. As a result of these past unintended consequences, modern introductions of biological control species are carefully studied in the lab, long before they are introduced into the wild, to avoid and minimize unintended impacts to native species.

Recently, the Alampi Lab released over 2,000 weevils in Union County to combat the “mile-a-minute” weed – a plant that can grow as fast as six inches a day, quickly overwhelming and choking out native plant life.

“Mile-a-minute” was accidentally introduced into Pennsylvania in the late 1930s, and is very difficult to control because the seeds can remain viable for up to five years. Fortunately, the weevils’ diet consists of nothing but “mile-a-minute” weed, so the weevil population will die out when the weed is gone.

The Phillip Alampi Beneficial Insect Laboratory is a great example of using science in the stewardship of the environment. If you want to know more about the lab or NJDA’s biological control of pests, visit www.state.nj.us/agriculture/divisions/pi/prog/biological.html.

And if you’d like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources, please visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.


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