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Biocontrol Agents for Organic Farming… the terminology (3rd edition)

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The lingo of biological pest controls

(3rd edition - April 2008) by A.O. Kime
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If you haven’t been keeping up on the latest developments in biocontrols… wait a minute, what are biocontrols? Oh, shoot, you know, ‘environmental friendly’ products used for controlling farm and garden pests which aren’t agricultural chemicals. If you haven’t, then this article may surprise you. During the past 20 years, the latest in biotechnology, along with ancient pest-control methods, now provide a respectable arsenal of weapons in, well, you know, ‘biocontrols’.

What are biocontrols exactly? Is it stuff you use for organic farming and gardening, like ladybugs, sulfur and maybe soap-spray? Right on folks, but much-much more. Things change fast nowadays, ya know. The biotechnology which produces many of the relatively new and growing list of biocontrols for the American farmer (and gardener) has ushered in the next era of pest-controls… at least as a viable alternative anyway. It’s growing so fast however, it’s the new terminology, not the technology, which you have to contend with first. I think we need a quick review.

To begin with, the term ‘biocontrols’ is slang for ‘biocontrol agents' and defined as “biological derived or identical to a biological derived agent”. That means the term covers all types of environmentally safe products. Watch out though, some of the terminology might get confusing. ‘Biological control agents’ is a more specific term… meaning only beneficial insects, nothing else, although these bugs are often just referred to as ‘beneficial insects' or 'beneficial organisms’, somewhat slangy terms. Within that, there are sub-categories, insects which might be classified as ‘predators’, ‘parasites’ or ‘weed-eating invertebrates’ which are “living organisms used for controlling the population or biological activities of another life-form considered to be a pest”. If you noticed, the industry prefers to say ‘control’ instead of ‘kill’… a hedge maybe?

Today, there are about 30 commercially available predators, like spiders, ladybugs, praying mantis, mites, green lacewing and beetles, which seek out and kill other bugs. They are hatched, raised and sold by companies called ‘insectaries’. The number of parasites put to work has grown also, about 60 of them critters, the likes of tiny wasps, flies and a myriad of other parasites, parasitoids (host-killer parasites) and also a few protozoan. Parasites live on (or in) various ‘hosts’ (their victims) which impede the host’s development or generally causes them injury. A protozoan, however, is a ‘microbial control agent’, a different kind of agent, which are not to be confused with biological control agents.

There are about 25 biological control agents (good bugs) which control weeds although they’re often just called 'beneficial insects', the most common slang term which farmers use. By whichever term, even though they don’t eat or live off other bugs, they go around doing good deeds by controlling weeds. Anyway, these weed-destructive bugs consist of moths, weevils, beetles and flies. A fungus or two are also available for the control of weeds and fungus, like a protozoan, is also a ‘microbial control agent’. As you might suspect, the honeybee is also considered a beneficial insect but since the Africanized bee began infecting some of their ranks, they can also cause problems. I remember once when all bees led a dignified life within their beehives but today many are terrorists and live in weeds.

In addition, the industry has identified about a dozen different beneficial nematodes, which, if you didn’t know already, are tiny little wormlike-looking creatures that live underground. Nematodes usually just eat roots and are normally considered destructive but these little guys like to eat other bugs. The industry has no interest in employing any vegetarian nematodes that are non-selective, they just want bug eaters. From here on, it starts to get more complicated and scientific sounding. Microbial control agents, like fungi and protozoan, also mean other teeny-tiny microscopic things like bacteria and viruses. Farmers use about 25 different kinds to control undesirable bugs and fungi.

The use of viruses and bacteria can sound kinda scary but don’t worry, microbial control agents in Arizona are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Environmental Services Division of the Arizona Department of Agriculture, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and the Plant Quarantine Act (PQA) but you still need permits from the State of Arizona, USDA, APHIS and from Biotechnology and Environmental Protection (BEEP). Only then can a farmer apply the stuff… if his crop ain’t already ate up. We’re not done yet, we still have ‘biochemical control agents’. These are semichemicals such as plant-growth regulators, hormones, enzymes, pheromones, allomones and kairomones which are “either naturally occurring or identical to a natural product that attract, retard, destroy or otherwise exert a pesticidal activity”. Impressive, huh?

But as if that isn't enough gobbledygook… the EPA wants to push a stupid term called ‘biorational pesticides'. And this is where they get picky… you can use the term if you’re (1) not talking about bugs or (2) not talking about synthetic-made stuff they don’t think is identical enough to a given product of nature. Anyway, I hate that term, there is nothing rational about causing more confusion. At any rate, in all, there are over 200 biocontrols of which some have multi-use applications which equates to about 300 specific uses and there are at least 400 of these 'products' on the market. Competing companies supplying the same product accounts for this discrepancy.

A lot of biocontrols have hard-to-pronounce, stuffy-sounding scientific names, which, I think, are thought-up by laboratory-shackled scientists who jealously hate farmers and gardeners and like to see them get tongue-twisted and embarrassed. One such case is ‘bacillus thuringiensis’, a bacteria widely used and marketed in different variations but to spoil their fun, farmers just call them ‘B-Ts’. Another thing farmers can use are made of ‘nuclear polyhedrosis viruses’ but they don’t sound very environment-friendly to me.

What I really think is dumb are those goofy brand-names the distributors use for these biocontrol products such as ‘Doom’, ‘Condor’, ‘Futura’, ‘Grandlure’ and so forth. I think they hired the same marketing guys that work for the car companies… they think brand names gotta sound ‘cool’.

Farmers also use juvenile hormones and behavioral modifiers. Juvenile hormones keep bugs from maturing, thus denying them their adult and reproductive cycle. It should be obvious what behavioral modifiers do... it makes them less destructive. Agricultural firms sell plant-growth regulators too, made from cytokinins and gibberellic acid. There are also sex hormones on the market to confuse and attract bugs. Confusion and bugs I don’t need.

In summary, these biocontrols are incredibly diverse but they don’t include genetically engineered plants which have disease or insect resistant qualities, but that’s another story. See genetically modified organisms (GMOs -external website)

Ever wonder how America became a third world country? Well, for globalization purposes government control of farming is where our downfall began... see Farm Policies and the Treachery of Farmland Administration

Well, that sorta brings you up-to-date, so consider yourself ‘bio-informed’. Remember though, you can’t go around saying ‘biological’ anymore because people might think you’re talking about bugs. If you’re still confused, talk about something else or you could end up getting mighty embarrassed. Some words might even sound organic when they're not. I knew a farmer once who, when he first heard the term ‘entrepreneur’, asked… “what kinda manure is that?”

A.O. Kime (former licensed pest control advisor)

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Resource Box: © A.O. Kime (2003)
A.O. Kime is the author of two books plus 70+ articles on ancient history,
spiritual phenomena, political issues, social issues and agriculture which
can be seen at http://www.matrixbookstore.biz
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My Garden
Of a simple pleasure is the tilling of soil,
commanding growth is the goodness from toil,
creating is not idleness, nor labor in vain,
reflects one’s heart and sprinkles its rain.
A.O. Kime (1941- )

Last modified: 02/07/16