Beneficial Insects -- The Pesticide Alternative

"I've already got bugs! Why do I want to buy bugs?" you say. Instead of using all-chemical pesticides and playing havoc with the environment when dealing with garden and lawn pests this summer, consider the use of beneficial insects and this little story which Jim Kluttz tells:"It makes sense, it really does because insects appeared on the planet about 350 million years ago. If you think about it, all this time insects have been controlling insects. If you took a pair of common houseflies, and if all their offspring would live and breed or reproduce for five months, at the end of five months there would be flies covering the entire face of the earth, land and sea, 54 feet deep. But of course that doesn't happen."Jim Kluttz's business is bugs. He's the owner and operator of a little company in Fort Mill, South Carolina called The Beneficial Insect Company. He's a personable, bearded fellow, and a man on something of a mission.He grew up in Fort Mill and explains, "I started (being interested in beneficial insects) in 1983 when I was living in Alabama. I took a job with a company out of Charlotte, a paper company. And they sent me down to Alabama."He had "moved to the country" and was doing some farming. "I had a simple garden out on the back 40," he grins. He was ordering beneficial insects from California -- "the only place you could get them at that time."He continues, "Well lo and behold, I found out that about two miles from me was an insectory or a bug farm. He grew fly parasites to control filth-breeding flies -- in stables, farms, kennels -- anyplace where you have filth and just nastiness where flies breed. So I went over and talked to him and went on the road selling insects and quit my job with the paper company."Back in 1983," he continues, "in Alabama, which is not the most progressive state in the union, we starved. But we made it. He closed his business in '86. And I opened my business in '87 in Alabama. The next year I moved back here (Fort Mill) and have been doing it from here ever since."Kluttz doesn't breed the beneficial insects in Fort Mill. "In fact, our number one insect, the lady beetles, those aren't grown at all, those are harvested directly from nature. All the other insects are grown at an insectory or bug farm pretty much in laboratory conditions."Kluttz says there are "about 100, maybe 125" companies in the US that deal in or grow beneficial insects. He gets insects and other beneficials from growers in Sacramento, California, Colorado Springs, Colorado, New York and Montana plus he even gets some parasites from Europe. Beneficial Insect Company also has customers from all over. "In fact, I just sent some beneficals to Ecuador. I've got a customer in Alaska. And to get her insects there costs more than the insects, she's so far out in the middle of nowhere, it's incredible."What's the most interesting beneficial? "I think the beneficial nematodes are the most interesting. And the reason why is all of our lives we've heard of pest nematodes -- an organism that attacks various plants, various crops from underground. It attaches to the soil and kills the plant -- they're very difficult to control."But the flip side of the coin is that there are beneficial nematodes. And I have a nematode, several strains, that we use to control soil-dwelling pests. Like many of the pests, they spend some portion of their life developing in the soil. These nematodes will attack and kill those pests in the soil, without killing plants, without killing earthworms, without harming pets or people. They just attack and kill pests -- as a matter of fact over 250 different species of pests -- from Japanese beetle grubs to fleas to weevils to borers."Kluttz continues, "We're also working now with a nematode to kill fire ants. We're doing some field tests next week on that nematode to see if it will do what the grower tells us."Further, he explains exactly what a nematode is: "Nematodes are microscopic roundworms. You can't even see these little organisms, yet they can control so many things and do such a good job. Those are the ones we sell in multiples of millions."Nematodes can be used by everyone from the basic backyard gardener to large-scale organic farmers. "In fact, I just got an order from one of the major gardens down in Charleston, South Carolina. They're treating three acres. He's buying 73 million. And just this morning I got a call from a fellow who has a small yard with some Japanese beetle problems and he's buying a million."Klutzz's favorite beneficial insects are the lady beetles or what you and I call ladybugs. While we were talking he brought out a big jar filled with 9,000 (or so) of the familiar bright orange beetles. "We sell these in lots as small as 2,000. We also sell these to garden centers (on a card in a net bag with release instructions) and hardware stores and things like that -- they can store them in a refrigerator and sell to their customers on the spot. Fortunately we can store lady beetles in the refrigerator for an extended period of time."With beneficial insects, it's always better to make small periodic releases of the beneficials rather than make one or two gigantic releases and think that your problems are over forever. So with lady beetles, you can buy a quantity and release some of them and wait a week and release some more, and wait a week and release some more. Occasionally, at least every week to 10 days, you need to give them a misting of water to keep them from dehydrating in the refrigerator. Although lady beetles are scavenger beetles and will feed on a variety of pest insects -- mostly insects that have soft bodies such as aphids, white fly, thrips -- what we really sell the lady beetles for is to control aphids."Kluttz adds, smiling, "Lady beetles are user friendly and pretty much the emblem for the biological control movement."Talking to Kluttz is a little like a biology lesson but a lot more entertaining, and you come away with a lot of practical information. He continues talking about using the lady beetles to control aphids. "Aphids are generally the first pests to arrive in the spring and the last to leave in the fall. And aphids will double their populations every three to four days without having to mate first. The word for an insect being pregnant is gravid. Often you will find a female aphid who is gravid and the offspring inside her are gravid. She will give birth to pregnant offspring. That's why populations can increase almost overnight, it seems.The biological control movement, Klutzz says, "pretty much began in this country in the late 1800s with the release of an Australian species of lady beetle called the Vedalia beetle which was used at that time to control a major infestation of the cottony-cushion scale which was threatening the entire citrus industry of California. The entomologists of the day scoured the planet looking for a natural enemy and isolated the Vedalia beetle in Australia, imported approximately $1500 worth and saved the industry."Kluttz describes one of his current projects. "We're working on one (project) now up at the research station in Fletcher, South Carolina, where they grow tomatoes for seed. Back in the early spring, there were so many white fly in the greenhouses, it was just incredible. We're working on that now by controlling them with a parasite called the white fly parasite (encarsia formosa). We're releasing 24,000 up there this week. Week before last we released 12,000 and the week before that 12,000. If you saw all those white flies, it's kind of eerie -- almost psychedelic," he says with a broad grin.With clients in the region, Kluttz will sometimes go out to the facility and inspect in order to help the client with treatment. "Well, I go in and do scouting, let 'em know what their pests are, and what I think we should be doing to control those pests, the number of releases -- and other things they should be doing, like keeping the weeds down around their facilities."What about one of the big problems in the summer, fleas? "Well the beneficial nematodes will control fleas. They attack the larvae and the adults. The nematodes work by entering the insect, generally through the spriacals (breathing tubes) their anus or their mouth or they'll penetrate a sidewall, and begin drinking the fluids of the particular insect they've invaded. And at the same time they release a toxin from their own intestines which further speeds up the killing of the particular insect. Then they reproduce in the empty body cavity of the insect and millions and millions of nematodes will hatch or emerge from that body cavity seeking other pest insects in which to do the same thing."The rewards of working with beneficial insects are many, according to Kluttz. "One of the greatest things is to go in and release the beneficial insects and get instant control. People just cannot believe it and wonder why they haven't been doing this all along and start cussing the pesticides because it was needless to use them. And they think about what they've done by using the pesticides over all the years. That's a trip, too."But has he ever encountered beneficial insects that didn't do what they were supposed to do? "Occasionally," he admits. "It's far better to release the beneficial insects to control whatever pests you happen to be fighting at the time when those populations of pests are low to medium in numbers."We do a lot of mail order. And someone from somewhere else will call -- a lot of times people will underestimate the number of pests they have -- sometimes out of embarrassment that they've let it go this long. They're now in trouble and they need an instant remedy but they don't want to use pesticides. We send them what we think should control the pests, and we don't send enough. It's a letdown, it's a disappointment, when we don't achieve the kind of control they need and that we want to give them."He continues thoughtfully, "This is a living organism and we're fighting a living organism. It's not like you picked up a can of pesticide and went "pshsst." It's not an exact science. A lot of people also think that because they have pest insects and because they've ordered beneficials that all they need to do is release the beneficials once or twice and the problem is solved."Fighting pests involves a variety of things, not just one thing. Also a lot of people don't understand that it takes biological pest control longer to control their pests. They're so accustomed to spraying and watching the insects fall down right before their very eyes. With biological insect control, for instance lady beetles, they're predators -- they must attack each pest insect one-on-one, kill it and consume it. And you may have thousands and thousands of pests."A lot of people believe that by using the beneficials, that we kill every pest within a mile of where they're released. It's a physical impossibility to kill all the pests, nor do you want to kill all the pests. What we're trying to do is manage their pests so they're not experiencing great economic or aesthetic loss."The future of using beneficial insects is promising. "Lookin' real good, looking real good," Kluttz says, nodding his head. "Many people are changing their thoughts and getting away from pesticides because of the environmental health problems that have occurred. One of the other most important things is the uncanniness that pests have of building resistance to even the strongest pesticides. Sure, we can go out there and kill the weaker pests, but the stronger pests -- there are always strong ones that will survive and they will pass the gene down to their offspring. So in fact you're creating super beetles or super pests that even the strongest pesticides won't affect. That's why it's real important for people who are pro-pesticides to really cut back on those pesticides and use them judiciously, use the right pesticide for the pest that they have."Don't go in there with a broad spectrum pesticide and try to kill everything. The first thing you do in that instance is you kill your beneficials, which leaves your crop wide open to the pests. You have to spray more and more pesticides so in fact you're on a chemical treadmill and can't get off. The more you use the more you have to use."He continues, "You see, if you cut back on the pesticides, that encourages the naturally occurring beneficials which is really your first line of defense. Then we can supplement the natural ones with the ones you can get here.Can beneficials be used against more urban pests like cockroaches? "No one that I know grows any of the beneficials to control urban type pests. Now the nematodes will, in fact, control termites which is an urban pest. Of course, every insect has an insect that feeds on it, so there are beneficials that would control cockroaches. But remember, to grow a beneficial you've got to grow the host -- so you've got to grow cockroaches. With the fly parasites, we had to grow flies. So we had millions and millions of common houseflies in cages. Raising flies, even though it's a laboratory type situation, is fairly nasty." He grins again."To a degree we do have things that would help the average person in cities and towns, but basically we focus on pests of agriculture and horticulture. The lion's share of our business is commercial greenhouses and nurseries."He searches the market for high quality insects that are affordable with companies that will drop ship those insects to his customers. "So I can get high quality, fresh insects to my people so they can get 'em into the field," he says. Future plans include building an insectory of his own, probably in the North Carolina mountains.But bugs aren't just business to Jim Kluttz, as he talks about what he likes most about his job: "The fact that I'm making a contribution, that everyone that orders insects has decided in their own mind to cut back on pesticides or not use pesticides. So this is my contribution to the planet. I do something that I feel that matters."SIDE BAR #1 Jim Kluttz has beneficial insects or other biological solutions for many pest problems. Here is short list of examples:*FLY PARASITES(Beneficial Insect Company offers various species.) Fly eggs will hatch into a larva, commonly called a maggot. Before the maggot becomes an adult fly, a little pupae case will form over it -- like a small grain of brown rice. The fly parasite attacks and kills the fly in this stage.*BACTIMOS MOSQUITO DUNKSControls mosquito and black fly larvae without killing birds, fish, or other water organisms and without contaminating the water. Each briquet will treat 100 square feet for 30 days. It floats on the water and the mosquitoes eat it and their stomachs explode. The mosquitoes are not building up a resistance so it's working year after year.*TRICHOGRAMMA PARASITESThe trichogramma is an egg parasite that attacks the eggs of pest worms and caterpillars. Anatomically, it is a wasp just like the paper wasps that fly around the eves in the summer. But it takes approximately 45 adults lined up head to tail to equate to an inch.*GREEN LACEWINGSome insects we have to grow per order, we can't store them like we can lady beetles and the mantids. The green lacewing -- we sell the larvae which is an alligator shaped little insect that is a general predator of soft bodied type pest insects.*PREDATORY MITESWe ship 'em in bran. These predatory mites feed on spider mites, a major problem for both greenhouses and backyard gardeners.*PIRATE BUGA lot of people who grow roses and day lilies have problems with thrips. This is a little insect that flies and will attack not only thrips but spider mites.*CHINESE PRAYING MANTIDSEach case will hatch from 50 to 400 baby praying mantids (or mantises). Mantids are general predators that will feed on anything of a size they can catch. The Chinese Praying Mantid is the largest on the planet and was introduced from China in the late 1800s as a beneficial insect.For more info, call Jim Kluttz at Beneficial Insect Company, 803-547-2301.

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