Brandon researcher's 'good bugs' set to battle 'bad bugs' at garden centre
Environmentally friendly alternative to chemical pesticides to get real-world test
Bugs and other insects may give some the creepy-crawlies, and to others, maybe they're just plain annoying. But to a researcher at Brandon's Assiniboine Community College, they're useful, as long as they can eat other pests and help reduce pesticides in greenhouses.
Since 2015, Poonam Singh, an instructor and researcher at the western Manitoba college, has been studying the effectiveness of using "good bugs" to control "bad bugs," or pests, that injure and sometimes kill plants in greenhouses.
Now her research has been expanded to the real world.
"When it comes to nurseries, their biggest challenge is that they have very high species diversity and very high density greenhouse plantings ... and an ever changing mix of crops," she said. "This kind of gave us a foundation that these bios work here in Manitoban growing conditions."
The practice of using bugs — or biological control agents as they are known in the industry — is already used in some greenhouses that grow vegetables. But many flower and shrub nurseries still use chemicals to kill pests as the cheapest way to protect plants from damage.
Insects like aphids, mites, flies and other pests have long been a concern for growers, wreaking havoc by damaging and even killing plants or spreading diseases.
Singh started researching biologically controlling them after they became an issue at ACC's greenhouse. The problem with pesticides, according to Singh, is that they will kill all insects, not just the bad ones.
"In a greenhouse, the environment, the temperature, the relative humidity, everything is so much in control, the pests like to stay there and complete its cycle and reproduce," said Singh. "Outside, they will have their natural enemies in nature. But inside greenhouses, it's difficult to find them so you have to bring those natural bugs."
Her research, using mites and other insects available commercially in Canada, was a success in the small ACC greenhouse, so it was time to test it in the industry. Starting this year, she and her students partnered with Shelmerdine Garden Centre in Headlingley to test it out.
Headingley greenhouse partners with Singh and students
Chad Labbe, Shelmerdine's co-owner and vice-president, was eager to get on board.
"We've used biologicals in the past ... or tinkered with them ... and this year we tried to go almost 100% into the biologicals program," he said. "It's been a learning experience on both ends."
With two acres of greenhouse space and hundreds of thousands of plants, Singh and about a dozen students have been planning and working closely with Labbe and his staff.
"Annuals can post a lot of challenges for insects, in the sense that we grow so many different varieties that it's a bit of a buffet for several different kinds of insects to come into play," said Labbe, who added that he's enjoyed working on the project and would consider using bugs to fight bugs in the future again.
Singh hopes more greenhouses and nurseries get on board.
"They're very effective, they're very safe and they're environmentally friendly ... and they're very specific to a targeted species," said Singh.
"These days, customers are looking for clean and pesticide and chemical free products," she said. "It helps growers produce those products to meet customer demand."