UBC Reports | Vol. 47 | No. 11 | July
New microbial pesticides battle old biological bugs
Researchers are using naturally occurring viruses to fight the
war against greenhouse pests
UBC agricultural sciences Prof. Judy Myers knows that the rising
cost of energy isn't the only thing bugging beleaguered greenhouse
operators. Insect pests that help themselves to valuable crops are
also taking a big bite out of profits.
As part of the new Biological Control Network funded by the Natural
Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, researchers
from across Canada are focusing on developing new microbial pesticides
and techniques to maintain effective biological control in greenhouses.
One of Canada's leading ecologists and a UBC faculty member since
1972, Myers will concentrate on cabbage loopers, caterpillars that
thrive on tomatoes, cucumbers and green peppers. These pests have
a naturally occurring viral disease that can be very effective in
reducing their population.
"By studying the interactions between the disease and the caterpillars
in the greenhouse, we hope to develop an effective, specific and
safe new control procedure," says Myers. "This is a good example
of using basic research in ecology and genetics to solve an applied
Greenhouse production of vegetables and flowers generates approximately
$1.5 billion in annual sales in Canada and employs some 35,000 people.
The industry has been expanding rapidly in the Lower Mainland where
cool summers and mild winters reduce heating and cooling costs.
Industry workers and consumers alike are increasingly concerned
about the use of chemicals in food production. Since crops grown
with few or no pesticides often sell for higher prices, greenhouse
growers in BC have been innovative in adopting pest controls that
are largely biological: predators, parasitoids and microbials. When
new pests arrive, many through international shipments, new biological
control agents have to be found.
The network's research will be carried out over the next five
years and in BC will also involve researchers from Agriculture and
Agrifood Canada, Simon Fraser University and the University of Victoria.
Even with such concentrated effort, however, Myers doubts that the
war on greenhouse pests will ever end.
"I think we can come close, but there's always potential for complications,"
she says. "I'm going to retire in five years, though, and in the
meantime I would really like to find a virus that works."
The network also aims to train students in an effort to establish
Canada as a leader in the area of biological control. One student
who represents the future generation of front-line experts is PhD
candidate Alida Janmaat. Working with Myers, Janmaat is studying
the resistance of cabbage loopers to a bacterial control agent specific
to caterpillars, which doesn't affect other insects that may themselves
be control agents.
In addition to greenhouse pests, the Biological Control Network
is also developing natural biological enemies to control pests that
prey on nursery trees. The interdisciplinary network is headquartered
at the University of Montreal and consists of 42 researchers from
universities and government labs across Canada.