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UBC Reports | Vol. 47 | No. 11 | July 12, 2001

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 problem."

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.


Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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