PROSSER, Wash. – For every crop, there are good-guy bugs and bad-guy bugs.
Take Washington’s prized crop of wine grapes. Now, consider the anagrus wasp and the leafhopper.
Going by their names, the wasp sounds like the scarier insect, right? But the grape leafhopper can actually do a great deal of damage. Large numbers of leafhoppers suck sap out of grape leaves. And that means less fruit.
Entomologist David James says the anagrus wasp is smaller than a pinhead. And it can easily control one of Washington grape growers’ main pests.
“It certainly doesn’t attack anybody, except leafhopper eggs,” James said.
Grape leafhoppers are some of the main pests for eastern Washington viticulturists.
Using nature to fight pests is nothing new to agriculture. But James says his study couldn’t have happened previously when more broad-spectrum insecticides were in use. These types of chemicals take no prisoners, killing everything in their path.
“Vineyards and viticulture in Washington now is at the stage where we have pretty good control of the pests that we do have,” he said. “The amount of chemical that’s being applied is far less than it was, say 10 years ago. And so we’re getting into the stage where we can make things more sustainable.”
Now that grape-growing season is over, Washington State University researchers are just beginning to catalog numerous insects that live in and around vineyards.
James is working to discover what plants will work best to attract beneficial insects while not harming vineyard growth. He said there are hundreds of plants could work. It’s just a matter of finding the best ones. Native plants that work in eastern Washington won’t work in Oregon.
“Groups of insects do different things, or individuals within a group, so we need to know that we’re attracting the right beneficials,” James said.
Researchers will experiment with various native flowering plants in and around vineyards. James said vineyards could also act as a conservation area for butterflies and native bees, whose habitats are being destroyed.
“This is a way for viticulture to actually provide some habitat for some threatened species of native bees and butterflies,” he said.
Attracting these types of beneficial insects will also help with pollination. As nature works its magic, James believes, eventually, this process could eliminate the need for pesticides. At least that’s the goal. He said this could save vineyards money in the long run.
“Biological control is free,” he said. “This type of conservation biological control means we’re serving and encouraging the beneficials that are there. You’re not going out and buying predators or parasites. You have to spend more time monitoring, perhaps, to make sure those beneficials are there, but it’s going to cost much less than buying and applying pesticides.”
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