Insects…The Good, The Bad, The Ugly
For most, the word “insect” is considered synonymous with “pest”, but if we explore the entire insect ecosystem, we quickly recognize that there’s more to the story. Be it influence by media, societal norms, or cultural indoctrination, most of us cringe at the thought of creepy crawlers residing, reproducing, and resting on crops that will eventually make their way onto grocery store shelves, but in the vein of giving thanks during the month of November, we felt it would be appropriate to paint a clearer picture of the beneficial bugs to be thankful for. Spoiler alert — if it weren’t for beneficial insects, we would not only have reduced crop yield, but we would also be faced with an even larger presence of detrimental pests.
Can’t We Just Spray Pesticides on Every Crop?
We’ve all heard the mind-blowing statistics around how much damage is caused each year by pests. In the apple and almond industries alone, insects are responsible for annual crop losses valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars. From the consumer’s perspective, pests like the codling moth or the navel orangeworm can result in not only price increases, but blemished and even potentially hazardous fruits, veggies, and nuts as well. Most of us quickly jump on the “let’s just spray all of our crops with pesticides” bandwagon at the thought of a pest chewing on our food before us or laying its eggs inside of a food that could make its way into your kitchen, but this mindset is one that isn’t sustainable.
The National Pesticide Information Center estimates that only about 5% of insects pose a real problem to farmers. This begs the question, “are we making the right choice to spray everything with pesticides if we only need to target 5% of insects?” and even more importantly, “what are the consequences of eliminating the 95% of non-problematic insects as collateral damage”?
Pesticides, although an effective solution for many pests, also bring to the table another set of concerns. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) even has an entire department dedicated to assessing pesticide risks, which not only includes potential environmental risks, but potential harmful effects to humans as well. Over the past few decades, research and data surrounding the sustainability and potential risks of pesticide use has grown exponentially, resulting in not only regulatory changes, but a better understanding that simply “soaking everything in pesticides” is not a long-term or viable solution.
Understanding How Bugs Can Be Beneficial
With every villain, there is usually a hero lurking nearby and when it comes to problem-insects in the agricultural world, this mantra also stands true. The first aspect of recognizing beneficial insects is understanding the three categories that these natural heroes can fall into.
Parasitoid Insects – While the term parasite typically comes with negative connotations, this isn’t necessarily the case in agriculture. Large groups of species like parasitoid wasps thrive amongst the presence of more than 200 host insect species (many of which are considered detrimental to agricultural operations). Although the process in which parasitoids help control pests may make you squirm, the value that they provide to farmers is well-worth any amount of cringe that they may cause. The lifecycle of parasitoids involves the female laying her eggs on a host or sometimes injecting the eggs into the host for incubation. As the eggs mature and eventually hatch, the larvae feed off of the host, typically resulting in the death of the host. With an estimated 10% of insects being classified as parasitoids, the blanket pesticide approach can quickly be identified as potentially being more harmful than beneficial.
Pollinators – A category that most are familiar with, but perhaps haven’t considered the environmental and supply chain impact of life without them. According to the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, roughly 75% of flowering plants globally and 35% of the globe’s food crops rely on pollinators for reproduction. It is also estimated that “one out of every three bites of feed we eat exists because of pollinators.”
Statistics like these should make anyone reconsider how quickly they opt to coat everything in pesticides considering that they [pesticides] typically lack the ability to only target “non-pollinators”. Based on information released by the US National Park Service, the population of pollinators is declining globally at an alarming rate and the commercial use of pesticides are a contributing factor to this loss. This fact, paired with published information by the US Forest Service stating “without pollinators, the human race and all of the earth’s terrestrial ecosystems would not survive. ” should be enough to motivate anyone to support steps being taken to reduce pesticide use and mitigate pollinator population decline.
Predators – One of the most popular — and effective — methods of biological pest control, the use of predatory insects is exactly what it sounds like. Oftentimes, farmers will deploy tens of thousands of specifically selected “predatory” insects to help control the population of problematic pests. One of the most well-known insects that is used for its appetite for pests like aphids is the ladybug. Ladybugs are typically a welcome sight for agricultural operations, along with lacewings, many species of spiders, and even mantises. As with pollinators and parasitoids, most pesticides unfortunately target beneficial predatory insects as well.
How Can Farmers Reduce the Use of Preventative Pesticides?
A large portion of pesticide use is done preventatively, which may seem effective in the moment, but as we mentioned, is far from sustainable on a long-term basis. One of the methods that commercial farmers have begun implementing is the use of data collection and analytics. This approach allows agricultural operations to detect a change in pest populations and act accordingly, instead of preventatively using pesticides when there may not even be a need.
You’re probably thinking to yourself, “Okay, that sounds great, but how am I supposed to efficiently monitor thousands of crops on a regular basis?” Understandable that this would be a concern for anyone in the commercial AG space, but technological advancements in data collection and analytics have finally resolved this concern.
FarmSense, an Ag-tech startup founded by Drs. Keogh, Singh, and Hickle, has developed a ground-breaking, real-time pest monitoring system. This award-winning device is designed to utilize a patented optical detection sensor that allows for automated, real-time insect classification and counting. These devices, which can be spread throughout your grow operation, sync up by creating a mesh network permitting the sharing of data with each other, and ultimately broadcasting the data wirelessly to the farmer’s digital dashboard.
From the FarmSense dashboard, growers can view a timeline visualization of the data and even review heat maps that identify areas of your field where insect pressure is peaking. Additionally, the creative minds behind FarmSense recognized the fast-paced lifestyle of many commercial grow ops, which is why they implemented a built-in notification system for potential problems. Simply program your “insect penetration” threshold and you’ll be notified by the FarmSense system once the threshold has been breached — allowing the farmer to set it and forget it.
Try FarmSense Out for Yourself!
Innovations like the FarmSense system are breaking the barriers of sustainable pest management and prevention techniques in the agricultural industry. This device and the technology behind it has already been the recipient of several awards including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Award, the Vodafone Wireless Innovation Award, and the National Science Foundation Award. Not only can tools like this reduce the need for global pesticide use, but ultimately, can result in higher crop yields at a lower cost, resulting in more food to distribute worldwide.
More information and demo requests can be arranged by contacting FarmSense.