Archive for the 'Ecology' Category

Stop Garden and Landscape Wars

Owen Dell, author of one of the latest in the …for Dummies series, signed his book Sustainable Landscaping for Dummies and presented a corresponding lecture Monday, March 23rd, 2009 at Patagonia, in Ventura, California.
Ron, and I (from RVI) and a friend, went to the lecture presented by the Ojai Valley Green Coalition and Owen Dell’s County Landscape and Design.
At the event, Owen invited the attending audience of fifty or so assumed professional landscapers and other interested parties to Wake-Up and become part of the country’s and the world’s “Great Wake-Up”. In part, he said, the Great Wake-Up includes the public’s growing awareness of disturbances to the earth’s ecology and a current surge of interest in local and global environments.
Now, then, is the perfect time, Owen projected, for lay gardeners and landscaping professionals to responsibly join in and realize that their local landscaping and gardening projects belong to a larger biome.
Explaining that landscaping projects should be responsibly governed by sustainable designs that are low impact, make use of native or otherwise apropos species, use local, recycled, biodegradable materials, and mirror the disposition of the local and surrounding ecology, Owen used a slide presentation to list a variety additional sustainable landscaping practices.
The author presented evidence that most landscaping and gardening practices currently consist largely of a warlike relationship between plants and people. Providing examples of state and local landscaping absurdities and the misuse of plants like Algerian Ivy, Trumpet Vine, and Box Junipers, the author disgustingly disapproved of these types of inane and inappropriate uses of species that will either obtrusively invade or outgrow areas or need constant and disfiguring trim-jobs. He explained that planting aggressive species that have “genetic destinies” inappropriate to what the individual really wants “the landscape to do” is all too common and ultimately ends in a waste of space, water, energy, and landscaping costs, i.e., ending in a costly war between you and what otherwise should be a an inviting, calming, restorative and regenerative space.
STOP THE WAR! This anti-landscape-war declaration encapsulated the essence of the author’s message: the natural surrounding environment should be used a palette or as an example. He pointed to its lack of need for subsidization or warlike maintenance and to the fact that everything in a typical section of our local natural surroundings (plants, animals, insects, topography, water, temperatures, detritus, and microbes) has a relationship of usefulness, where there is little to no effluent or waste.
His presentation left obvious questions to those in attendance: Does your landscaping or gardening currently reflect the same naturally wise and economical structure and sustainability that your surrounding natural areas present? And, are you planting, planning, or designing with appropriate species and use of space considering both your local and extended environs as well as your own needs?
Owen suggested responsible and creative landscaping utilizing “aesthetics after function”, but he promised you can get both with a little WAKE-UP, some informed observation, contemplation, and a dedication to Stopping Landscape Wars! Above all he gave all of us the directive to “Do something with this information”.
All the other direction you may need consists in knowing the natural dictates of your local biome, a change in perspective, some collaboration with friends, neighbors, and professionals, and, of course, a look through Owen’s new book. -end- March 09 Duke


Everett J. “Deke” Dietrick 1920 – 2008

Everett "Deke" Dietrick

Everett "Deke" Dietrick

Our founding entomologist Everett “Deke” Dietrick died on December 23 at age 88. For over 40 years he mentored many who went on to build successful careers and businesses promoting biocontrol and sustainable agriculture. He did biocontrol research for the University of California, quit when the funding ran out (with a family of five small children including me), and began selling advice as well as growing and selling good bugs. He pioneered both the practice of ecologically based pest management and the insectary industry helping people at all stages on the path away from CCC (conventional chemical control) towards BC by NE (biological control by natural enemies).

Sometimes called the “Father of Commercial Biocontrol”, Deke inspired field advisors to identify markets and insectary teams working for Rincon-Vitova Insectaries, Inc. to innovate mass production systems for beneficials. The goal was often to jumpstart the predators and parasites on vulnerable farms in transition and sometimes to combat a key pest. However, in many situations the main value of the beneficials was to keep farmers from killing them with pesticides. By including releases with monitoring and forecasting, he helped many farmers in over 50 crops in many countries get off of the ‘pesticide treadmill’. He helped entrepreneurs to sell biocontrol in Central America and the Mexican government to establish its network of insectaries. How his work inspired the development of the Soviet biofactories in the Amu-Darya cotton belt is a story in itself. He started D-Vac Company as a separate break-even family business to provide an international scientific standard for sampling arthropods and a tool for applied insect ecologists.

Highly regarded not just by biocontrol researchers and a counter-culture movement of farmers rediscovering organic methods, he was also honored by professionals in the Association of Applied IPM Ecologists that he helped found, and by business people in the Association of Natural Bio-Control Producers. The latter serves the industry that Deke encouraged through decades of sharing of insights and encouragement and watching employees learn, leave and start their own businesses. The insectary business was an economically independent outlet for demonstrating the value of biocontrol. Dietrick saw the Fillmore Insectary, a regional cooperative, as a more sustainable model for providing biocontrol resources to farmers.

Deke sweeping for insects 1993

Deke sweep sampling to monitor beneficial and pest insect populations, 1993

Unlike Robert van den Bosch who published an exposé The Pesticide Conspiracy and Don Dahlston who spoke at public hearings against the malathion bait sprays for Medfly, Dietrick kept a lower profile, concerned about risking an attack on the business. He did spend hours with activists, teaching them enough to ask penetrating questions and speak out. “They were burning the books on biocontrol” was his description of the powerful influence of the pesticide industry. He said that he did what he did because there was nobody else who could do it. He also maintained that he only did things that were fun. Deke’s memoirs (to be published) tell about the mentors who prepared him for this role and the challenges he faced. More by and about him is available at dietrick obituary at

Wearing his trademark white canvas hat shading his twinkling eyes, he was a familiar figure at the Ventura Farmer’s Market and was appreciated by so many around town for his engaging spirit. Contributions in his memory can be sent to the Dietrick Institute for Applied Insect Ecology, PO Box 2506, Ventura, CA 93002 to help edit videos of him teaching in the field. A 501c3 non-profit organization, the institute offers training in ecologically based pest management in recognition of what a legend he is within our field.

Use “Ant Trees” and Scale Hotspots to Grow Lindorus

Releasing Lindorus beetles on a mandarin tree for citrus scale control.

Releasing Lindorus beetles on a mandarin tree for citrus scale control.

Ant trees are what we call trees that ants pick out and work over more than most of the trees in the area so that they become chronic hotspots for homopteran and other pests including scale pests. Take advantage of a scale-infested ant tree by creating a barrier for the ants (see future posts about ant management) and release on the scale. They will produce Lindorus for the whole grove for the season and grow there if they don’t freeze or get disrupted by pesticides. You are unlikely to catch them in the act, but you can tell they’re working by the way they rip up the hard scale covers leaving raggedy edges where they got access to their prey. Green lacewing larvae leave similar signs but not as ragged.

Releases of Lindorus are especially valuable in a biological control programs against citrus red and yellow scale, and purple scale. You cannot afford not to do this when surplus beetles are available at deep discounts. Backgrounders about scale IPM programs are described at: IPM.ucdavis for both Red and Yellow and Purple Scale. Note that the University researchers writing these guidelines refer to Lindorus as Rhyzobius lopanthae. They are similar but distinct genera.

Red Scale on Mandarin (Photo by Dan Papacek)

Red Scale on Mandarin (Photo by Dan Papacek)

We especially appreciate Dan Papacek’s work in citrus. His excellent biocontrol tips and photos like this one can be found at

Florida wax scale on Indian Hawthorns could not be controlled with pesticides, but a report at U of Florida’s site includes Lindorus in an effective program. Check it out here.

Pseudaulacaspis pentagona white peach scale is also a good food for Lindorus. A classic report in the Florida Entomological Society (F.A. Collins and W. H. Whitcomb, 1975). In a more recent report in the same journal, the deleterious effect of “soft pesticides” on Lindorus. We are surprised that, “At one-half the field rate, R. lophanthae [Lindorus] had 43% mortality with insecticidal soap, 63% mortality with imidacloprid, and 46% mortality with fish oil. …the soap and oil were the least toxic of all pesticides tested.” See the full report here.

Rhizoboost and Defensor No Longer OMRI Listed

You may have noticed recently that some previously listed products are no longer on the OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) Products List. This past year, OMRI has been re-reviewing all products on their list for NOP compliance. The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) has recently revised its requirements for products to be approved for use in organic. The new requirements no longer allow the use of some inert ingredients (see full list below). Consequently, OMRI has withdrawn certification of a lot of products. Listing status is renewed annually, and another reason a product may fail to stay on the list is that some companies decide not to pay the listing fee. For companies with a small volume of sales, it can be a lot of money.

Two Rincon-Vitova products no longer listed as of September 2008 are BioStart Rhizoboost and Defensor. Bio-Cat, the manufacturer, is currently working on finding a preservative that will meet the new NOP standards. They haven’t given us a specific time frame, but testing a new formulation will take a few months and getting the products recertified by OMRI will take a few more months after that. We’ll keep you updated on their progress. We will continue to carry these products, but be aware that they are no longer approved for use in USDA certified organic production. If you need an OMRI listed microbial inoculant, we also carry Natural Resources Group’s Activate line of products. Hopefully a new formulation will be approved for organic soon because we have seen the benefits of these products extend beyond improving and maintaining soil biodiversity and promoting balance in the soil foodweb. Rhizoboost is especially helpful for farms in the first year of transition off of fumigated and chemically treated soils before moving the land towards organic certification.

Cucumber plants with and without Rhizoboost.

Cucumber plants grown with and without Rhizoboost.

Squash plants grown with and without Rhizoboost

Squash plants grown with and without Rhizoboost.

Inert ingredients no longer allowed by NOP standards:

acetylated lanolin alcohol
acrylic acid methyl ester, polymer with acrylonitrile and 1,3-butadiene
coumarone-indene resin
manganous oxide
pentaerythritol monostearate
pentaerythritol tetrastearate
polyglyceryl phthalate ester of coconut oil fatty acid
sodium fluoride

Organic: what’s in a name? OMRI vs. WSDA vs. NOP

The Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) reviews applications from companies that want a third-party verification that their product is suitable for use in organic production, processing, or handling according to the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) guidelines. OMRI listing is voluntary and not appearing on the OMRI list doesn’t necessarily mean that the product is not suitable for organic farming. For more information on OMRI listing, see

The Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) also reviews materials and lists ones that they find acceptable. WSDA fee schedule is lower than OMRI, so you may see products listed WSDA Organic.

Producers can self certify that their products meet NOP organic standards. Basically if all the ingredients are from a natural source, the product is NOP. Some artificial chemicals are also acceptable under NOP standards. There are a few products that are natural that are not NOP – for example, strychnine and nicotine. For more information on what is and isn’t allowed by the NOP, refer to the USDA website.

I am in the process of updating Rincon-Vitova Insectaries product descriptions to show whether the product is acceptable for organic use and if it is OMRI or WSDA certified, NOP acceptable, or Natural-Not Regulated (the designation for beneficial insects, microbes or nematodes with no restricted additives).

Getting microbes on your team: Soil food web basics

When I started at Rincon-Vitova in July, I saw a book in the break room called Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web. I’ve been gardening whenever I have the space since I was eight and plants are so interesting to me that I got a biology degree focused on them, but I’d never heard of a soil food web before. I know mostly about the macroscopic parts of a garden ecosystem: dirt, water, plants, and bugs. Of soil microbiology, all that was usually mentioned in my botany classes was the nitrogen-fixing Rhizobium bacteria and mycorrhizae, the fungi that help plant roots reach farther and absorb more. Books and websites I read to further my hobby talked about the negatives of soil biology – nematodes, wilts, damping off. This looked like an interesting change of pace. So I picked up the book and started reading.

The part of the soil food web that you can see – the bugs and earthworms around a plant’s roots – rely on an entire microscopic world of bacteria, fungi, nematodes, and protozoa. You’ve probably heard about the qualities of good soil: dark, moist, full of organic matter and earthworms. Besides being able to hold water well, this soil supports life. Land that’s been used for intensive farming and land that has recently been developed is missing this key living component. This is part of the reason why home gardeners are seen fertilizing their lawns and battling fungal diseases regularly. Dirt with no life in it doesn’t support life very well.

The microbes in soil can help plants in a few different ways. I mentioned mycorrhizae earlier. They are fungi that evolved a handy symbiosis with plant roots. The roots secrete simple sugars at the root hairs. In exchange for this food, the mycorrhizal fungi pass water and nutrients to the plant. Of course, plants can absorb nutrients and water without the fungi, but the fungi increase the amount and range of stuff the roots can absorb. Besides mycorrhizae, there are microbes that help break down decaying material and unlock the nutrients, microbes that bind soil together into water-holding clumps, microbes that release chemicals that stimulate plant growth, and microbes that protect the plants from other microbes. The last category is one that many gardeners probably notice without realizing it. Without the defense of beneficial microbes, plants are vulnerable to root-knot nematodes and a whole slew of fungal diseases. There are a few ways gardeners can help out these microscopic workers. Incorporating compost, manure, or other organic matter into the soil can give the microorganisms already there a moist and comfy home, as well as a food source. If a lot of the microbes have been killed off, they can be replenished with a well brewed compost tea. Commercial inoculants of specific species are also available. There are many facets of a health soil food web. As I learn more about the soil food web, I’ll share it with you.

Organic Methods Could Help Rescue Honeybees

Effects of pesticides on Apis mellifera, the European honeybee, is at the top of the agenda of the new California Apiary Board appointed by the Secretary of Food and Agriculture. With the spread of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), this is an extremely urgent matter to investigate. The nutritional health of the bees is also an obvious factor that might relate to CCD. This season being so dry (witness the extensive wildfires), there isn’t as much forage for the bees. Fewer summer wildflowers (and less pollen) decrease winter food reserves, which may contribute to bee die off. Corn and soybean pollen offer little nutrition for bees.

However, arthropod pests also decimate bees, probably more so when they are weakened by pesticide exposure and poor nutrition. Bee pests include varroa mites, tracheal/external mites, small hive beetles, wax moths, ants, and also other bees, wasps, bee lice, dragonflies, spiders, predatory bugs, cockroaches, earwigs and termites. As a hobby-beekeeper with an avid interest in biological pest control, I would like to recommend that the new Board look closer at the non-toxic biological controls that may protect bees from insect and mite pests. Here are some examples:

Varroa mites have been reduced with insect eating fungi (entomopathogenic). Tests by USDA with a particular strain of Metarhizium anisopliae, showed good reduction of the varroa mite with no apparent harm to the bees. Follow up studies were done with another strain that was not effective. The price for treating a hive looks like $1-$2 per hive which seems competitive for organic. Currently there is no commercial supply in US. There are producers in India that can ship to US. Production is simple on cooked rice. This fungus is used in huge quantities in North Africa to control the desert locust, and is called green muscle after the green fuzzy spores sprouting from the dead insects.

Conidiobolus coronatus is a gossamer, phantom fungus, quite unlike anything you have ever seen before. It eats a lot of soft-bodied insects but not bees (hymenoptera). It seems to be good at reducing varroa mite, hive beetle, wax moth and termite. This product is only developmental, not sold as a control. However, it is sold as an inoculant for the hive. Powdered sugar helps. A screened bottom board with a sticky plastic sheet traps mites for monitoring.

Tracheal Mite can be controlled with menthol or a combination of thymol, eucalyptus and menthol. Some trials with smoke from eucalyptus or citrus leaves showed promise for this strategy. Grease patties and powdered sugar work well. Some predator mite may be found that would live in the hive and feed on the pest mites – Hypoaspis was tried without good results.

The small hive beetle Athina tumida, North America’s newest bee keeping pest, was first discovered in Florida in the spring of 1998. The above fungi are possibilities for the larvae in the hive. The larvae drop to the soil to pupate where you can treat with insect eating nematodes, such as Heterorhabditis bacteriophora (Hb). This nematode is commonly used to control white grubs in lawns. A suspension of the nematodes is sprayed on the ground around the hive and watered in.

Wax moth larvae eat the comb in weak hives or stored frames. Trichogramma, a minute parasitic wasp lays its eggs in moth eggs and the wasp larva eats the moth egg. Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), a bacteria that makes caterpillars sick, can be sprayed on comb before it is stored, though it is not currently registered for this use. Light traps can reduce the adult moths in storerooms.

Ants can be excluded (along with roaches, earwigs and termites) with water or oil traps on the legs of the hives. A bait of boric acid, sugar and water, placed in plastic bait stations around the hive, will be taken back to the colony where it will knock down the colony. AntPro is the best of the bait dispensers.

Roaches and earwigs are attracted to yeasty baits like beer into mechanical traps. Slug Saloon with powdered beer bait traps earwigs and sow bugs as well as slugs. To make a roach trap, coat the inside neck of a pint jar with petroleum jelly and bait with a small piece of white bread moistened with beer.

I would like to see organic protocols for beekeeping be a top priority, which is a big challenge with invading pests. Of course a well-designed hive, good forage, and supplemental feeding gives the bees a chance to take care of themselves. When pests and diseases show up, beekeepers need access to knowledge about natural, integrated treatments that don’t stress the bees. The appointment of the new bee board shows the importance for California agricultural of honeybees for pollinating, especially almonds. Do you have other angles on bee problems, tips, suggestions, or questions? I look forward to hearing from everyone interested in organic beekeeping.




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