Nursery and greenhouse

Harness beneficial insects for easy, comprehensive pest control in your greenhouse or nursery

October 02, 2023

Harness beneficial insects for easy, comprehensive pest control in your greenhouse or nursery

As greenhouse and nursery growers seek more sustainable and effective ways to manage pests, high input costs, environmental concerns and increasing consumer demand for local and organic products, beneficial insects are rapidly growing in popularity as a pest-management tool in controlled environment agriculture.

In fact, beneficial insects are one of the fastest-growing crop protection segments in North America because of growing consumer concern over their health and the environment.

“Indoor agriculture is more intensive in terms of how many crops are produced in a short period of time, and the tolerance for damage is much less, especially in ornamental horticulture,” said Moriah LaChapell, Wilbur-Ellis strategic account advisor. “Incorporating pest control solutions that benefit both the grower and the consumer is key with the current economics of greenhouse and nursery production.”

By providing natural insect pest control with fewer pesticides, beneficial insects are an excellent resource for integrated pest management (IPM) programs—and they can be used in virtually any growing environment from row crops to indoor agriculture and ornamental horticulture.

“However, some farmers have been reluctant to embrace beneficial insects because they may not understand their full range of benefits, cost-effectiveness and proper management techniques. Sharing this information can help narrow the knowledge gap and promote optimal outcomes,” LaChapell said.

Why consider beneficial insects for indoor environments?

Ease of management
Beneficial insects offer an easy management solution in controlled environments. Greenhouses and indoor farms provide consistent temperature, humidity and lighting that allow these insects to thrive. In enclosed spaces, growers can also conveniently release and closely monitor the effects of beneficial insects, making management decisions in a timely manner to precisely control harmful pests.


Time savings

The quick turnaround in greenhouse production means that every minute not able to care for or harvest plants is money lost.

“Conventional chemistries can have re-entry interval (REI) periods of 24 hours or more, and that’s 24 hours that growers are unable to enter the greenhouse and get back to work,” said Lydia Fields, a Wilbur-Ellis expert. Meanwhile, beneficial insects, as well as biological-based pesticides, usually have zero to four-hour REIs and no pre-harvest interval.


Consistent, targeted protection

Beneficial insects are a more consistent pest control option and are mainly used preventatively rather than as a control once an infestation has occurred. These powerhouse insects remain present and effective in indoor settings longer than sprayed pest control methods—which have varying residual efficacy.

By targeting only the pests that are harmful to the plant in production, beneficial insects also offer growers a tool that boosts biodiversity and encourages other non-harmful insects and bacteria to remain.

Banker plants are a useful tool for growers to maintain predatory insect populations and further extend the efficacy of beneficials. For example, the purple flash pepper creates a welcoming environment and food source for beneficial insects used against thrips.


Reduced pesticide use and resistance

The short life cycles of harmful insects combined with the quick turnover of plant stock in greenhouse and nursery production make it difficult to stay on top of pests and ensure applications are eliminating entire populations. The short generations and large populations of insects lend themselves to the development of pesticide resistance.

“With beneficial insects, there is no risk of resistance, as insects cannot develop resistance to being eaten,” explained Fields.

Reducing pesticide use can also benefit plant, grower and employee health, especially in small spaces like greenhouses or vertical farms.


A great pest control companion

Implementing beneficial insects can be a great addition or complement to biopesticides, organic products, and a traditional IPM program. They are useful, effective tools for preventing pest infestations before they even happen and for controlling low pest populations before they become a bigger problem.

“In some situations, you can have a beneficial insect and a miticide on the same crop, and the two can work together,” said LaChapell. “One product I work with is Sultan® miticide, and it can work in conjunction with a predatory mite called persimilis, providing growers with even more comprehensive pest control options.”


Helps meet consumer demands

Lastly, today’s consumers are increasingly selecting products and foods that are grown with natural solutions and in a way that is more environmentally sustainable. Beneficial insects decrease or eliminate the need to spray pesticides that may be perceived as undesirable.

“Including beneficial insects in plant production broadens a grower’s ability to have a good place in the market. A lot of big box stores don’t allow plants in their facilities that have been treated with certain pesticides, so changing up your pest control methods might open new channels for your products,” said Fields.


So, you’re curious about using beneficial insects. What’s next?

In summary, beneficial insects offer indoor growers numerous benefits as an effective pest management solution. Still, growers may be resistant to changing their practices and/or concerned about the cost or accessibility of beneficial insects. Other challenges such as choosing which species to use and how to manage different life stages of pests can be addressed by trained industry experts like LaChapell and Fields.

“The cost of using beneficial insects can be very comparable to conventional pest control methods depending on the goals you have for your operation,” said LaChapell. “They can also be incorporated over time.”

Beneficial insects are also simple to acquire and set up. Experts like LaChapell and Fields can help determine if beneficial insects are a good option for you, identify which insects to use and advise how to incorporate them into your current pest management program. From there you can order from a reputable insectary like Beneficial Insectary. And once you are set up with an insectary, you can enroll in a subscription service to receive beneficial insects on a regular basis.

“Planning ahead is important to ensure that beneficial insects effectively solve the problem at hand and crop production remains profitable,” said LaChapell. “If you plan to incorporate other conventional or biological controls, be sure to ask questions before you spray crop protection products in conjunction with insects to avoid harming the beneficial insects you already invested in.”

Remaining vigilant in scouting for pests and layering different beneficials at the same time helps ensure comprehensive, cost-effective pest control. Different predatory insects attack different life stages of pests. Extension services can be a great resource for information on commonly used beneficial insects and their uses. For example, Amblyseius swirskii eat soft-bodied arthropods in their nymph stage, meaning another beneficial insect would be required to control them in the adult stage.


Lean on trusted experts

As you embark on your journey using beneficial insects don’t be afraid to ask questions and learn from others in the industry.

“There are many people that give various pieces of advice, but that’s why having a trusted advisor, like Wilbur-Ellis, is so important,” said LaChapell. “I also tell growers to do their own research to expand their knowledge. They should connect with an extension service or university or attend field days and trade shows.”

If you are interested in learning more about beneficial insects or are interested in implementing them in your nursery or greenhouse operation reach out to your local Wilbur-Ellis location: