- Author: Ben Faber
TYPES OF NATURAL ENEMIES
Parasites, pathogens, and predators are the primary groups used in biological control of insects and mites (Table 1). Most parasites and pathogens, and many predators, are highly specialized and attack a limited number of closely related pest species. Learn how to recognize natural enemies by consulting resources such as the Natural Enemies Handbook and the Natural Enemies Gallery.
A parasite is an organism that lives and feeds in or on a host. Insect parasites can develop on the inside or outside of the host's body. Often only the immature stage of the parasite feeds on the host. However, adult females of certain parasites (such as many wasps that attack scales and whiteflies) feed on and kill their hosts, providing an easily overlooked but important source of biological control in addition to the host mortality caused by parasitism.
Although the term “parasite” is used here, true parasites (e.g., fleas and ticks) do not typically kill their hosts. Species useful in biological control, and discussed here, kill their hosts; they are more precisely called “parasitoids.”
Most parasitic insects are either flies (Order Diptera) or wasps (Order Hymenoptera). Parasitic wasps occur in over three dozen Hymenoptera families. For example, Aphidiinae (a subfamily of Braconidae) attack aphids. Trichogrammatidae parasitize insect eggs. Aphelinidae, Encyrtidae, Eulophidae, and Ichneumonidae are other groups that parasitize insect pests. It's important to note that these tiny to medium-sized wasps are incapable of stinging people. The most common parasitic flies are the typically hairy Tachinidae. Adult tachinids often resemble house flies. Their larvae are maggots that feed inside the host.
Natural enemy pathogens are microorganisms including certain bacteria, fungi, nematodes, protozoa, and viruses that can infect and kill the host. Populations of some aphids, caterpillars, mites, and other invertebrates are sometimes drastically reduced by naturally occurring pathogens, usually under conditions such as prolonged high humidity or dense pest populations. In addition to a naturally occurring disease outbreak (epizootic), some beneficial pathogens are commercially available as biological or microbial pesticides. These include Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt, entomopathogenic nematodes, and granulosis viruses. Additionally, some microorganism by-products, such as avermectins and spinosyns are used in certain insecticides; but applying these products is not considered to be biological control.
Predators kill and feed on several to many individual prey during their lifetimes. Many species of amphibians, birds, mammals, and reptiles prey extensively on insects. Predatory beetles, flies, lacewings, true bugs (Order Hemiptera), and wasps feed on various pest insects or mites. Most spiders feed entirely on insects. Predatory mites that feed primarily on pest spider mites include Amblyseius spp., Neoseiulus spp., and the western predatory mite, Galendromus occidentalis.
When resident natural enemies are insufficient, their populations can sometimes be increased (augmented) through the purchase and release of commercially available beneficial species. However, there has been relatively little research on releasing natural enemies in gardens and landscapes. Releases are unlikely to provide satisfactory pest control in most situations. Some marketed natural enemies are not effective. Many natural enemies are generalist predators and are cannibalistic and feed indiscriminately on pest and beneficial species, thereby reducing their effectiveness.
Only a few natural enemies can be effectively augmented in gardens and landscapes. For example, entomopathogenic nematodes can be applied to control certain tree-boring and lawn-feeding insects. Convergent lady beetles (Hippodamia convergens) purchased in bulk through mail order, stored in a refrigerator, and released in very large numbers at intervals can temporarily control aphids; however, lady beetles purchased through retail outlets are unlikely to be sufficient in numbers and quality to provide control.
Successful augmentation generally requires advanced planning, biological expertise, careful monitoring, optimal release timing, patience, and situations where certain levels of pests and damage can be tolerated. Situations where pests or damage are already abundant are not good opportunities for augmentation.
A classic example of poor timing for augmentative release of predatory mites for control of broad mite in coastal lemon or persea mite in avocado is right now. Pest populations for the most part have soared and releasing predatory mites is little help. Predatory mites need to be releases into a small growing population, so in both of these cases it would have been better to start small, frequent releases early and throughout the spring to knock their populations back.