Cotton Links


Smart Insect Pest
Strategies Pay Off

By Peter Ellsworth
Maricopa, Arizona

• B.S. in entomology, University of New Hampshire.
• M.S. in entomology, University of Missouri.
• Ph.D. in entomology (minor: Crop Science), North Carolina State University.
• Full specialist (Extension/Research split) & State IPM Coordinator, University of Ariz.,
  Maricopa Ag Center.
• Director, Arizona Pest Management Center.

I grew up in Longmeadow, Mass., in the Connecticut River Valley right on the border of that state. It was a very historic town, with a large “green” running down its center where kids used to play pickup games of football or have the occasional rumble. Agriculture was very small in this suburban existence, but included potatoes in the fertile river bottom, dairy and wrapper tobacco grown under cheesecloth shade structures and stored in tobacco barns that were constant targets for tagging by our football archrival, East Longmeadow.

I was a typical boy with skinned knees and the occasional broken bone. Except for one thing. I was the kid maybe some remember who often trotted through the meadow flinging a net, jar or can at just about anything that flew or hovered over a flower blossom long enough to be caught. I caught the bug for bugs very early.

On the surface, none of this prepared me for what I do today. With a first-class education in entomology and good early work experiences – curating the University of New Hampshire entomological collection, stomping around marshes controlling mosquitoes, doing inspections in the food service industry for the largest industrial pest control company in St. Louis and managing the North Carolina State University insectary – I thought I was ready for anything in entomology. I never thought I’d have to go to war.

When I arrived in Arizona as Integrated Pest Management specialist, stationed at the University of Arizona’s largest agricultural center, I thought I would be doing things to help farmers grow their crops. I didn’t realize I was entering a war zone! Now as I look back, I can hardly believe my naïveté! Cotton producers had just come off one of the worst pink bollworm outbreaks in history, averaging more than 12 sprays and still suffering huge losses. My arrival was also greeted by the introduction of the B-biotype of the sweetpotato whitefly in Arizona, which by 1992 had swept across the state and laid waste to cotton, melon and vegetable fields everywhere.

So at the risk of drawing out an incomplete and imperfect military analogy, indulge me while I wonder whether my schooling and experiences would have been better spent at West Point and in ROTC. Farmers are managing a “conflict,” preventing terrorism in their sovereignty. IPM is the science-based standard for managing pests to meet economic, environmental and human health goals.

Thousands of generals implement their plans, calling on their weapons: Intruder, Assail, Carbine, Hero, Ambush, Payload, Cruiser, WideStrike, Ammo and the list goes on! The best of generals, though, know that the time to use these weapons is only when really needed and only after a complete and integrated approach.

IPM relies on prevention of enemy incursion by building walls (resistant varieties) and minimizing negative impacts (plant management for good health).

Over the last 15 years, smarter, more selective, and therefore more sustainable weapons have been developed. Bt cotton – whether it’s a resistant variety or insecticide – is our “smart” bomb for pink bollworm. Our whitefly insecticides are partitioned as selective, partially-selective or broad-spectrum and deployed in that order, when feasible. Our remaining nemesis, the Western tarnished plant bug or as we call them, lygus, is a considerable challenge, but the new product Carbine and others to come are providing the new “smart” bombs we need to complete this selective plan.

I have been proud to be part of an industry transition that was in crisis when I arrived and now manages its war with only a minimum of weapons, once or twice a season, and even then with the smartest weapons ever designed, which minimize collateral damage to natural enemies. This “smart” strategy targets key pests with little impact on predators and parasitoids.

Ironic, isn’t it? We borrow lots of military terminology in our pursuit of a safe and abundant food/fiber supply. Yet the military loves to embrace brands for their aircraft and munitions taken straight out of our natural and biological system: Seahawk, Blackhawk, Stinger, Desert Hawk, Hummingbird, Tiger, Eagle, Hornet, Raptor, Raven and, of course, who can forget the all-important Predator drone.

Contact Peter Ellsworth at peterell@cals.arizona.edu or (520) 568-2273.

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