Wild Ideas: Contemplating ‘pests’ and their management   

In my daily observations of insects on my sunflowers, I often think of how many of these organisms would be considered “pests” by someone growing these same flowers for commercial purposes.

Is the “multi-colored lady beetle,” named for its variety of colors and patterns, a beneficial insect or a pest?
Is the “multi-colored lady beetle,” named for its variety of colors and patterns, a beneficial insect or a pest? ©Entomart via Wikimedia

Many of the plants’ leaves are chewed, brown, curled up or generally look like they’re under assault — which they are, by many of the myriad small critters that inhabit them. But, to me, these organisms, and their host plants, make up a wonderful little ecosystem be observed and photographed.

We tend to see insects as beneficial (providing us useful services, such as pollination) or as pests. For other species, these same “bugs” may produce food or be food themselves and be an important part of the food web.

In our attempt to eliminate bugs that bug us, we’ve used synthetic pesticides that have threatened the entire food web and led us to the brink of a “silent spring,” as Rachel Carson wrote about in her book of the same name. Carson helped us question our love affair with synthetic pesticides, and out of this came alternative strategies and policies for dealing with pests, including a return to organic farming (where farming started).

As PennState Extension’s “A Short History of Pest Management” describes, this shift in policy also led, in the 1970s, to the U.S. Department of agriculture (USDA) creating the nationwide IPM Program in land-grant universities, including Virginia Tech (see Virginia Cooperative Extension’s website “Pesticide Programs”). As part of the program, The USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture supports four regional IPM Centers.

Pests and how to manage them were on my mind recently because I had just read the July issue of the Northeastern IPM Center’s newsletter. Each center’s website has slightly different content, including their mission statements and definitions of IPM.

While the Southern IPM Center covers Virginia, my favorite is the Northeastern one. Several years ago it was helpful when I was researching the brown marmorated stink bug, and I liked the content and writing style I found there and in the center’s printed newsletter.

On its website, the Northeastern center defines IPM as “a sound, sensible approach to dealing with pests . . . with methods that protect human health and the environment while saving money. . . . [I]t brings together, or integrates, a range of biological, organic, cultural, mechanical, and chemical options for pest problems.” The center adds that IPM is “about more than just bugs — it’s also about fungi and mildew, bacteria, viruses, weeds, and wildlife, all of which can be pests if they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

But what exactly makes these organisms pests? Is it really merely being “in the wrong place and time”? Merriam-Webster defines “pest” as “an animal or insect that causes problems for people, especially by damaging crops.” While this gets closer to how most of us think about pests, “causes problems” is pretty vague. What the issue seems to boil down to is an organism’s threat to human health and financial well-being, but when it comes to the average citizen, annoyance also factors in.

Many insects thought to be beneficial have been imported into the United States and become pests. The multicolored Asian lady beetle (Harmonia axyridis), for example, was released by the USDA in Georgia and Alabama “many times between 1916 and 1985 as a potential biological control agent” for aphids, according to a VCE publication. The publication focuses on how to keep it out of houses, where it’s been known to invade by the hundreds, even thousands, to overwinter, as I personally can testify to.

In comparing the benefits of organic vs. IPM, the Northeastern IPM Center characterizes former as offering “fewer adverse environmental impacts, no synthetic pesticide residues, and documented improvements in nutritional quality in dairy and in some fruits and vegetables.” IPM, on the other hand, offers “reduced reliance on single tactics, as well as reduced pesticide residues, production costs, risks, and health and environmental impacts,” and the “fundamental principles of IPM can be applied to any pest problem.”

While I’m not going to get into the pros and cons of organic versus IPM in terms of food quality, I think it’s fair to say that the pluses IPM offers the producer mainly focus on cost and ease of implementation, including navigating regulations and certification. Organic certification can be hard to obtain and retain, no matter the diligence of the producer, partly because of external factors, such as synthetic pesticides drifting in by wind or water from a neighboring farm using these chemicals.

But IPM does have one big problem for producers — labeling. This is especially true when competing with foods labeled as “organic,” according to the Northeastern center’s newsletter: “As much as people do not like pests, they loathe even more a pest label put on their food.” Pointing to an attempt by the New York State IPM Program and a large grocery store chain to put in place an IPM labeling program in the 1990s, the newsletter says one of the reasons support was pulled was the association of “the word ‘pest’ with the purchase of food.”

One suggestion in the newsletter is to change the name “integrated pest management,” perhaps to “integrated crop management” (ICM). But that still would require a lot of consumer education about the methodology and why consumers should buy products produced that way. Correctly or not, most people have some sense of what “organic” means, but how do you explain the complexity of IPM (or ICM) on a label?

The development of IPM is still a huge leap ahead environmentally from the wanton use of synthetic pesticides that put us on a path to a “silent spring,” but it remains a challenge for producers to use effectively and to market to consumers. And no methodology is going to eradicate all pests, as the Northeastern IPM Center says on its website: “You can only manage pests — you can’t get rid of them forever, no matter what anyone tells you.”

But do we really want to get rid of pests, even if we could? Our attempts to do so has already had some disastrous results. The growing trend in how we deal with nature is to learn to work with it, not against it, which is encouraging for us and the future of biodiversity.

© 2016 Pam Owen

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 343 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”